Thinking for Yourself: A conference in honour of Professor Robert Manne

At this conference, held at La Trobe university, I was amongst many writers and academics who were invited to speak about the work of Robert Manne in the many and varied fields in which he has made a contribution. Our panel was called “The Public Sphere”. This is an edited version of what I said:

Almost every proper job I’ve ever had apart from student summer holiday jobs have been in what might be called the public sphere – in higher education and at the public broadcaster, a servant of the public, paid by the commonwealth.

Now I’m a self-employed writer and freelance journalist, paid by the hour, still, the main part of my work is meant to be in the public sphere. So while I am not an academic and won’t be sharing with you insights from any formal research, I wanted to talk on a more personal level about what I’ve learned thinking for myself and getting in and out of trouble in the public sphere. As Chris Feik has just said, essential to the maintenance of public sphere is the impulse to discuss and negotiate – as opposed to order and obey. This I endorse, and you don’t need me to argue its case again.

This conference is to honour Robert Manne, and it is his books “The Culture of Forgetting” on the Demidenko affair, and  Making Trouble, essays against the New Australian Complacency, and his Quarterly essay Bad News, Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of a nation, that frame my comments today.

But I wanted to tell you a story first.

I first met Rob when he was about eighteen and I was one of his eleven year old pupils in a Temple Beth Israel Sunday School Jewish’s History class in the old Camberwell mansion that served as the local synagogue in those days.

He was lean and intense with a soulful face and a mop of longish dark curly hair. I was certainly trying to impress him by shooting my hand up first to answer all his questions.

One day he asked us: What’s more important, the individual or the state? Clearly he had come under the influence of his mentor Professor Frank Knopelmacher by then.

I’m pretty sure we hadn’t had all the prerequisite lessons that might have led up to a more profound understanding of the question, or maybe I had been absent those Sundays, but I remember thinking for myself: An individual is only one person, and a state – well that’s a whole lot of people isn’t it. As in the state of Victoria. So how could one person be more important than a whole lot of people banded together? It seemed to me to be an essentially arithmetical question.

My hand shot up.

The state! I answered.

He turned his dark eyes to me and said  (and in my mind’s eye, he even pointed right at me):

“That’s the kind of thinking that brought Hitler to power.”

I was at least a little surprised. My mother, a holocaust survivor had already told me that Hitler couldn’t kill her, but that I would. But having Robert accuse me of thinking like a Nazi was a bit disconcerting. I thought from then on that Robert Manne, Mr. Manne, was definitely not too impressed with me.

Times change and it’s a great relief to me that along the way, Rob and I have made peace.

We didn’t have  much to do with each other when he was editor of Quadrant, until he published an interview I had done with William Gass, the post-modern literary critic and novelist with whom I’d had a disagreement about whether it was possible to write an evil character without morally judging him. It was not then fashionable to ask questions about identifying with characters and morality storytelling was frowned upon, but I was a ring-in to literature having studied science, and I just couldn’t accept that I was to read this evil character without a visceral response. It was quite a moment for me to have my interview featured as the cover story of that edition of Quadrant.

Alas, it was the last time I was a contributor to the magazine as I observed Rob’s editorship being terminated when he gave space to the eloquence and hard arguments of Raimond Gaita on Aboriginal dispossession and attempts at their eradication.

We were both shocked that several Australian literary judging panels could award major prizes to the writer of a rather badly written anti-Semitic novel – The Hand that Signed the paper. I made a radio program about it and interviewed him.

Rob spent a long time analysing why this turn of events was remarkable and put words and arguments to ideas and feelings that one often has, but has not the time or the talent to think through why. And to convince others of the position. matter and published The culture of forgetting as a response.

More recently, as editor of Black Inc.’s Best Australian Essays for 2011 and again in 2012, I had pleasure of selecting two of his essays  – first on Julian Assange and then on climate science denial  – for publication.

I worked for over twenty years at the ABC, four years from 2002 – 2006 on the ABC Board as staff elected director. I was impressed by reading Robert Manne’s analysis that Howard Appointed Board and the political machinations that pitched and rolled their way through those years.  And of the remarkable influence of Murdoch press promoted culture warriors on the public broadcaster, considering many of them couldn’t really see the point of the public broadcaster and certainly didn’t appear to me to have its nurturing at the heart of their interest.

In his Quarterly Essay Bad News on the Way Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper shapes this country, Robert presents a case study of the way the paper sought to support every move that Howard and Bush made in responding to the 9/11 attack on America by prosecuting   the Iraq war. You all know the story of the missing Weapons of mass destruction by now, the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the subsequent mire of post war violence in Iraq. As Rob writes “to decide to attack Iraq following 9/11 was, as the American security chief Richard A. Clarke once observed, like deciding to attack Mexico as a reprisal for Pearl Harbour.”

In 2003, I was on the board of the ABC when the Minister for Communications, Senator Richard Alston made 68 complaints about bias in the reporting of the war by ABC’s am program. A most interesting time that I would never want to repeat but that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. It seemed that the government and their culture warriors were incensed that none of the “good news” stories that were part of Iraq – a water well dug here, a school reopened there – that these stories were being constantly overshadowed by the harping on about car bombs and injuries and deaths and all the other things that were happening when it was clear to them that they had just won the war in Iraq.

