Diary Australia

Diary Australia

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

One of the worst aspects of the way we go on these days is not only that we are all so uncivil to each other, but we all accuse each other of having crooked, if not downright corrupt, motives. Recently I had two pleasant experiences on ABC TV altogether different from that. Within a week I recorded an episode of Geraldine Doogue’s Compass programme — every so often they do it as a panel discussing ethical issues and call it The Moral Compass — and then Jennifer Byrne’s Book Club. Geraldine and Jennifer are both class acts, two of the ABC’s best. In both cases I participated in a lively discussion and came away admiring my fellow panellists. I suppose at some level that doesn’t make for TV as arresting as the old Crossfire model of constant conflict, the kind of Jerry Springer mutual denunciation which is common now. Mind you, even Jerry Springer’s mutual denunciation is better than a consistently stacked panel, which is what you get now on ABC TV’s Insiders, which once made an effort to have some balance.

Thinking of civility calls to mind the late David Armstrong, formerly the Challis Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University. I didn’t know him as well as Peter Coleman did, but many years ago, and for quite a few years, he was a very good friend. I don’t think I’ve ever known a more urbane and agreeable man. He was something of a mentor to me. Tall, lean, wispy haired, with one of those rolling, deep, Noel Pearson voices full of emphasis and profundity, and with a natural bent for irony, humour and a large range of verbal tone, and with an almost infinitely capacious mind — or so it once seemed to me — he was a very distinctive figure.

I first met David nearly 40 years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Sydney University. Unlike Tony Abbott, my best friend in my undergraduate days, I didn’t really think of myself as a conservative, but rather as an anti-communist. David, having led the fight against the Marxist takeover of the Philosophy department, was a hero. In the late 1970s I went to work at the Bulletin magazine and one of my first jobs was to interview David. He took the trouble to write me a note after the interview appeared, saying how pleased he was with the way I had translated his off-the-cuff comments into something coherent but still his own. This was a tremendous encouragement for a young journalist just starting out. He also encouraged me to write for Quadrant magazine.

For several years I went to David and Jenny’s new year’s eve dinner parties. What a variety of friends. Somehow, once, he arranged for me to provide some political material for Barry Humphries. Conversation was always good humoured but never shy of tackling Big Subjects. We often discussed religion. He good-naturedly posed problems for my Catholic belief, though he had a great regard for Catholic culture and described himself as a pre-Vatican ii atheist. Indeed he once told me he wasn’t really an atheist, because atheism itself was a faith and he couldn’t make that leap of faith. Rather, he was an atheist-inclined agnostic.

In those days I used to do a pretty fair vocal imitation of the late, great B.A. Santamaria, whom David much admired. David’s good friend, the journalist and academic Stephen Morris, did a brilliant impersonation of the anti-communist genius Frank Knopfelmacher (an impersonation only ever bettered by the Labor MP Michael Danby). Franta had a habit of ringing people at the oddest times, and David told me of Stephen ringing him, just before his wedding, and pretending to be Franta, delaying David with all kinds of specious concerns. David is not responsible for any of the delinquencies of public policy I may have got up to, but associating closely with a man of his intellect and moral generosity was a priceless gift for me.

Speaking of other people not being responsible for my views, I was annoyed to read the annoying nonsense of Peter Oborne in this magazine a few weeks ago about journalists who work for Rupert Murdoch. Oborne attributed the views I held on Iraq a decade ago to some Murdoch conspiracy. This is lazy, stupid and wrong. Whatever views I have ever held on Iraq have been all my own work. In arguing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction I may well have been wrong. But I was part of no conspiracy. I expressed the same view as countless social democratic politicians around the world, among them Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Kevin Rudd, Kim Beazley and many others.

In Oborne’s simplistic analysis, their views are automatically not part of a conspiracy, but my views automatically are part of a conspiracy. Did Oborne ask me about this? Did he evaluate how my views on this and so many other issues have evolved? Did he look at issues where I have taken a view which contradicts the editorial line of the Australian (though naturally enough I agree with most of my paper’s editorials)? On lots of big issues I’ve changed my mind over the years. Sometimes I change my mind between starting a column and finishing it. But in Oborne’s reductionist framework, so similar in its shoddiness to the old- style Marxist analysis by category and formula, none of this matters. It remains a mystery to me why people think these third-rate Poms have something of consequence to say about Australia. The facts, dear boy, examine the facts.

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Greg Sheridan is foreign editor of the Australian.

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  • BillRees

    Greg, as a Pommie reader of this column I sympathise with your view of Peter Oborne. Pomposity and self-regard characterise his writing (and occasional broadcasting).

    And I assume you wrote this piece before the Blues won on Wednesday night.

    I seem to be one of the few Pommie conservatives who also loves Rugby League, so you always feel like a fellow traveller to me.