For me, at least, this year’s Australia Day was preceded somewhat significantly two days earlier by a vast four page subscription offer from the Australian – which I buy loyally already as a former employee. Prior to becoming so I worked for The Spectator in London; we lacked overseas editions back in those days of course and were also frequently not very far from financial collapse. Our circulation when Charles Moore became editor back in 1984 seemed stuck at about 19,000 and, by way of explanation, the late Auberon Waugh suggested that there were only 19,000 truly intelligent people in Britain and all of those bought The Spectator already. Thank God everyone retained a sense of humour about such matters in those difficult days because good humour – alongside fine writing – has always been a hallmark of The Spectator. Happily by the time I came to Australia some 11 years later our circulation had risen by some 50,000 – almost as fast as that of the socialist New Statesman had gone down – and I had felt privileged to belong to a group of columnists who believed thoroughly in what for us was an entirely worthy political cause. Therein lies a key to the soul of any paper.
My work visa finally arrived in May 1995 and I hopped on a plane bound for a land which I had visited only once before. Former editor-in-chief of the Australian Paul Kelly offered me employment, in fact, while I was simply visiting here on a lecture tour.
Within days of my actual arrival, however, the Age ran an extremely hostile half-page article ‘about’ me followed not long afterwards by an even more hostile 45-minute TV program by ‘our’ ABC. Whatever my views may have been they were clearly extremely unpopular at Fairfax and our national broadcaster although still strongly supported nevertheless – in some circles at least – both in Britain and over here. While obviously the hard left media here held little or no sympathy for my views I, in turn, rapidly became increasingly mystified myself as to the precise political nature of the Australian. Did the paper even truly understand this complex matter properly itself? Evidently one was dealing with nothing remotely as simple here, say, as the staunchly centre-right Daily Telegraph in Britain where a number of my friends worked. Was and is the Australian, in fact, really very subtly aimed at a mixed and even sometimes largely divided audience – a publishing phenomenon I had never encountered before? As the present editor-in-chief of the Australian Christopher Dore admits freely and even boasts about in the main headline to his advertisement: ‘You won’t find another team of journalists like ours.’ On the one hand Greg Sheridan, Gerard Henderson, Janet Albrechtsen, Jennifer Oriel and Judith Sloan. On the other Paul Kelly, Graham Richardson, Peter van Onselen, Nikki Savva and Phillip Adams – to say nothing of passing ALP migrants such as Anthony Albanese. Does a description such as ‘somewhat schizophrenic’ thus seem entirely unfair to you?
For me personally the beginning of my end at the Australian almost certainly came when I described intellectual life in Australia as ‘rather less than effervescent’ in an article not even written for the Australian itself but specifically for The Spectator.
At the time, then editor-in-chief David Armstrong demanded an apology from me – which I was somewhat unwilling to give – and when our final falling-out did eventually occur not very long afterwards recent AO candidate Luke Slattery showed himself eager – metaphorically at least – to dance on my grave via a wholly gratuitous and dismissive article.
In fact, my late friend and then editor of Quadrant Paddy MacGuinness banned Luke permanently from its pages as a result of the latter action. All of the foregoing sounds like trivial squabbling I agree but is perhaps rather less so for someone working in what was still basically a foreign country. I had not even applied for citizenship here at the time. Prior to coming here I had worked on two government committees: the Conservative Advisory Committee for the Arts and Heritage and the National Curriculum. How was I to guess that the arts and culture were already a fiefdom of the Left here?
Tony Abbott is the only politician I recall who has ever even tried to curb the activities of great publicly-funded monoliths such as the Australia Council. He, at least, retains a very accurate understanding of the use of culture as a political tool. Yet his general causes have been attacked as frequently as defended in the pages of the Australian. What I failed to understand when I came here all those years ago is that our leading national paper tries to present a smorgasbord for its readers rather than any true leadership. Sticking fast to dogmatic cultural or political opinions is thus largely left here to the Left. In fact, while the Australian regularly criticises the Liberal Coalition for lack of unity it is no less guilty of such behaviour itself. On a first visit to Darwin quarter of a century ago to cover the annual Aboriginal Arts Awards there I was kindly approached by a senior member of the judiciary who inquired politely what I was doing that evening? To my amazement a lavish dinner party had been thrown by local dignitaries in my honour – solely because I had formerly written regularly for The Spectator. As a fellow guest admitted to me later reading this magazine played a major part in keeping him sane in the weird isolation of tropical life. When another guest later offered a lift back to my hotel he first asked my assistance in removing a stick-insect of about the size and girth of a car-jack from the windscreen of his car. Australia is always full of unlooked-for surprises and although nominally Anglophone bears increasingly less resemblance to its well-meaning founder.
For me that’s a pity.
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