Lost at sea: why Abbott’s winning against the ABC

On 1 February, Paul Toohey reported that an Australian lifeboat deployed to return asylum seekers had turned up on a beach in Indonesia. He also noted that the twenty men deposited in the vessel by the navy and then pushed back into the ocean had spent two days wandering lost in the jungle near where they landed, during which three had drowned in a river.

Here, then, was the predictable and lethal result of Abbott’s ‘turn back the boats’ slogan, an outcome that utterly discredits the rhetoric about harsh policies saving lives.

But that was four days ago – and since then the story has vanished. We don’t know the victims’ names or nationalities, let alone anything their circumstances. No major news outlet has investigated; the government faces no pressure whatsoever to explain a tactic that has just casually killed three men.

That’s why I can’t share other commentators’ confidence that Tony Abbott’s war on the ABC will fail. I think it’s already succeeding.

Ben Eltham argues that the ABC is ‘on solid ground’ in the argument against its critics, for the debate about its bias is ‘crazy’, while the broadcaster remains ‘one of the most trusted institutions in the country, unlike tabloid newspapers or talk radios’.

From a slightly different perspective, Guy Rundle calls Abbott’s culture war against the ABC and others a debacle, with most the damage has been inflicted on the conservative side.

The points they make are fair enough, within certain limits. But they miss the two central dynamics: the lack of an effective opposition and the ABC management’s willingness to preemptively surrender.

At one level, the Murdoch media’s animus against the ABC against reflects naked self-interest. The flying monkeys might screech about balance or accuracy but their owner openly acknowledges the ABC as a competitor. Back in 2009, James Murdoch explained that the BBC was:

incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country. Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling.


The British rhetoric – down to the insinuation of disloyalty – is instantly familiar in a local context.

Yet Murdoch does not expect Abbott immediately to privatise the ABC. Everyone knows that’s not going to happen. No, he’s playing the long game, confident that the incessant sniping at the broadcaster will wear down support for the broadcaster.

For his part, Abbott’s happy to push Murdoch’s agenda, both for the usual reasons that politicians toady to media proprietors and because he shares the old tyrant’s hatred of the public sector.

But, as a politician, he has other concerns.

Abbott won the election because of voter dissatisfaction with the Labor debacle. He came to power with no popular support for a program of his own – in fact, he never really presented a program at all.

That’s why media management has been such an obsession. If Abbott were pushing a manifesto endorsed by the electorate, he might seek to draw attention to his activities. But he’s not and so he doesn’t. Hence, right from the start, he declared that he wanted to get politics off the front pages of the newspapers.

The refugee issue illustrates why. Morrison’s bizarre press conferences might seem farcical but they’re nonetheless effective, in that they provide the media with no oxygen whatsoever. Precisely because refugees don’t actually affect ordinary people at all, if the media doesn’t report boat arrivals, the asylum seeker problem (which never existed) is neatly solved.

The ongoing crisis in the news industry makes the strategy much more feasible. All the papers are hemorrhaging money. Reporting on refugees is time-consuming and horrendously expensive (how many journalists are based on Manus Island or Nauru) and probably doesn’t contribute much to revenue. So, instead of digging for information, why not simply do a cheap and cheerful feature using the footage provided by the navy?

The ABC is – or should be – different. Even now, the broadcaster has substantial assets, assets expressly provided to investigate important stories that aren’t commercially viable for other outlets.

In other words, the ABC should be all over the refugee issue – even (or perhaps especially) when other journalists aren’t.

You can see, then, the advantage for Abbott in embroiling the broadcaster in an array of faux scandals. The more time the ABC spends responding to Murdoch attacks, the less time it devotes to holding the government to account.

But isn’t the ABC popular? Doesn’t that make attacks upon it by an unpopular government ill-conceived, almost suicidal?

Not at all. Approval for the ABC shows up consistently in polls. But those surveys reveal passive support – and passive support counts for very little against a concerted campaign backed by the Murdoch commentariat, who do this kind of thing with surgical precision.

To put it another way, abstract popular sentiment doesn’t matter unless it’s given some kind of organisational expression. And where will that come from?

