Sunday, 6 May 2012

The sinking of the Australian: defence cuts, media inquiries and Greg Sheridan’s bath time

People who know me will more likely than not be familiar with my rocky relationship with Australia’s only national daily the Australian. There was a time I ‘took it’ as often as I could, to the extent of insisting that my parents bought the weekend edition along with the groceries every Saturday. I was never completely comfortable, even in my teenage years, with the paper’s conservative flavour, but I read it enthusiastically, partly because it seemed important to do so and partly because I didn’t know of a better way to engage with the national debate. I liked its arts coverage, its consistent focus on national politics and its uptake of the work of interesting overseas columnists such as Christopher Hitchens. The bits I didn’t like, I suspect, I liked even more; I would turn to Christopher Pearson’s columns before Phillip Adams’ because the blood needs a good boil once in a while. Too much affirmation is not necessarily a good thing, and as I often used to remind my cynical brothers: know your enemy.

                Throughout the latter years of the Howard regime, however, my patience was stretched thin as the Australian’s conservative agenda became increasingly flagrant and increasingly difficult to stomach (also, I had moved out of home by then – this was my money I was putting in the Murdoch kitty). Two examples stick in my mind, both connected with the paper’s aggressive anti-environmentalism. The first was a front page story which, on the basis of an interview with a local surfer, darkly insinuated that climate change, and the consequent rising of sea levels, was nonsense. The second was the now notorious editorial which declared that the Australian’s position on the Greens was that they were ‘hypocrites’, ‘bad for the nation’ and that they ‘should be destroyed at the ballot box’.

I never bought another edition after that, but I find it difficult to resist the urge to pick up other people’s copies from time to time. I picked up last Friday’s edition during my lunchbreak, and was perhaps a little relieved to find that nothing much has changed, despite Uncle Rupert’s recent stern telling off at the UK media inquiry (more on that later). If anything, in fact, things have deteriorated.

I haven’t mentioned Greg Sheridan yet, but I’ve come to think of him as the Australian’s fantasist-in-residence (he is, ostensibly, foreign editor). I’ve always abhorred Sheridan’s toadyism but his page six response to the cutting of the defence budget was galling not just for its more than usually odious display of Sheridan’s love of authority and military might, but for its outrageous hypocrisy. In the article – ‘Response to national security is in la-la land’ – Sheridan thunders that ‘this is the worst day for national security since the fall of Saigon in 1975’. The hyperbole doesn’t end there but it’s Sheridan’s almost masturbatory reverence for ultra-expensive military hardware – Collins-class submarines, Joint Strike Fighters, Super Hornets, self-propelled artillery – that really sticks in the craw. Does anybody know what any of these things are? Does anybody care? (I have no desire to picture Sheridan in a state of undress, but I can’t help but envisage him up to his chin in bubble bath, pushing toy boats around with his knees as he thinks about all this). Sheridan, I suppose, would have the arts, health or education budgets slashed instead so that his phantasmagoria of imagined threats might somehow be lent credibility by the brainless and demented misspending of tax payers’ dollars.

What exactly constitutes these threats in Sheridan’s la-la land? Australia’s enemies, he declares, are threefold: socio-political unrest in the Australian region, as exampled by the East Timor situation; terrorists, as exampled (of course) by the 2001 attacks in the US, and the Chinese. Huh? Yes, the Australian’s foreign editor is of the opinion that Australia needs to invest vast sums of money in its defence forces so that it might... well, I’m not sure to be frank. Keep communists out of Australia? Repel an invasion by the Chinese army? The ludicrousness of this is self-evident, but what about the other supposed threats to Australia? It hardly needs pointing out that there have been no attacks within Australia by Islamic terrorists (and, even if there were, what role would Sheridan have the ADF play in that eventuality? Perhaps he would like to see his beloved fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighters bomb Jakarta or Islamabad?) As for the final ‘strategic wake-up call’, East Timor, there is unquestionably a stronger argument to be made here but Sheridan’s claim, made to support the call for a massive increase in military expenditure, that Australian forces there in 1999 were only just able to ‘bring off’ their peacekeeping mission is disingenuous.

Characteristically of the Australian, Sheridan is not sent in to bat alone on this issue. He is joined in his denunciation of the defence cuts by Cameron Stewart and an editorial which declares the government’s defence spending record ‘indefensible’. The Right, Tony Abbott and the Australian endlessly fulminate about the ‘waste’ of the Gillard government and yet would have the excessive military expenditure inaugurated under Howard and maintained under Rudd continue, and even expand ad infinitum. Stewart even goes so far as to suggest that military budgets are ‘too important to become a plaything of politics’, as though there was something transcendent about submarines and guns and missiles. I fail to see how such expenditure represents sound economic policy or is in the national interest. In fact, I might as well come clean and say that my preference (if you’ll allow me my own little trip into la-la land) is for a Costa Rica-style disbandment of the national army. I would propose instead, perhaps, a souped-up version of the SES for handling natural disasters. The question of a peacekeeping force is, I admit, somewhat thornier but I feel sure of one thing – 12 new Joint Strike Fighters will not be required, thank you very much. Greg, I’ll get you a Matchbox Messerschmitt for your birthday. I promise.

I said I would return to the UK media inquiry and so I shall by giving you, dear reader, one more brief, unappetising taste of the journalistic morass into which the Australian continues to sink. Friday’s ‘Cut & Paste’ (a section on the letters page which assembles snippets from various newspapers in order to make some more or less dubious point) took on the media inquiries’ criticisms of Rupert Murdoch by suggesting that the Labour MPs on the committee were in no position to ‘cast stones from [their] high moral ground’.

We learn that Minister Tom Watson ‘spent the maximum of £4800 in a single year on food’ (goodness gracious!) and that Paul Farrelly was once involved in a ‘late-night tussle near a packed Commons bar’ (is there no end to this man’s depravity?!) In any newspaper, this pathetic muckraking would be laughable, but in one owned by Murdoch it is embarrassingly self-protective as well. One of the best features of Robert Manne’s essay Bad News was the way in which he documented the Australian’s bizarre sense of victimhood and the shameful methods it uses to publicly and vehemently smear its critics. This is yet another sorry example, an attack which wouldn’t stand up in a high school debate let alone a national broadsheet.

The Australian is not a newspaper, it’s a viewspaper, an aggressive and abhorrent ideological battlefront for the corrupt Murdoch empire. I’m not sure that Australia’s own media scrutinies will do much to reign it in, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it be destroyed, if not at the ballot box or by an inquiry, then at least at the checkout or newsagency counter. I would miss my occasional strolls down the corridors of its castle in the air – but not much.           


  1. I too was astounded by Greg Sheridan's frothing at the mouth on Friday. I was asking a few people who I could cajole into reading the column: Is he actually obliquely suggesting we keep our armed forces at war with a third world country just so that we might be assured we have 'combat ready' troops? I interpreted this suggestion as coming out of a particularly tortured sentence, so I'm yet hopeful that I may have misinterpreted him.

    As for your dreadful situation of having to put down your own hard earned in order to read the crap brewed by this mob, I can only hope you might be able to find employment in some place where there is an existing subscription for the lunch room. This allows me, fortunately, to get all the benefits of a good blood-boiling without being morally torn about feeding the trashmedia kraken.

  2. I don't remember sharing your interpretation of Sheridan's comments regarding 'combat ready' troops, Econ-artist, but your reading seems plausible. A particularly nasty self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps?

    Can we please keep using 'trashmedia kraken'? A glorious moniker which deserves the widest possible use!