The Spectator

By Peter Coleman

In his call to arms at the black-tie dinner in Sydney Town Hall celebrating the Lowy Institute’s tenth anniversary, Rupert Murdoch — one of the few in a simple neck-tie — drew on the small Australian film Spotswood to point up his big message. Made some 20 years ago but set in the 1960s, its story is about a factory that is going broke but is secretly subsidised by its lovable owner who cannot bring himself to sack his Aussie workers whom he regards as mates and family. In an improbable happy ending, an easy way is found to restore the factory to profitability. Matey Aussies triumph over efficiency freaks. Murdoch’s point is that all this may have been imaginable in the 1960s. Back then most countries in our region relied on cheap labour and old technology. His news industry used to rely on trucks and newsagents to deliver news to readers. Not any more. In an ‘offensively Australian’ mode, Murdoch declared that we have moved into a radical hi-tech world of ‘creative disruption’ where Australians must become leaders not victims. There is no room any more for protectionism or for easy happy endings. Australia is on the cusp of becoming ‘something rare and valuable’ — an egalitarian meritocracy ‘with more than a touch of libertarianism’. Frank Lowy’s story, he said, is the story of Australia. At the end Lowy and Murdoch hugged each other warmly and the audience roared support. Outside the Town Hall a solitary demonstrator held up a sign: ‘Go Home Murdoch’. None of the departing black-tie celebrators took any notice. As far as they were concerned, Murdoch was home already.

Conrad Black, the former media mogul, was also in Sydney last week — for a conference on the media organised by the United States Studies Centre. He has an entirely different take on Rupert Murdoch. He has conceded in the past that Murdoch is ‘the greatest media proprietor in history’, but he somehow also sees him as ‘a psychopath’ who has ‘smeared, lied, double-crossed his political benefactors including a long sequence of Australian leaders’. Black’s judgment is naturally coloured by the ‘nasty’ way the Murdoch press around the world covered what he refers to as his ‘legal travails’ — his prosecution in the US for fraud and his three years in a Florida prison. Since some reference to these protracted travails was inevitable when introducing Black at his first appearance before a huge audience on a Sunday evening in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, this is how the panel’s chairman James Fallows (of the Atlantic magazine and former speech writer for President Jimmy Carter) put it: ‘Conrad Black has written about the excesses of the American penal system based in part on his own experience in it. [Titters off.] For the record Black points out that all the charges against him were vacated by prosecutors, rejected by juries, or overturned by unanimous ruling of the US Supreme Court.’

He told me over lunch at the Opera House that he is convinced that within five years his innocence and vindication will be generally acknowledged. Meanwhile, his interventions at the conference were always lively. The US, he said, has become a ‘silly country’. Its foreign policy is ‘incoherent’. Its health policy is effective for only 70 per cent of the population. Its Supreme Court ‘drinks its own bathwater’ and its criminal justice system is barbarous. But ‘I am not a declinist.’ American silliness is reversible. ‘The United States persecuted me half to death, but I remain pro-American.’ He is an extraordinary man — and a great journalist.

‘I intend,’ declared Senator George Brandis, federal Minister for the Arts, ‘to resist the left vision of the arts in Australia’ — the jargonised ‘mediocre sludge’, for example, of Simon Crean’s National Cultural Policy (or NCP, as they called it.) Brandis was launching Turning Left or Right. Values in Modern Politics (Connor Court) in the NSW State Parliament last week. The point of this remarkable book is that it represents the revival of the symposium. Decades ago symposiums involving conflicting opinions were common. (I well remember editing one of the last of them — Australian Civilisation in 1962.) But as the 1960s progressed, intellectuals broke up into dogmatic sects. The New Left talked only to each other. So did the New Right, and the surviving classical liberals. But now once again, with the decline of political dogmatism, people who disagree have started talking to each other again — even sometimes to the point of parody as in television programmes like Q&A. In Turning Left or Right the editors — Tim Wilson (IPA), Carlo Carli (ALP), and Paul Collits (academic) — have taken some 20 issues from climate change to housing, and brought together a leftist, a conservative and a classical liberal to argue the toss.

Take sport. Alan Austin, formerly of the ABC, insists that it is heavy government investment that produces Australian champions from Cathy Freeman to Lewis Jetta of the Sydney Swans. But Christian Kerr of the Australian says the government’s Institute of Sport has given us whinging thugs, drunken louts and drug abusers. He asks whether the Australian Football League has become a sub-branch of the ALP. Jai Martinkovits of and Australians for Constitutional Monarchy calls for a Royal Commission into the public funding of athletes. It should be headed, he suggests, by the broadcaster Alan Jones. Senator Brandis did not comment.

This article was originally published in The Spectator