Not from the ALP. Leaving aside the fact Shorten and his team shares Abbott’s horror at the Snowden revelations, everyone knows that Labor’s at least as enthusiastic about privatisation as the Liberals. Yes, the ALP might pay lip service to supporting the ABC but does anyone seriously think that today’s Labor Party would go toe-to-toe with Murdoch in support of a publicly-owned asset?

In any case, it’s not merely that the Labor leadership accepts the philosophical framework in which conservative hostility to the ABC is marinated. It’s also that the ABC management does too.

Consider the events of the last week.

As Ben Eltham says, the ABC’s behaviour in response to claims of asylum seekers being burned was

no more than journalism as it is normally conducted. The story was developing, and the ABC was reporting new evidence in the context of what was already on the public record. In other words, it was gathering news.

So how does the ABC management respond to the ginned-up outrage from the Right?

First, the head of news content, Gaven Morris, sends out an email warning senior staff to ‘stick to the facts’ when reporting on incidents at sea. They should, he said, refrain from ‘editorialising or seeking to add adjectives or any flourish.’

Second, Mark Scott and director of news Kate Torney publish a statement arguing that the ABC should have been ‘more precise’ and expressing ‘regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claim.’

It’s a clear victory for Abbott.

Just as new and disturbing information arises about what happens to refugees pushed back into the ocean, ABC staff have been publicly rebuked for what Eltham calls ‘journalism as it is normally conducted’.

Reporters wanting to uncover what’s taking place in the detention centre archipelago  now know that if they embark on these expensive and difficult stories, they will be face a furious assault from the Right – and their management won’t support them.

No doubt, some journalists will do their job anyway. But could you blame them if, knowing what they were up against, they took a softer option?

Yes, Abbott might be attacking the ABC from a position of weakness. But he’s likely to succeed because the opposition is weaker still – both organisationally and in terms of ideas.

Today, we learn that Mark Scott has hired Nick Leys, the Australian’s media editor, and a man the Guardian calls ‘one of the public broadcaster’s most vocal critics’ as his media manager. In other words, the guy who has been formulating attacks on the ABC will now be responsible for defending it. Leys presumably shares the same pro-market agenda of the rest of the Murdoch chieftains. Is there any better way to demoralize ABC supporters than putting someone like that in charge of the broadcaster’s messaging?

Rundle is correct to that there’s a potential for a huge pushback against what he calls the government’s ‘metered out sadism’, precisely because almost nothing Abbott’s doing is particularly popular. But it’s a potential, nothing more – and realising it will be far more difficult than Rundle acknowledges.

His formulation implies that, because resistance is possible, Abbott’s attacks are risible.

That’s wrong – and the ‘calm down it’s all a distraction’ approach is quite dangerous.

In respect of the ABC, in particular, Abbott’s quite accurately assessed the balance of forces. He reasons that, when the chips are down, the ABC management will side with him against their staff; he realises he can create a climate of fear at the public broadcaster, so that the journalists spend all their time looking over their shoulders.

I think he’s right in both cases.

What does that mean?

Expect more of that obsession with ‘balance’ that sees an IPA stooge on every program. Expect a new emphasis on pursuing right-wing talking points about the unions or terrorism or whatever. But don’t think you’re going to find out what we’re doing to refugees any time soon.

No, the campaign against the ABC is not ‘a 3am knock on the door’. But if people are outraged about it, that’s a good thing. Rather than telling them to chill out, to not to worry, we’d be better off acknowledging they’re right to be angry – and then talking about how we might channel that anger into a strategy that might win.


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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

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  1. Jeff, you know as well as I do that the ABC neither is, has been nor “should be” substantially different from other state-owned media in capitalist states around world. Its commitment to “balance” has always been within the narrow limits set by the balance of official politics, but with occasional interesting pieces that reveal more about what goes on in society than the commercial outlets bother with. Its default has always been to take the criticisms of it by the political class seriously and try to “redress the balance” a bit to keep the Right (or sometimes the centre-Left) happy. To expect it to be something better strikes me as rather woolly thinking, even if (of course) it is always disappointing when any media outlet moves to the Right in its news coverage.

