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  Issue No 37 Official Organ of LaborNet 29 October 1999  

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Review

What The Age Wouldn’t Print

By Ian Syson

Some time before Monday 18 October, Age editor Michael Gawenda saw red and then got out his blue pencil. An article, heavily critical of Robert Manne, written by Overland editor Ian Syson, was pulled by Gawenda.

The article written and accepted in mid August by the Age's opinion page editor Paul Austin -- having been in the 'pipeline' for eight weeks! -- was excised from the already-set opinion page in a last-minute change of editorial heart.

Gawenda reportedly felt that the article had a fundamental flaw and rejected it because it didn't accurately represent Robert Manne's public statements in relation to Manning Clark.

Syson is worried that he might have been censored to protect an Age columnist's reputation. There is also the issue of certain viewpoints not getting a run in the mainstream media. Ironically, this is an issue explored by the expurgated article:

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What is going on?

Not long ago all it took was for Les Murray to see a trinket on Manning Clark's lapel and there you had it: The Courier Mail's Chris Mitchell frothing at the mouth and a fully-blown theory that Clark was a Soviet 'agent of influence'.

More recently, Clark's publisher Peter Ryan is revealed by Overland magazine to have given information to ASIO about Melbourne University lecturer, Max Crawford. He denies this but confesses in this newspaper to having informed on someone else. What sort of media frenzy does this produce? Zip. No froth, no response, no nothing. A story without legs, as they say.

The more you think about this the more the good old double standard flutters into view. Why the bash Clark campaign; why the conspiracy of silence on Ryan?

The posthumous harassment of Manning Clark is probably one of the more intellectually gutless movements of our time. A number of influential publishers and editors have facilitated it by either allowing loose argument and unsubstantiated gossip to flourish in their domains or subscribing to the (admittedly less cowardly) go-for-the-throat school of political journalism. Over the past five years endless letters, reviews and articles about Clark's supposed treachery have been published around Australia.

Funnily enough, this campaign was launched by our ASIO informer himself. In 1993, Robert Manne's Quadrant published an article by Ryan which took Clark's moral and intellectual capacities to task. The stories of Clark's agency of influence were to follow at regular intervals, most notably via The Courier Mail. Despite his criticisms of some of the extremists in the anti-Clark crowd, Robert Manne has been a general in this campaign.

In a review of Mark Davis's Gangland, published in Overland in 1997, I called Robert Manne an "agent of influence of American right-wing fundamentalism". I was trying to do two things: lampoon the very phrase used to describe Clark and make a serious point about Robert Manne's role in establishing the American right-wing fundamentalist anti-PC brigade in Australia.

Whatever his recent recantations, Manne shoulders some of the responsibility for giving two slightly hysterical and nonsensical campaigns a deal of intellectual credibility.

Yet it has become a bit of a habit in Australian intellectual circles to refer Manne's 'shift to the left'. He has made reasoned interventions in many of the important contemporary debates. He says nothing that is grotesquely right-wing, even if his overt politics tend towards moral and economic conservatism. His recently adopted arguments on the Stolen Generations and reconciliation are sometimes seen as exemplary. Perhaps they are. But they are also ignorant of what came before.

It seems strange that someone who writes and teaches on Australian history and politics should have been so ignorant about Australian racism and its manifestations. Our history seeps with them.

Then again, maybe it's not that strange. After all, Manne was sincerely baffled and surprised by the racism revealed during the Demidenko saga. And I remember listening to Manne on the radio shortly after John Howard's election in 1996 (of which he was an advocate) saying without a touch of irony that he was surprised how insensitive, aggressive and economically rationalist the Liberals were. Whatever politics he teaches at La Trobe University it is not realpolitik.

One of the reasons Manne knew nothing of the Stolen Generations seems to be that in his ideological myopia he has failed until very recently to look at the writings of the left in Australia as sources of positive and useful information. His every review of books related to communism involves insistent negation of all Australian communists and all their works. His visits to communist and left wing writings have been as ransacker and headkicker; whereas Katharine Prichard, Frank Hardy, Fred Hollows, Dorothy Hewett, magazines like Arena, Hecate, Labour History, even Communist Review, could have revealed to him decades ago something of the history of our national disgrace.

