BUNDOORA BOB’s “essay” on the evil that is Rupert Murdoch runs about $20 at any inner-city newsagent, a sum that will buy a packet of Camels if you can find a shop still selling them. Yes, the dhurries will kill you, but it just may be that Robert Manne has crafted with his Quarterly Essay an antidote of sorts to the weed’s longer-term ravages. If given to hospice residents, just a few pages will extend any few and fleeting final minutes into a seeming eternity. The heart will beat more slowly, sound distort and those not trapped between his pages will strike the reader as moving with the speed of deep sea divers. In Bunyip theology, hell is most often described as finding yourself locked up for evermore in the sole company of a truculent teenage male. Manne adds a mother-in-law’s scolding to that tight little room of torments. On second thoughts, it may not be such a good idea to hand Manne’s little effort to the terminally ill. They need no foretaste of purgatory.
Still, one has to admire La Trobe University’s most determined self-promoter. On and on and on he goes, the tedium of the author’s spites and score-settlings interrupted only by the reader’s need to wade every few pages into swamps of ambiguous pronouns. It is fortunate that the most tangled sentences can be skipped in their entirety, as the essay is not a chain of evidence but a long and screeching wire that unspools from a reel of endless grievance.
And, one suspects, from the depths of a second-rater’s jealousy. Of Imre Salusinszky – a writer who has mastered the use of pronouns – Bundoora’s leading Professor of Posture and Alignment offers this tossed-off description: “…the Australian’s resident right-wing intellectual smart-aleck” (page 22). A few pages on, it is Keith Windschuttle whose influence “would probably have been restricted to the ageing conservatives of the Quadrant circle” , without the benefits of The Australian’s patronage.. Yet Windschuttle is “not a fool;” and his Fabrication of Aboriginal History “landed some powerful blows”, although Manne rather tellingly declines to describe them. It is easy to understand the reluctance. Any admission that Windschuttle had nailed Manne’s mates for making up primary-source references out of whole cloth might have led to backstage recriminations at the next writers’ festival wank-a-thon. (“Just whose side are you on, Bobby, you snivelling little shit?”) Thus it is that hypocrite who presumes to lecture The Australian for its bias deep-sixes all reference to the black-armbanders’ fraudulent citations, misquotations and spirited misinterpretations. As his repeated references to the “historians of the left” make clear, Manne has no more respect for truth than does our for-the-moment PM. For both it is a relative thing, to be invoked only when it moves the ball a little closer to the home team’s goal line.
And so it goes, for another 20,000-or-so bitchy words, all of them highly selective in their outrage. He tries to mug Janet Albrechtsen for plagiarism and misquoting, but makes no mention of fellow hand-wringer Phillip Adams, who has borrowed an entire career. On global warming, he genuflects before authority, asserting that the fabled 97% of settled scientists must be left in peace, as no layman can possibly boast the expertise to question their findings. On matters of domestic politics, this little Manne fires his outrage by quoting The Australian’s celebrated editorial urging that the Greens be “destroyed at the ballot box.” That the democratic smiting of a party infested with aspiring central planners and totalitarian apologists might be a valid prescription appalls him. How deeply shocking that Comrade Cobber Bob Brown be subjected to scrutiny! As Manne notes with smug approval, that sort of thing does not happen in the Fairfax press or at the ABC, where such “political extremism” is simply not tolerated. His yardstick for fair, straight-arrow journalism is – wait for it – none other than David Marr!When Marr questions Manne at Glebe Books later this month, expect to see a little pile of very soggy biscuits between them by the conversation's conclusion.
As a literary exercise, Manne’s offering is inept. As a manifesto, ludicrous. As a call to action, however ….. well, wasn’t that an inquiry into the Murdoch media that Stephen Conroy announced only yesterday?
And therein, perhaps, resides the danger. With the inquisitors gathering, the temptation in the editor’s office at The Australian will surely to be to respond in kind. If so, it will be the wrong response. Argue with a fool, as the old wisdom maintains, and onlookers will have problems determining which combatant is the dill.
The correct response to Manne is not refutation but ridicule. Strutting and preening on the public stage, he has long been an absurd figure. So play the Manne and not the ball, Mr Mitchell, for to do the latter can only dignify the sophistry of his grievances. If The Australian has an ounce of sense it will deny him that respect. To do otherwise will allow a further selection of quotations to be twisted and shouted Streicher-like at witnesses dragged before the coming media inquisition, where you can bet Manne will be networking with all the other apparatchiks cheering from the sidelines.
A NOTE: While Manne adds a thin list of references to give his Quarterly Essay the patina of scholarship, not once does he cite the actual stories from which, throughout his narrative, he draws and quotes the apparently damning clause or phrase.
If anyone has a spare moment – anyone not heading to the golf course this afternoon, that is -- it might be worth hunting up the original stories in The Australian’s online archive. If the lifted quotes are accurate, it will come as quite a surprise.