    On the other hand you are 100% correct that resistance to Abbott from the Left is minimal at best right now (“non-existent” seems more accurate). In this we are being ably led by the two main parties of the Left, the ALP and the Greens, both parties that refuse to set their sights beyond the limits of a crisis-ridden and hollowed out political system. The fact that most of the Left beyond these parties’ central leaderships is unable to generate some independent strategy must surely be laid at the feet of that same Left of the Left which spent most of the six years of ALP (and then ALP-Greens) government in the role of cheerleaders (sometimes mildly critical, mostly to save face) for that government.

    You argue that defending the ABC from right-wing attacks on its coverage should be one of the Left’s priorities. The unmistakable direction of your argument is to see the defence of a state broadcaster which has always been deeply hostile to projects for social emancipation (and hostile to serious social resistance, whether by workers or oppressed groups) and which has always accepted the terms of bourgeois politics to a fault, as some kind of priority for dealing with Abbott. Surely you are looking in exactly the wrong place and instead should be dealing directly with the Left’s inability to develop some independent political positions of its own, positions that could actually point to a way out of the mess we are in?

    Maybe an ABC defence campaign will generate some activity and maybe it won’t. But what it will do, at least in the way you argue for it, is entrench the idea that the Left shouldn’t start by staking out some of its own independent lines on how to deal with Abbott … and deal with the ALP and the Greens. Rather, it needs to worry about the editorial independence of the state broadcaster in relation to, er, the state and its political class.

    Now, you may retort, as you have before, where is Tad’s grand formula for how to do this? Surely we need to respond to these actually-existing attacks right now? Well, actually, the Left is in no position to do so because we have no social base from which to do it and no agreed upon independent politics with which to win people. Worse, by constantly getting caught up in Abbott’s faux culture wars (something the ALP seems to have at least been smart enough to so far steer clear of) all we are doing is ensuring we will never have the time or energy to actually stand back and see what is happening in politics and work out our own positions. And then, whoops, suddenly we’ll be having to hold our noses and vote ALP and/or Greens as the best of all possible options, having resolved none of these problems.

    I wasn’t totally enamored of Guy’s recent piece, but he did get right that the reason we are seeing such a messy set of distractions from the Abbott camp is precisely the weakness of Abbott’s internal position, within the Right. The last thing the Left should be doing is taking its political lead from the internal wranglings of the Right. That’s called getting caught up in the crisis of the political establishment, something I argued that the Left did over the last 6 years — but at least then the Left got caught up in the crisis of the centre-Left parties, not the bloody Tories.

  2. Yep, that’s about as clear an expression of our disagreements as one might hope for.
    You call these faux culture wars. That’s fine for you, I guess, cos they don’t affect you — as you explained on FB once, you find them boring.
    Not surprisingly, for those of us who work in the cultural industries they’re not so faux and not so boring, which is why the interventions dismissing them are so grating, since they imply (hell, more or less say explicitly) that what happens to us shouldn’t bother anyone on the Left in the slightest.
    Let’s take an example closer to home. What, exactly, am I supposed to say to writers worried about how culture war attacks on funding bodies will affect their ability to publish? Who cares? It’s a distraction? Suck it up, whiners?
    You argue, well, we can’t really intervene in these debates because we have no social base and no independent politics. I could agree with that if it was some expression of humility, a reflection that what you or I (or most of the Left) say about anything generally makes little difference to the real world.
    But it’s not that at all, is it, since it’s coupled with an obsession with prioritisation appropriate for an organisation allocating resources but that makes no sense at all when you’re simply writing commentary with no ability whatsover to direct matters. You are not saying, well, I can’t do anything about that cos I don’t represent anything — you are saying that any journalist worried that they will be disciplined for doing their job is a fool and a dupe, cos this is a storm in a teacup, and that those outraged about by it would be better off adopting a tone of contemptuous indifference.
    Well, even if I wanted to, I can’t take that position because, whether or not I’m interested in culture war, culture war is interested in me. Yet all you and your cothinkers keep saying is, well, that doesn’t matter at all. You will appreciate that I don’t find such advice terribly useful.

