Issue 8

IS BLINDNESS A COMMUNICABLE DISEASE?

BLIND EYE AT THE TELESCOPE?

CANARIES ONE; FROGS ZERO

JOKING YOUR WAY TO THE TOP

THE RIGHTS OF TROUSERS

BLIND EYE AT THE TELESCOPE?

Given all the hoo-hah, puffing and faffing on-line about Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay, Bad News, in which he delivers several karate chops to the kidneys, loins and nether regions of The Australian, I wonder why a review of the essay which appeared in The Weekend Australian’s Review section last weekend has been virtually ignored.

Let’s recap. Manne’s essay, published early September, demands, among other things, that the newspaper should get both a new editor-in-chief and a new owner so it can be a truly outstanding paper.

This is because, Manne insists, it is a “remorseless campaigning paper” and so he has had to strap on his armour and lay into the dragon, to demonstrate the paper’s “overbearing character and its unhealthy influence”.

It is “ruthless in pursuit of those who oppose its world view” and has a “notorious sensitivity to criticism”.

Ahem … but then there is the matter of the review.

It was written by Canberra University journalism professor Matthew Ricketson, commissioned before he was made adviser to the federal government’s media inquiry. And guess what? It tells readers of The Weekend Australian – mmmmm, that hyper-sensitive bully of a newspaper – on the pages of The Weekend Australian, that Manne’s essay is so worthwhile, they should go out and get hold of it for themselves.

Hello?

Can anyone imagine another newspaper, magazine or television or radio station – internationally or here – running a favourable review of a journal that has just very publicly kicked it in the balls? And made serious allegations that the business refutes. If you can, please name these high-minded and generous institutions.

A second ahem … So how come the good professor Ricketson didn’t seem to notice this stunning contradiction himself? Instead he doesn’t even seem to notice the issue, pondering instead whether if, as the reviewer – poor him – he has been dealt a shit sandwich or, as he calls it, le merde baguette.

A third ahem. Professor Ricketson – remember, he’s the one who has been chosen to bring his journalism experience, knowledge and unbiased eye to the media inquiry – also fails to note several lapses in Manne’s essay.

Instead, just before he instructs readers to go and read it – that is, queue at your library, read it surreptitiously at the back of Berkelouws or, yes, of course, buy it – he concludes it is “the first sustained, forensic critique of the national daily”.

High praise, given that one of my favourite bits of the essay reveals Manne’s blindness about the significance of forensic detail. It’s when he berates The Australian for its support of the Iraq war and brings in former Oz opinion page editor (now editor of The Spectator Australia) Tom Switzer as reinforcement. Between July 2002 and March 2003, The Australian ran, according to Switzer’s cited count, “45 dovish … and 47 hawkish” opinion columns.

“Everywhere else the paper overwhelmingly supported it,” Manne writes. He goes on to cite the newspaper’s editorials and commentaries from the foreign editor Greg Sheridan.

Guess what? I don’t care how the paper editorialised or what Sheridan wrote. What I cared about at the time was that the newspaper let me read a good number of pieces on the all-important opinion pages that were written by experts and that were both pro-war and anti-war.

Manne seems unaware of just how unusual it is for a newspaper to provide that kind of back and forth, especially on a momentous issue where it has its own position.

Did Manne check what other newspapers ran on their op-eds in the same period? His footnotes give no indication that he did.

Fourth ahem. Did Ricketson – media inquiry advisor just in case you’ve forgotten – notice the same naivete? He doesn’t mention it.

But here’s something worse that he might have picked up. On page three of the essay, Manne makes such a devastating claim about the motivations of a small, easily identified group of journalists that I’m surprised some of them haven’t been tempted to measure up for a new swimming-pool.

Did Ricketson ping him on this? No.

Some background to this. Mid last year, I wrote a congratulatory email to Justine Ferrari, The Australian’s education writer. We are former colleagues at the Oz although I now freelance for Fairfax where I have, in the past, been an editor of Good Weekend, Sunday Life and newspaper sections.

Ferrari had been scrupulously reporting on the federal government’s Building The Education Revolution program since May, 2009, and to be honest, I emailed because I was wondering how come she wasn’t getting more kudos, given the way her colleagues had suddenly leapt on the story after she had done a Christopher Columbus.

(It’s a phenomenon in journalism, akin to a gold rush after a prospector has done the lonely digging.)

Ferrari replied, saying generously that it had been very much a joint effort, but that she had written her first piece on 28 May 2009, “about people criticising the way the program had been set up, in particular, concerns that the rush would compromise quality and the focus on buildings not improving student learning and how the government couldn’t measure how many jobs are created.”

Her first piece on an individual school problem appeared on 6 June 2009, and other reporters started writing stories also about that time, she says.

Generously again, she notes that, “I couldn’t swear we wrote the first story”. Apparently, a few Sundays did one-off stories but didn’t revisit. In the meantime, people started coming to The Australian with their own tales of BER flaws.

But here is what Manne alleges in his essay: that when the newspaper turns its remorseless campaigning on the Building The Education Revolution program, “its assigned journalists appear to begin with their editorially determined conclusion and then seek out evidence to support it”.

If you’re not in the media, this may not seem a terrible thing to say but let me tell you, it is one of the most damaging things you can claim about a journalist.

Do some journalists set out with closed minds, final story already fixed in their heads? Probably, but I’ve known Ferrari for almost 20 years and I don’t believe for a minute that she’s one of them. Nor do her emails to me of over a year ago about this reporting reveal that she is one of them.