It’s on the public record that this was the beginning of the ABC having to answer each instance with detailed and exhaustive chapter and verse about each complaint – and finally only two were upheld, one was about the tone of the journalist which the ABC accepted could be seen as mocking and the other was about a long bow being drawn about the reasons George W Bush didn’t watch the beginning of his bombing campaign on TV. While not simply “just the facts, ma’am”, I  saw these instances as depth in reporting, the kind of angle you get in the best literary non-fiction.

Of course I’m limited as to what I can say about those years on the board but I can say that I do remember one particularly Mad Hatter tea party moment  arguing against the complaint about the description of Donald Rumsfeld as brusque. Was this fair, was this polite, how dare a mere journalist describe a senior politician this way and what did brusque really mean anyway? How much damage to Donald Rumsfeld’s character might it have been to have had an Australian journalist called him brusque? Wasn’t he big enough and ugly enough to wear the occasional sharpness? After all, he was prosecuting a war, maybe brusqueness was required? Wasn’t it the job of the journalist to report what he had seen and to interpret this based on knowledge and experience?   It turned out that after much research, a range of journalists from newspapers and broadcast media all over the world had used the very term reporting the very same event, so finally brusque it was. How long did that complaint take to sort out and how many highly paid minds worked on it? And there were 67 to go!

This attack on the national broadcaster was the opening salvo in a mission of proving bias at the ABC, the proposed implementation of a monitoring system that I considered bizarre and outside proper governance standards, and a subsequent stand-off between me and the rest of the board over what I considered serious, improper and continuing political interference in the processes of the ABC board and the editorial policies of the corporation –  well documented in the press at the time. You can read all about it on the Media Watch archive, another target of the Murdoch press that Rob details in that Quarterly Essay. Everything I said and everything I did was guided by the advice (all pro bono) of two QC’s and an academic in Constitutional Law from this very university. .

Making trouble, the title of one of Rob Manne’s essay collections is fraught with personal risks. Sometimes though, the risks are worth taking if the cause is worthwhile.

Thinking for myself now, by the time I left, the ABC that I loved was partly a figment of my romantic imagination. In my recent book on the books that made me, I wrote about my admiration of those explorers who were serious in their quests. Serious in their preparations, serious in the way they gave the time to their investigations, whether it was to take months or years, whether the travel was going to be hard or ask much of them, sometimes asking everything of them. Like all my explorer heroes, I wished to take thinking seriously too.

It was an approach that was welcome in the home away from home that I found myself happy in for over twenty years at the National Broadcaster. But times change, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

This isn’t about not embracing change. As one who is incurable impatient I’m all for the digital world of fast answers to a million questions, indeed, sitting at home writing and googling gives me immense pleasure. I think of how long it would take to go to a library and get amongst the stacks and finds what I’m after, compared to pressing a series of buttons on my computer and am staggered at what’s possible these days. I know there is something lost in not being able to wander amongst things that you didn’t know you were looking for, but you can still do that if you are curious and a dilettante.

But the dangerous aspect of what passes for journalism today is the assumption that being serious and thorough means being boring. That a deep analysis of a policy instead of yet another leadership challenge, that a serious conversation is going to lose people’s attention.

And that even if a serious matter is to be covered we can only afford a few minutes or a few paragraphs before we are assailed with something more exciting or more popular.

For me there is great pleasure to be had in the close observation of one thing taught by someone who has immersed themselves in it for life. That’s what drove my passion and pleasure in the work I did bringing ideas and thinkers and writers and books to people across the country in internationally too.

Clearly it was work that struck a chord amongst people, they valued the enrichment of their days and there was strong and vocal and continuing resistance to its removal. But those who had the power to let it continue were not for moving.

As I said, I have no answer to the question of why.

I suspect that the culture of close reading has been replaced with the culture of skimming and of necessity, the Culture of Forgetting too.

I saw a documentary  on the Béjart Ballet of Lausanne. Gil Roman, the successor of Maurice Béjart (who started the company and who trained his successor over many years ) was about to reveal the first performance that he had produced without Bejart and it was an exciting story but he said something that resonated with me – he said that an ambiance is a fragile thing.

An ambiance is a fragile thing. And Like love, it is hard to describe, hard to keep alive and devastatingly lost when it is gone.

I believe that a culture has an ambiance too. And the parts of culture we value, the passion, the being serious, the following our noses into new and magical realms, the depths we can reach, these things we must hold precious, because an ambiance is a fragile thing, and serious thinkers are required to keep it alive.

So now I see what my eleven year old self might have said to my eighteen year old Sunday school teacher: we are all individuals Rob, and that is important, but we live together and it’s what we value and do together that makes our life worth living on many levels, with rigour, passion, depth, humour and shared learning.

The disintegration of a culture of seriousness is a bit like the aftermath of war, and if there isn’t anyone here to remember how things fit together we are much the poorer. This is not an argument against change but an argument for change with full knowledge and mastery of the intellectual landscape in which we find ourselves.

As Goethe said: He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth.

Thank you Robert, for challenging my thinking from when I was eleven to this very day. And for enriching our culture, for showing us the way to live, not hand to mouth, but with great depth and great integrity.

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