    • I don’t get why you want to turn an attack on Overland funding into part of a “culture war”. Why not start a defence campaign on the basis that Overland funding is under threat? I’m ready to donate to that.

      Similarly, in the end the only thing that will reliably save ABC journos from fear of being disciplined for honest reporting is their ability to build strong and confident workplace organisation, not pulling the wider Left into the issue as a culture war with Abbott. Given how crap the media unions have been on that stuff (as we see in Sydney with the SMH’s further lurch rightward after the recent union defeats of the last couple of years) I don’t have much faith they can solve their problem via a broad cultural battle with a government desperate to prove to its wavering right-wing supporters that it is not tough enough with the Left.

      • Wait, what?
        I am not _turning_ the attack on OL into a culture war. What we have encountered over the past few weeks is about as classically a culture war as you will over see — an argument being pushed by all the usual suspects that taxpayer money is being wasted on the cultural preoccupations of the inner city elitist left, etc etc etc. It’s precisely the kind of thing you have been dismissing as ‘merely a cultural war’, ‘a distraction’, ‘boring’, etc. Funding cuts or restrictions would be an _outcome_ but they would be taking place in the context of — and as a reaction to — the fulminations of the usual culture war suspects about the usual culture war topics. Obviously, in that context, we would, as you suggest, start a defence campaign. But equally obviously that defence campaign would have to make arguments as to why OL deserves funding and why the attacks upon it are wrong. In other words, if we did as you suggest, we would have to engage in a culture war — we wouldn’t have any other choice. This is what I am arguing — that the assertion by you and others that these things have no effect and should be ignored; that, indeed, anyone who wants to engage with them is part of the risible ‘outraged Left’; is actually destructive, since it undermines people’s real struggles to defend themselves, struggles that are largely unavoidable.
        To reiterate, I am not saying — and I have never said — that we should fight culture war attacks purely on the terms set by the Right. On the contrary, I’ve argued repeatedly that such a response would involve falling into a trap, that we need to find ways to pivot so as to fight on terms more favourable to us.
        But to suggest these debates can simply be ignored is utopian and, to be honest, reactionary.
        Take the ABC. You say that the only way journalists will be able to defend their right to report honestly will be through workplace organisation. I agree (if you remember, I made a similar point in the discussion about high school curriculum). But think about what that actually means. If unionists are mobilising in support of a member disciplined for ‘partisan’ reporting, they will have to make arguments about objectivity and bias and the role of the press and all the rest of it. How could they not? How could they go on strike for honest reporting without articulating what honest reporting meant?
        That would mean, by definition, they would have to engage in the debates currently taking place about the ABC, both to mobilise their own members and to generate external support. In other words, again, they will have to engage with culture war themes.
        Now, you say they should avoid pulling ‘the wider Left into the issue as a culture war with Abbott’. But of course in the context of an industrial dispute about the right to report honestly they would require support from the wider Left — and, of course, that support would necessarily involve the Left taking up their arguments about journalism, bias, objectivity, etc. How could it not?
        So, in the context of that as an outcome that we both see as desirable, it’s destructive and demoralising if people on the Left dismiss the outrage about Abbott’s attempt to muzzle journalists as boring and irrelevant, given that, if the unions were to fight over honest reporting, they would, without question, be appealing to that sentiment, as they tried to build support outside their own ranks.

    • These are to become the reasons why the LNP and Abbott will break up the ABC and SBS ready for sale.
      They foreshadowed this through the IPA before the election.

  3. I’m not sure who Tad thinks his audience is here. The people who identify as left in this country are broadly in favour of an independent public broadcaster and in favour of independent journalism. They value the ABC precisely because it has seemed like the last bastion of independent journalism, in spite of its management, and rather than feeling as if it is a tool for the state, they feel ownership of it. Who are the people to help build a viable social base for a bigger left project if not those people? You can flap all you like about the ABC’s being “deeply hostile to projects for social emancipation… always accepted the terms of bourgeois politics to a fault” but it won’t make a whit of difference — not only is it a massive misreading of the sentiment behind the popular concern about it, but it will further alienate that portion of the left-leaning public who already feel they don’t have anything in common with “the Left” per se.

