Manning Clark, agent of influence?

Reposting an old Crikey piece, partly just to test the new site functionality.

“I believe [Manning Clark’s Order of Lenin] was conferred on him in secret by the Soviet ambassador at the Soviet embassy in Canberra.”

That’s Peter Kelly from last Friday’s Australian.

The opinion pages at the Oz provide a convivial home for folks who believe all manner of wonderful things — climate change isn’t happening, the Iraq war was a great idea, etc. But, even in that company, Kelly’s particular credo still stands out.

As Tim Lambert notes at Deltoid, back in 1996, Oz editor Chris Mitchell, then at the Courier-Mail, scooped the world with revelations that Manning Clark had received an Order of Lenin from the Soviet Union, a story the paper adorned with a digitally altered photo of a sneering Clark got up in a Russian peasant smock.

“Clark was indeed a Communist,” the Courier-Mail explained. “No, more than that, he was, until today, an undiscovered member of the Communist world’s elite, a man who would come to be covertly honoured with the highest award the Soviet Union had to bestow, the Order of Lenin.”

Peter Kelly was the primary source of this remarkable discovery. Kelly claimed that the late Geoffrey Fairbairn had seen Clark sporting his Order of Lenin (as one does) at the Soviet Embassy. He produced supporting evidence in the form of poet Les Murray, who’d apparently witnessed a bemedaled Clark back in 1970 (“I didn’t take a heck of a lot of notice at the time but it shocked me afterwards”).

Unfortunately for Kelly, the story quickly fell apart under the weight of its own idiocy. Though Mitchell attempted to morph the Courier-Mail’s coverage from insinuations of espionage to a more general smear about Clark as a bad historian who hated Australia, the Australian Press Council upheld thenumerous complaints against the paper:

The newspaper had too little evidence to assert that Prof Clark was awarded the Order of Lenin — rather there is much evidence to the contrary. […] While the Courier Mail devoted much space to people challenging its assertions, the Press Council believes it should have retracted the allegations about which Prof Clark’s supporters complained.

Yet Mitchell never retracted — and so, in response to Geoffrey Bolton’s recent review of Brian Mathews’ Manning Clark biography (in which Bolton described the 1996 episode as “mischievous”), Peter Kelly, like the proverbial dog with a taste for its own gastric juices, uses cut and paste (“the following is a truncated version of a story I wrote in 1996”) to regurgitate the same discredited allegations.

As in his original yarn, Kelly blurs the distinction between the Order of Lenin, an award of some significance, and the Lenin Jubilee Medal, a decoration given to Clark alongside thousands of other Moscow visitors. In Suspect History, Humphrey McQueen points out that Les Murray’s detailed “eyewitness” account becomes rather less impressive when we learn that he claimed to be unemployed at the time (he wasn’t) and couldn’t remember whether the encounter happened in daylight or at night. These slip-ups in an incident recalled years after the fact render Kelly’s triumphant declaration that “there is no gainsaying the fact that [Clark] wore [an Order of Lenin] seen by Fairbairn and Murray” about as troothy as those “9/11 was an inside job” websites.

What makes the whole story even more bizarre is that, while Clark was, in his later years, close to the ALP, he was never the firebreathing Bolshevik of Kelly’s imagination. Clark’s history famously concentrated on the character flaws of significant individuals, a methodology about as removed from Marxism as one could imagine. He sat on the advisory board of Quadrant in its early years; he was friendly with its original editor, the fanatically anti-Communist James McAuley. In 1965, Bob Menzies described Clark as an “eminent historian” to the new American ambassador and recommended he read his work.

But who knows? Perhaps Menzies was an agent of influence, too. I vaguely remember seeing him with a medal once…

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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