But Manne has gotten away with this nasty bit of casual trashing of someone’s professional reputation.

It’s a great pity that Ricketson – yes, that guy on the media inquiry who will have lots of say on the future of our media (Is he being paid? How much?) – has let him get away with it one more time.

CANARIES ONE; FROGS ZERO

There are people who are glass-that-is-half-full types and people who are glass-that-is-half-empty types and the former are usually applauded for being worthy optimists while those in the half-empty brigade are treated as if they’re spoilsports who will probably get what they deserve if they don’t spark up.

There are advantages to being a glass-half-empty type though. For a start, they know when to ask for a refill.

By the same token, there are canaries that will signal they’re picking up poisonous vapours in coal mines, and there are frogs coaxed into complacency by the slowly warming waters around them.

Last Saturday, Herald columnist and ABC broadcaster Richard Glover, alias The Frog, had a go at human canaries in a piece titled “Australians arise – and kindly stop your whingeing”.

I like Richard and I think he is a very good columnist and excellent broadcaster but on this, he’s climbed into the wrong animal costume.

“The richest generation of Australians that has ever existed can’t stop moaning,” he writes. “Every second letter to the paper starts with the proposition that ‘the country is going backwards’ … Our two biggest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, regularly feature in the top five for the most liveable cities in the world …”

Here’s another way of looking at it.

Australian canaries know exactly how lucky they are to live here. When I walk past the Chinese tourists in front of St Mary’s who are marvelling at our open spaces, our climate and especially our smog-free skies – to say nothing of the freedom (so far) of our press – I know they look at me and think I’m lucky and I agree. Thank God I don’t have to get back on their buses with them.

But many of us, while acknowledging our good fortune, are also noticing that some things aren’t so hot. That maybe our country is fraying a bit at the edges – and we don’t like it. So we point out the ratty bits, the rising illiteracy rates, the growing poverty, the under-resourced hospitals, the ruckus going on in our federal parliament, the polarisation of debate …

I also know canaries who are hopping mad at the growing divide between the rich and poor, and who were chirping about it six years ago when some statisticians – this canary can name them – were still saying the figures weren’t showing any widening of the gap.

Some of us canaries even dare to wonder how it is that a country of such mineral wealth, which has only 22 million or so people, still can’t manage to house them all, feed them all good diets, keep them all in good schools, ensure their good health, and, when we encourage more into the country, do the same for them too. Do the maths. How hard can it be?

So while Frog Glover is busy choosing his bath-salts and laying out the fluffy towels for all his froggy friends, here we canaries are: stuck, swaying on our perches, but doing our best to sound the alert.

Just as well we got our glasses refilled.

JOKING YOUR WAY TO THE TOP

A few months ago, I pestered the patient and clever stand-in literary editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, Marc McEvoy to be allowed to do a short review of two new books about women getting ahead.

Then – very unlike me – I didn’t do it. I don’t think Marc was panting for the copy but still.

The reason I never filed, sloping off instead to that hazy realm to which all journalists can sometimes vanish if not chained by the neck to a whiplash deadline, was because I realised the world could do without another 600 words from me on working women and their woes.

And Marc certainly didn’t need to waste his budget shelling out for them.

One of the books Dreamers of a New Day – Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century by British author Sheila Rowbotham is a solid and detailed history. An excellent reference book.

The other, The Female Leadership Paradox Power, Performance, and Promotion by Mirella Visser had a hard-nosedness that was unsavoury. Early on, Visser counsels her female readers to learn the art of the “schwalbe” which, according to her, might mean feeding undermining information confidentially about a fellow colleague who has a job you want for yourself.

Yuk.

Funnily enough though, just as I’d put down the latter book, a Sydney Institute member, Jenny Towndrow, sent me a copy of A Diary of The Lady – My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson (sister of London mayor Boris Johnson). Reading it did more to restore my levels of optimism, good cheer and ambition than almost any other book for and about women I’ve read.

In June, Daphne Guinness reviewed it for McEvoy’s pages and commented on the spite that had surrounded the book’s publication in London. Johnson was accused by her London colleagues of “bolstering her me-me-me ego”.

Guinness responded tartly: “It’s her first year editing The Lady, at 125 the world’s oldest women’s weekly magazine … so of course it’s about her-her-her – who else would it be?”

Johnson is egotistical, irrepressible and scatty. The book, published by Penguin in Britain, seems to have been copy-edited by someone equally as distracted: time sequences don’t follow; good lines are repeated. But still.

As she tries to revamp The Lady, for the twenty-first century – “more hip, less hip replacement” – Johnson is followed by a team from Channel Four, who film her every mistake and unwise quip.

When Joan Collins comes for tea, hoping to write for the magazine, Johnson writes blithely of having to later chip the actor’s lipstick off the side of the tea-cup.

She is rude about almost everyone, including herself, saying a press photo makes her look like the lost love-child of Bjorn Borg and [moors murderer] Myra Hindley. She does too. Imagine Boris with longer hair.

The diary is shocking, hilarious, uplifting and left me feeling empowered as the sisterhood likes to say …

With her cheeriness about mistakes, disasters and cock-ups, and her sweep that can imagine no barrier to her ambitions, Johnson reminds me of nothing so much as a very confident man.  Every woman should read it.

THE RIGHTS OF TROUSERS

And maybe this is where it all went wrong anyhow …

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwNQf08Kxsw[/youtube]

'2012