The latest round of controversy between Robert Manne and The Australian has followed a pattern that is now familiar. Manne presents the evidence that The Australian routinely distorts the news to fit its political agenda, and equally routinely denies that it has any such agenda. The Oz responds with a stream of opinion pieces, snarky items in Cut and Paste, objectionable cartoons and so on.
If we try to understand this in old media terms, it’s a bit hard to follow. Not only does the Oz violate basic rules like separation between news and opinions, but its reactions seem absurdly oversensitive. As I and others have demonstrated many times now, a single piece of criticism from a relatively obscure academic can drive the country’s only national newspaper (not counting the Fin with its special focus) into absurd paroxysms of rage.
On the other hand, if you think of the Australian as a rightwing group blog (readers can fill in their own examples), everything makes sense.
Looking at the Oz now, it’s easy to imagine it as a rightwing group blog that started up in the Triassic era of blogging (say 2002). Lines weren’t drawn so sharply then, so the contributors included some a bit more leftish or just less ideological than the group as a whole. Over time, some have been pushed out, and the others have been forced to demonstrate group solidarity on appropriate occasions, such as attack from the left.
By now however, a tribalist mode of groupthink has taken over the blog. Its members spend a lot of time reassuring each other that, in spite of all contrary evidence, they are right about everything. Even when they are demonstrably wrong on some particular point, they are still right in a way their opponents can never be. Conversely, no matter how bogus the argument, if it’s on the right side it has to be backed all the way.
And, thanks to the marvels of Google, Twitter, RSS and so on, the group is instantly aware of any attack on them, even from a lone blogger in the furthest reaches of cyberspace. Each such attack is treated as an existential threat, as if a few harsh words are one step away from the imposition of sharia law (whatever that means!). But since any notion of logical reasoning has long since been lost, the response consists of snarky gotchas, dark mutterings, absurd hyperbole and total lies.
As I mentioned a while back, with an individual blogger, this process typically ends with the sudden closure of the site. But group blogs with this kind of pathology seem to carry on for a long while. So, until Murdoch runs out of money to back it, I imagine the Oz will continue to amuse us.