    As for the culture wars, as someone whose (many) jobs are directly affected by things like culture wars — materially affected, affected on terms that in other industries would be considered viable grounds for industrial action — I find it pretty rich that Tad thinks this is all a distraction.

    • There is nothing “independent” about the ABC. It is an arm of the state. It may be “independent” of individual media business interests, but it is not independent of capital accumulation, including the accumulation of media capital. It is certainly not and never has been independent

    • There is nothing “independent” about the ABC. It is an arm of the state. It may be “independent” of individual media business interests, but it is not independent of capital accumulation, including the accumulation of media capital.

      Can we at least agree on that before we engage in any more

    • There is nothing “independent” about the ABC. It is an arm of the state. It may be “independent” of individual media business interests, but it is not independent of capital accumulation, including the accumulation of media capital.

      Can we at least agree on that before we engage in any more of this discussion on incorrect grounds?

      • Yes, because the ABC is a propaganda arm of the Australian government! Surely you’re not arguing that the ABC needs to represent the far left – or even the left – in order to defend it?

        If we want progressive voices in these organisations reporting on actual things, we have to fight for them – and that starts with protecting existing conditions, and recognising these assaults for what they are. It may be all ideological censorship now, but wage cuts at the ABC are likely next (as Mark Scott’s recent appointee suggests).

        Culture wars have other consequences, too. They lead to a lack of representation across our media (e.g. how white and straight and conservative Australian television is), and a political-work environment that affects how we understand the world, such as the reporting on refugees – real lives that have become mere casualties of a disinformation war. Up until this week, this was something the ABC regularly reported on.

        As Jeff said above, cultural attacks on these institutions are nearly always followed by financial ones, which then shape wages and conditions in other industries. Why wouldn’t we fight that?

  4. I’m not talking about what the ABC *is*, I’m talking about why people want to defend it. They see ABC journalists as doing better than the other media in this country what journalists are supposed to do: report the facts. Are you suggesting the Left try to convince these people that they are defending something not worthy of defending? Because that is the way your arguments are read, and that is how the people who could potentially build this social base of alternative ideas are going to interpret them. So again, who is the audience here? And of what are you attempting to convince them when they’re presented with this issue?

    Furthermore, I really do want to know what kind of response you think should be made to the people in the culture industry who may/have/will suffer pay cuts, or get pushed off EBAs onto individual contracts, or lose their jobs due to privatisation or throttled funding or all the other very real repercussions of a culture war. Thus far I feel you’ve said precious little even addressing those issues, let alone providing a response. It’s not a fear without founding: you only have to talk to people who work in the sector to know things look more than ominous.

    • Of course I’m for defending jobs, pay, conditions, etc. But the constant desire to conflate a fight against such attacks with a culture war battle is, in my view, a simple way to divide workers in the culture industry on political lines, thus making those attacks much easier to push through.

      • Except that, in this thread I provided (as I have done repeatedly in previous threads, with similar results) a detailed and very concrete illustration of how journalists’ desire to perform what you call ‘proper reporting’ would give rise to a struggle for jobs and conditions inevitably entwined with arguments about what ‘proper reporting’ meant, a quintessential culture war theme. How could it not? How could reporters possibly defend ‘proper reporting’ without saying anything about what they meant by that?
        I gave a similar example from the literary industry as to how culture war attacks precede funding cuts so that those ‘defending jobs, pay, conditions, etc’ could not avoid culture war arguments, even if that was what they wanted.
        You engage with nothing of that but instead reassert, for the nth time, your preferred readymade formula, an abstraction that doesn’t resolve (or even relate to) any of the questions under discussion.
        For my part, I am happy to call this discussion closed, since it seems to be reaching the point of diminishing returns. There is enough here that readers can make up their own minds.

