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07 January 2015
by John Passant

The Australian and the contest of ideas

I read Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian every day. I want to know what the fruitcake faction of capital is up to. That includes not just Murdoch’s journalists and his major ‘serious’ newspaper outlet in Australia but the Abbott government they serve and influence and the Liberal base they feed and incite.

However even Rupert and his minions seem to realise that Tony Abbott and/or his government are on the nose. Poll after published poll in The Australian shows Labor easily winning the next election. That has been the case almost since the day Abbott and co were elected. Australians voted Labor out and almost straight away twigged that the incoming lot were just another pack of rotten neoliberal politicans caught between the desires of business and the needs and wants of ordinary working Australians.

At the moment, with The Australian’s promotion of Julie Bishop, it looks to me as if they see the problem as Abbott rather than his Government and its neoliberal policies like the GP co-payment, increasing the pension access age, cutting university funding and freeing up their fee setting, to name a few.

These are policies which over time are designed to benefit capital as a class and individual capitalists, assuming they can be carried out against a reluctant working class. They benefit capital by reducing government expenditure, at least on welfare and the working class, and this over time can be redistributed to capital in the form of company tax cuts, once the Budget deficit bogey is addressed. Indeed, the Budget deficit becomes an excuse for cutting state payments to the working class.

So far the Senate, reflecting popular discontent, has held up a number of unpopular Budget measures, although Labor did agree to pass $20 billion worth of cuts before Christmas. Abbott and co also managed to introduce a number of cuts, such as the GP co-payment in another guise, administratively rather than legislatively.

The other day The Australian published an article by former Labor Party Keating Government Minister Gary Johns called No contraception, no dole. It basically argued that contraception should be compulsory for those on welfare. Evidently the poor, especially poor Aborigines, breed too much and shouldn’t be allowed to. Now where have I heard this sort of social engineering before? Anyone want to remind me?

The Australian received a lot of bad press for publishing this tripe, tripe aimed at blaming the victims of capitalism, in particular Aboriginal Australians, for their plight. This, and the response to another disingenuous piece asking Is science showing there really is a god? prompted an editorial in The Australian in defence of … you guessed it, The Australian.

Two arguments in the editorial stood out. One was that ‘a serious newspaper should present a variety of opinions.’ The other was that ‘we love a contest of ideas.’

On both counts The Australian fails. Let’s personalise this first. Since I got my new computer in late August I have sent 7 letters to the editor to the Australian and one article for consideration. None have been published. However to give the opinion editor her due, she at least, unlike the Fairfax newspapers, had the decency to respond, saying she didn’t have room for one. An earlier one was rejected by another editor who said:

Thanks for your contribution, which I enjoyed. Your call for an overthrow of capitalism, however, runs counter to the ethos of the paper. It would be odd to publish it.

At one stage the national politics editor, David Crowe, shouted me a modest late breakfast in Manuka (his timetable was full, not mine, hence the early morning get together) to discuss if he could run some tax ideas past me and quote me. He did, for one article. Then he stopped, presumably because he discovered quoting a socialist on tax matters probably wasn’t helpful to him, his boss or his audience.

Of course none of this proves my case that The Australian is part of the fruitcake faction (i.e. the extreme neoliberal wing) of capital in Australia.

Indeed my strike rate with the Fairfax papers, in particular the Canberra Times, is even worse when it comes to articles being rejected. None out of eight in four months is my Fairfax strike rate. They are happy to quote me on tax matters in staff articles (see this and this and this for example) but not to publish me in their pages.

My home town newspaper, the Canberra Times, part of the Fairfax stable, used to publish my letters regularly but no longer does. I have had only 2 of my 23 submitted letters published in the last 4 months.

Maybe I am just not that publishable. Anymore. I suppose it could be that my writing style and topic choice condemn me to the editors’ dustbins. I suspect however that my politics is the determining factor.

What mainstream media newspaper regularly publishes a socialist? What mainstream media newspaper ever publishes a socialist? By socialist I don’t mean some warmed over social democrat who has made his or her peace with capitalism and who now writes acceptable puff pieces for Fairfax or Murdoch. I mean a socialist, one of those people who wants the working class to overthrow capitalism and spread democracy into the economic area so that production is organised democratically to satisfy human needs and wants.

Nick Cater, formerly a journalist with The Australian but now the Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre, and a weekly columnist with The Australian, had this to say about my writing ability in an article in The Australian.

In today’s world of eff-you politics, Passant is an anachronism, and not because he wants to see the overthrow of capitalism. He is an oddity because he insists on articulating his case.

As I pointed out in a blog article at the time, The Australian hadn’t published one of my 30 submitted letters in the previous year. So if my writing is well argued, as Cater believes, why wasn’t even one of them published?

It gets worse. I have in the last week made two comments online on The Australian. Neither have been published.

The answer to the question why I am not published is pretty simple. Let me republish again the comment by one of the editors to The Australian. “Thanks for your contribution, which I enjoyed. Your call for an overthrow of capitalism, however, runs counter to the ethos of the paper. It would be odd to publish it.”

That is it. The ethos of the paper isn’t about presenting a variety of opinions or a contest of ideas. It is about capitalism and its defence. It is about legitimising the current structures of society and power relations; it is about ensuring legitimacy in a time of austerity. As one of my friends remarked: ‘Like the rural bar in The Blues Brothers that played both kinds of music, “country and western” the Australian is open to discussion that is both neo and liberal.’

[As an aside that is why I think Abbott will resign or be knifed. His leadership undermines the legitimacy of neoliberalism in a way Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard never did. However those Labor leaders in the list alienated their supporters with their neoliberal policies and in power have laid the carpet out for the election of Howard and then Abbott. The number of rusted on Labor voters and members has fallen markedly since Hawke came to power as disillusioned voters and former members look for electoral alternatives.]

This process of legitimation requires some differences of opinion. In the Australian this swings between unapologetic and enthusiastic Abbott government supporters to more reluctant supporters to right wing Labor Party hacks. Even the occasional left ALP writer is a prisoner of the times – a mixture of neoliberalism and Keynesianism with a dose of pretend social empathy that wends its way into a broad based Keynesian neoliberalism and zombie social democracy.

In the Fairfax papers it means some of the neoliberal Keynesians get a run. I merely note that John Quiggin, a respected Keynesian academic, lost his regular gig at the bosses’ newsletter, the Australian Financial Review, after a former Australian manager and journalist took over the editorship. Richard Denniss, from the Australia Institute, a centre-left group, now seems the Fairfax Keynesian of choice. But their columns hardly challenge the status quo that is capitalism. Certainly they challenge some neoliberal ideas and some vested capitalist interests but not capitalism itself.

It makes some business sense to publish these writers because their social democratic ideas actually represent or resonate with a majority of the Australian population. [As a left field thought I was going to suggest that this might see The Australian try to broaden its appeal by employing a regular centre left writer, but maybe some things are a step too far. As John Quiggin noted, while the Australian editorialised against him it did not publish him.

Online media is somewhat different. For example the Guardian runs more radical left-wing and socialist writers. It is trying for a niche that attracts the social democrat majority.

What is not acceptable to the doyens of the mainstream capitalist media of course is a writer of calibre who is a socialist. Neither Fairfax nor Murdoch would regularly publish one. Indeed as far as I know they have not published a revolutionary or radical political article in decades. (Go on, show I am wrong. But be warned. The one case that disproves my case will prove it.)