Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Too Cowardly To Defend Cowardice

GETTING ON for 10 years ago, Keith Windschuttle published a book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, which prompted a reaction that was quite astonishing. The author’s crime was to highlight the slack and often imaginative, er,  scholarship which produced a vast bulk of titles devoted to the proposition that Australia’s early history was an endless bloodbath of genocidal racist savagery. By the simple expedient of going to the expounders of that view’s cited sources and checking them against their recappings, Windschuttle was able to demonstrate that a number of the country’s most prominent historians were inclined to play very fast and loose with both primary sources and the truth.  One need not have an opinion on the extent of white imperialist bloodlust to appreciate the author’s sleuthing, which demonstrated many things sadly amiss atop the ivory tower. As Windschuttle put it, the near-universal view amongst those who teach the young was that white Australians, regardless of how many generations had passed since an ancestor stepped ashore, need to be regarded as “a kind of a vermin that arrived after 1788 along with the rabbit, the common starling and the fox.”

The reaction to Windschuttle’s book confirmed this impression in spades. Rather than demand retractions and corrections, those who dwell in the closed little world of approved academic thought rose as one to denounce the man who dared to question their mates. It was a vicious, unrelenting and spiteful campaign, one that saw every available asset brought to bear on the smearing and shunning of Windschuttle and the blanket dismissal of his book.  As you might imagine, Robert Manne was at the forefront of the charge, there being no show without Punch, as they say.

Manne’s part in the slag-a-thon was particularly low and sleazy. In December, not long after Fabrication appeared, he compiled a dossier that purported to chronicle examples of Windschuttle’s alleged plagiarism. He fed this to a young, eager and ideological sound Age reporter by name of  Misha Ketchell, who would follow the approved pathways of a luvvy on the rise and build a nice media career for himself. From the Age to Media Watch and Crikey, Ketchell now roosts at The Conversation, where many cynical souls believe he is merely resting until the ABC’s head of Current Affairs, Bruce Belsham, has paid lip service to the advertised selection process and installed him as  Jonathan Green’s successor in the editor’s office at The Drum. There are standards to maintain at the national broadcaster, and Ketchell’s record and connections suggest he is just the man to observe them.

The Age published Manne’s accusations on the front page beneath Ketchell's proud byline -- the muscle behind the intended knock-out blow to Windschuttle’s research and credibility being the quoted opinion of American academic Robert Edgerton that Windschuttle had ripped off his work without attribution. Edgerton formed this view not on the basis of a direct comparison between his book and Windschuttle’s, but via the Manne dossier, which turned out to be rather heavily doctored.

Manne and Ketchell, the useful tool, also extracted an initial condemnation of Windschuttle from the Parkville Asylum’s Andrew Alexandra, an authority on plagiarism quoted in that first round of muck-flinging as regarding Windschuttle’s academic standards as “pretty slipshod.” As with Edgerton, Ketchell had sent him only Manne’s deviously twisted summary of Windschuttle’s alleged crimes.

Subsequent to the front-page hit piece, both Edgerton and Alexandra examined Fabrication, checked its footnotes and very hastily retracted their criticisms with profuse apologies. Here is what Alexandra wrote in a letter to the SMH: 
What makes all this ancient history worth recapping is Fairfax’s apparent non-reaction reaction to Economics Editor Ross Gittins’ transcription and re-publication of unattributed mega-chunks from a recent OECD publication. Gittins’ masters appear to have decided he did nothing wrong, as his most recent column appeared on Monday, as scheduled. The sole hint of a suggestion – and it appeared only in the Silly version of the column -- that Gittins might have been been asked to explain himself was an opaque rejection in the second paragraph of the charge that he is a lazy, light-fingered lifter of other people’s work. If you do not read the blogs, you would not know what Gittins was talking about (not that there is anything unusual about that, mind you).

The real shame in this instance belongs not to Gittins, a pompous hack too weary to think for himself and for whom pity is the appropriate response, but with his employer’s embrace of jaw-dropping inconsistency as its guiding principle on the subject of what is, and is not, plagiarism. As Windschuttle painstakingly documents and explains in a minutely detailed response to Fabrication’s Manne-fabricated  furor, Fairfax reporters displayed a unique talent for extracting damning quotes where other publications found only exoneration: 

The Age published [Alexandra’s] apology in its letters page, but did not give it any prominence. Despite the fact that Manne’s accusation had been a page one story, The Age did not accompany this letter with any follow-up news story. Moreover, The Age declined to publish a letter I had written to the editor about this matter.

A few days later, when The Australian newspaper contacted Edgerton himself at the University of California, Los Angeles, he denied the plagiarism charge. “I do not regard Windschuttle’s work as plagiarism and do not believe that he needed to cite me more than he did,” Edgerton told the newspaper.

However, the Sydney Morning Herald also contacted Edgerton and reported a different response. “It is true that Windschuttle several times paraphrases me in what could be seen as soft plagiarism,” the Herald reported him saying. But in a letter to me on January 24 2003, Edgerton denied he had said this: “I told them I wanted nothing to do with the issue and that I saw no wrongdoing on your part. They even misquoted me. When I was asked if I thought you had engaged in ‘soft plagiarism’ I emailed a reply that said, ‘perhaps but I can’t say because I don’t know what the term means’.” 