  5. is there any organisation following up one whether three people drowned or not? would this not constitute a crime?
    If police engage in a pursuit in which any person is injured they are held responsible because of a duty of care.
    has there been a breach of this duty of care? or an act of piracy?

    • When these people are on Australian ship Navy, Customs or the life rafts , they are on Australian Territory. The recent incursions were probably made by customs vessels and not the Navy. So the Navy and the LNP can deny the allegations of incursion.

      The present half truths, that no one has reached Australia for 54 days and the boats have therefore stopped are really lies. The Monsoon has not stopped the boats, so come the middle of March the monsoons will stop and then the Navy will begin again to obey unlawful commands from the ugliest Government we have seen in living memory.

  6. I’m afraid your comments on this sound like something from the Third Period to me, Tad. Simply because something is ‘part of the state’ does not say that much. There are actually different versions of the state: liberal democratic, fascist, and so on. Universities and high schools are technically also part of the state the way you’re defining it, aren’t they? I’m guessing it’s also wrong to defend the attacks on the ‘left wing’ high school curriculum too? Or perhaps Bolt’s attacks on the ‘chattering elite’ in universities? The right know what they’re doing when they make these attacks. They know that these attacks will mean it is even harder for the Left to get any purchase. That the corporate media will gain an even greater stronghold on public opinion. They even fewer sources of alternative ideas will be available. I mean, you might not even get your views published here. So the Left has a strategic responsibility to fight. Yes, we need to develop more than simply a defensive strategy, but it would be suicidal to not incorporate these defensive fights into exactly that broader strategy. They’re not counterposed.

    • Hang on, the claims here about the ABC that I have responded to are:

      (1) Jeff’s assertion that “The ABC is – or should be – different.”

      (2) Stephanie’s assertion that people “value the ABC precisely because it has seemed like the last bastion of independent journalism, in spite of its management, and rather than feeling as if it is a tool for the state, they feel ownership of it”.

      Both assertions are based on or reflect the belief that the ABC is or should be something it has never been, and see the basis for a response to the attacks as being based in going along with this wrong view. These are both thoroughly liberal positions. It appears at least Stephanie may not actually hold such a position herself, but she is happy to defer to it in the interests of getting activity happening.

      If people really want to engage in a defence of something good about the ABC (and I can think of plenty of good things), I would suggest that buying into the idea that there is a major Left-Right culture war being fought out over it, making Abbott look much stronger than he is, and then tailing small-l liberal positions in that conflict are not the nest ways to start.

      • Yeah, I just don’t buy it though. You say, “Both assertions are based on or reflect the belief that the ABC is or should be something it has never been, and see the basis for a response to the attacks as being based in going along with this wrong view. These are both thoroughly liberal positions. ” I’m not sure that’s true. Jeff’s argument – as I understand it – or mine at least, is based on the notion that these “culture wars” have real weight in society, that there’s a reason the right chooses to wage them. In the latest case to silence reporting about asylum seekers, but more broadly that’s part of a project to marginalise the left, silence left-wing ideas, and pursue their own hegemonic project. In this context to run a defence campaign – hopefully as something broader (one formulation might be Guy’s notion of ‘public good’) – means to defend ‘democratic’ liberties, which are not illusory, and are of real material consequence. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a critique of the ABC (or schools, universities, etc), but the solution isn’t to let the government make those things worse (more amenable to the governments program). If the government proposed the abolition of parliament, we wouldn’t be standing aside and saying “defending parliament is a liberal position” (which in the sense you use it, it is). While understanding its limitations – as part of the state – we also understand that its abolitions would be a disaster.

        • I quoted Jeff and Stephanie’s assertions before characterising them, but you simply state you think I’ve got that wrong followed by a separate argument, so I’m not sure how to respond to that.

          On the second part of your argument, that “these ‘culture wars’ have real weight in society”, well this is exactly what is at issue here. I actually think they have very little weight precisely because of the weakness and internal incoherence of Abbott’s project (it would be too kind to suggest it is “hegemonic”). But the Left can choose to treat them as weighty — when hardly anyone else does — and thereby help give Abbott’s authority a boost, at least among our side. I think that’s where your argument leads.

