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Debate ‘finished’? A Manne vs The Australian debacle

Robert Manne's 40,000 word critique of The Australian newspaper in the latest Quarterly Essay resulted in what was supposed to be a debate at The Wheeler Centre. But as Matt Smith reports, it was unavoidably a one-sided talk.

‘Everyone who has heard that I was writing a Quarterly Essay on The Australian and who knows a bit about The Australian‘s culture, looked at me as if I’d re-contracted cancer,’ said Professor Robert Manne to a large audience at the Wheeler Centre.

‘They asked me if I knew what I was in for. Well, I did.’

Earlier this month, Manne released Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation, a critical look at The Australian and how it chooses to report the news and use its influence.

After two weeks of silence, The Australian fired back with 14,000 words of rebuttal across seven feature articles, attacking Manne’s character as well as his arguments.

‘What has taken me entirely by surprise is that I applied for ‘right of reply’ and was refused,’ said Manne. ‘Now I’m the person that is meant to be suppressing debate.’

Manne instead published his own reply to The Australian’s rebuttal, culminating in a talk to a full house at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Originally intended to be a debate between Manne and The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly, Kelly pulled out citing that the subject had been closed, leaving Manne to present his known views to a mostly supportive audience.

With Kelly out of the picture, the discussion was unavoidably one-sided.

The event began with actor and satirist Max Gillies giving a dramatic, theatrical reading of Kelly’s rebuttal, published a week earlier in The Australian.

After the reading, Manne was questioned by Crikey editor Sophie Black on his perspective to The Australian’s reaction. Those unfamiliar with the Manne vs Oz issues might have been left a bit confused, as the discussion was rushed to cover a large amount of ground. Manne pointed out that his response to The Australian’s reaction was available online and as print-outs at the back of the room.

Manne reiterated that Kelly had misrepresented his position. The Australian had been damning of Manne, claiming he was trying to repress debates he didn’t like, but Manne argued issues like climate change cannot be left to lay people.

‘I believe that the paper has a responsibility to represent the consensus core of climate science. But the paper’s mixture of intellectual muddle and ideological prejudice leads it into the position of generally confusing the public on this issue.’

Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell wrote in The Australian that ‘if Manne, who admits The Australian is the best paper in the country and the only one he cares about, cannot forgive us our flaws, we humbly suggest he move his subscription to The Age.’

Manne responded that it wasn’t as easy as not reading the paper. ‘[The Australian] is exceptionally important to how our politics goes. What we need to do is keep our capacity for criticism, and after what I’ve seen in the last few days, we need to keep our courage up. Bullies try and shut people up, not by censorship, but by fear.’

Of The Australian’s reply and subsequent reaction, Manne believed ‘it’s as if they wanted to show I was right.’

Ironically, it was The Australian ending debate by not engaging in the public forum that night.

‘I thought I had a debate with Paul Kelly, and now I’m trying to suppress him by inviting him,’ Manne joked.

But the subject ‘being closed’ by The Australian didn’t prevent it from publishing a condescending review of the Wheeler Centre talk.

Matt Smith is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and a freelance journalist.  His blog is called The End of the Spectrum and he tweets at @nightlightguy.

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