So, when Fairfax encounters a person whose work and views it finds disagreeable, the full arsenal of immoral and unethical weaponry is brought to bear in the cause of character assassination. But when one of its own columnists engages in plagiarism, not a whisper, let alone a front-page shout.

The incident and the inconsistency between then and now says much about Fairfax, none of it flattering. And perhaps it also explains something else – the generally kind view Fairfax writers often take of alternative medicine. With all those necks twisted so far and hard in order to avoid recognising the obscenely obvious, the company must surely be keeping an army of osteopaths and chiropractors in full-time work.


  1. Isn't Misha Schubert a chick?

    1. My word you're fast. A Bunyip blue, and immediately corrected. It's Misha Ketchell.

  2. The same modus operandi (ridicule, downgrade, misrepresent) can be seen in the way genuine scientists who question the global warming dogma are treated. This applies not just to Fairfax, but to their genetic similars at the ABC.
    Bolt has just pinged the whole group for denying that the carbon tax figured in the QLD election.

  3. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.March 27, 2012 at 1:57 PM

    It is good that you provide a 'blog of record' for the generations that may be unaware of the debacle into which the attack on Windschuttle descended, Professor. Such things need to be revisited to further enhance the disgrace that they were. Fairfax have form, don't they? So does Manne.

  4. Spot on in all respects Prof., but tell me, does any of the verballed hacks or even Manne contact you to dispute your version of the facts?
    To answer my own question, I suppose not as your headline says it all.
    Pathetic aren't they? I can't wait for Fairfax to bite the dust and if Gina loses millions it wont matter to her - it would be like me spilling half a glass of beer.

  5. It is probably worth recording that one of the hounds leading the pack against Windschuttle was Stuart MacIntyre - yes, he who led the attack on Geoffrey Blainey and then was fortunate enough to succeed him in his chair once Blainey vacated it.

    It is also worth noting the enrolments in first year Oz history at the Parkville Asylum: 58, I believe. The Black Armband version sure does have appeal, then!

  6. Another bullseye, Bunyip.

    One of the reasons the chattering classes hate the freedom of the internet is that they perceive, dimly and almost subliminally, that blogging is destroying their grip on what is and is not acceptable in the national conversation.

    It is starting to dawn on them that the Andrew Bolts, the Tim Blairs and the Bunyips in cyberspace are giving voice and courage to people who would not otherwise have questioned or criticised the tiresome orthodoxy on everything from AGW to multiculturalism. They see with mounting alarm that their control over the settled order of things slipping away.

    One can see it in the panic that drove the submissions to the Finkelstein inquiry. Finkelstein's ridiculous ideas, which shame a successful and honorable barrister and former judge - just my opinion - will never be enacted into law, of course. But, very much a consequence of the feeble attempt by Robert Manne et al to arrest the slide, his proposals will soon be a fascinating museum piece, a shot at shutting the stable door after the horse has not merely bolted, but shaken its mane, risen on its hind legs and let fly a shriek of freedom.

    We are winning. The negative aspects of the "cacophany", as Julian Disney refers to it with distaste - the fact that the internet gives voice to the ignorant and mischievous - is beside the point, because it also gives voice to the decent, the sensible and the upright, whose voices have been drowned out by the meretricious, lgnorant, lazy and downright malevolent voices of mainstream journalism and the academy.

    Those voices do far more damage than those of the occasionally ill-informed, unsophisticated people that the Finkelstein groupies want to silence.

  7. Yes that's all well and good, but does he have a fat arse?

  8. Bunyip,
    You seem intelligent if rather, hmmm, right-wing. Did you realise that I have written an extensive comment on the subject of Keith Windschuttle and Robert Edgerton? It is available via The Monthly website. Indeed it has been available there for years. So far not one Windschuttle supporter has commented on it. Nor of course has Windschuttle, who refuses me the opportunity to write about his egregious articles on Aboriginal history in Quadrant, a magazine I edited for eight years. My challenge to you, Bunyip, is to read my Windschuttle/Edgerton analysis and then offer your views. I wait your response with keen anticipation. Robert Manne

    1. "You seem intelligent if rather, hmmm, right-wing."

      Please forgive me, Prof Manne, if this is really you, but that doesn't sound like Robert Manne's style and one wonders if this is a rather feeble troll.

    2. I can't help adding that the use of the term "egregious articles" is oddly inept.

      It is almost impossible to think that this post is the work of one of Australia's leading intellectuals.

  9. "Ketchell now roosts at The Conversation, where many cynical souls believe he is merely resting until the ABC’s head of Current Affairs, Bruce Belsham, has paid lip service to the advertised selection process and installed him as Jonathan Green’s successor in the editor’s office at The Drum. There are standards to maintain at the national broadcaster, and Ketchell’s record and connections suggest he is just the man to observe them."

    Still a bloke.

  10. Is my comment on this being censored Bunyip?

  11. While ever the leftist cringers keep telling Manne that he is an intellectual, expect more of the same. An ego as big as a mountain and a brain as big as a flea. Another government funded wannabe who needs huge doses of reality to be cured.

  12. This is definitely a troll, and not a very good one at that.