While Manne has become something of a darling of the left and a progenitor of sweetness and light, it only took a recent review of Cassandra Pybus's The Devil in James McAuley in Australian Book Review both to reveal his true colours and show that those claws sharpened in the Cold War can still scratch and tear when the occasion demands. He takes the book to task because it doesn't refer enough to Stalin, didn't bash enough commos and didn't point out the supreme justice and decency of Australian anticommunists.

For those under the illusion that Robert is a new Manne, this is a repeated pattern in his writings and those of his cohort. For example, Peter Coleman, Paddy McGuinness and Gerard Henderson have been making similar noises recently, repelling in advance unspecified attacks on their anticommunist buddies and CIA toadies and reminding everybody again just how evil Stalin was.

Having made a few criticisms of the Cold War right in Overland over the past two years and having foreshadowed our recent revelations of ASIO informing, I am paranoid enough to see my own actions (along with Pybus's then forthcoming book) as the main targets for these attacks. One effect of these attacks is to have smoothed the way for Ryan not to have to defend himself at all.

I don't enjoy saying this because what I'm admitting is that the left is making almost no impact in mainstream intellectual debate in this country. Every time the Australian or The Courier Mail publishes a criticism of Clark or an attack on a Pybus or an Overland there seems to be no response allowed. Indeed, when I requested equal space in the Australian for a reply to a Frank Devine column in which he criticised an Overland editorial, I received this gobbledegook response from the opinion page editor: "I'm not interested in the issue. Some people are interested in things; and other people are interested in things that other people aren't."

It is in this context (or is it vacuum?) that Robert Manne is able to seize the middle ground of broadsheet intellectual debate. We are foolish if we accept this kind of distortion. When such a right-wing thinker can appear to be the voice of moderate reason in Australia then we are living in bizarre times. Now, can someone ask Peter Ryan what the hell he was doing talking to ASIO?

Ian Syson is the editor of Overland magazine and teaches professional writing and literature at Victoria University.


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*   Issue 37 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Republic: Yes, It's Time
Opposition leader Kim Beazley invoked the spirit of '72 when he launched the ALP's Republic campaign.
*
*  Interview: What Price a Just Republic?
Magistrate Pat O’Shane is far from happy with the republican model. But she still believes a Yes vote is her best chance for genuine constitutional reform.
*
*  Economics: Who the EFIC are you?
If you have not heard of Export Credit Agencies, don't be surprised because it seems they're not too interested in letting the public know what they do.
*
*  Unions: Old Habits Die Hard
With the release of its blue print [email protected] the ACTU seems to know where it wants to go. But again it has failed to face up to the underlying structural issues preventing it from getting there.
*
*  Legal: Second Wave: Reith's Non-Right to Strike
Peter Reith has called his new laws the Workplace relations Amendment (More Jobs Better Pay) Bill 1999. If legislation is to carry these new, colloquial titles then the ‘More Control, Less Freedom’ Bill would be a better title.
*
*  International: Wahid’s New Team
Indonesias new government is blemished by Suharto-era appointees but an advance for reform, says Indonesia’s trade unions.
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*  History: They Fought Them on the Airwaves
Radio broadcasts were an important weapon in the long-running struggle for equal pay.
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*  Satire: Revealed: SOCOG Reserving Gold Medals for Tattersalls
The scandal over the secret allotment of premium tickets for the 2000 Olympics escalated today with the news that members of Sydney’s elite Tattersall’s Club will receive Gold Medals without actually competing.
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*  Review: What The Age Wouldn’t Print
Some time before Monday 18 October, Age editor Michael Gawenda saw red and then got out his blue pencil. An article, heavily critical of Robert Manne, written by Overland editor Ian Syson, was pulled by Gawenda.
*

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