          I’ll try to explain my point about liberalism. It is very specific. Liberals think the ABC is or should be “different”. Liberals think that the ABC is a bastion of “independent journalism”. I am not for fighting attacks on editorial direction with liberal arguments because they weaken the real struggle, which is actually a struggle over who controls the ABC, which requires strong and confident media worker organisation in society.

          I would think that any Marxist defence of parliament would have to be on the same basis, not by us running around agreeing with liberals that parliament is a bastion of true democratic control of society.

          • On the second part of your argument, that “these ‘culture wars’ have real weight in society”, well this is exactly what is at issue here. I actually think they have very little weight precisely because of the weakness and internal incoherence of Abbott’s project (it would be too kind to suggest it is “hegemonic”)

            This is precisely the problem. You see culture wars as having no material effects on people, when actually, as we’ve tried to explain again and again, jobs, wages, funding, working conditions and – as we’re seeing – the ability of journalists to report with (even limited) integrity – are ALL affected by culture wars, which have knock-on effects in society more broadly. Furthermore, it’s next to impossible to fight attacks on these material conditions without by necessity engaging in an argument about why they matter on that ideological level. Including, but not limited to, what you have decided is the “liberal” argument about independent journalism (which has somehow moved from my observing that this is the perception of most people who could build a broader left to the presumption that a strategy for engaging them would be to simply “tail” liberal logic, as if a principle of independent journalism were not something we could – and do – have our own arguments for). This is not “very little weight”. And I do not see why we should see Abbott’s attempt at a culture war as doing anything other than following the model set by Howard et. al. Because Lord knows he has no ideas of his own.

  7. Look, perhaps i should clarify (and should have in the article) – that i didn’t mean, simply because the abbott govt was doing this badly, that it would have no effect. i did say that:

    “For people on the left to keep reacting to these scattered and fragmented moves would seem merely to give them a greater efficacy than they have.”

    But probably should have added a sentence or two to expand.

    I didn’t suggest that some form of collective resistance to this would be easy. That’s why i suggested a lo-fi ‘public good’ campaign – more a meme really – that people could add to their own campaigns.

    Since a certain amount of support for things like the abc comes from the liberal middle classes, in seats that can come back into marginality, quite rapidly, i think it would have some immediate effectiveness.

    The strategic ‘wager’ if you like, is that the ‘weakness’ argument, which tad and i and one or two others have made, would suggest that even a lo-fi pushback would yield good results. if it didn’t, well we would have tested it to a degree.

    And i don’t see any clear strategic suggestions from those critical of it. One or too exhortations to resist too many, which dont answer the fragmentation trap/opportunity

    The suggestion that i underestimate the difficulties of getting some unified, concerted response does seem to assume a type of organisation – pull groups together, common platform, meetings etc – that im not assuming.

    So im looking for ways it which a thematically unified positive push-back against these skirmishes can be started in such a way that acknowledges the absence – for now, or indefinitely – of a more unified response.

    I heart negative dialectics and all, but there does seem to be a lot of energy going into defining and analysing what’s not possible, rather than what is.

    The response to tad’s comment seems a little irascible and personalised jeff, to be very useful; on the other hand tad’s analysis of the abc seems a handy refutation of the base-superstructure model in one go…

    • Moi? Irascible? Surely there’s been some mistake?
      Your argument seems to be fundamentally different from Tad’s (as he says somewhere), though it uses a similar terminology, which is partly why these debates become so confused.
      See, I respond to your argument here much in the way you seem to be responding to mine — it seems to me that you are dismissing what’s actually happening now in favour of an alternative that’s pretty ill-defined.
      To put it another way, precisely cos Abbott is weak (and, yes, I agree with that — I was arguing it before the election), it seems to me that you could actually do some damage around some of the culture war stuff. Take Donnelly and education. What if, instead of responding so defensively on this (insisting that the curriculum does include plenty of material on the anzacs, for instance), we were able to go on the attack? Why not try to make Abbott wear Donnelly’s statements about how gays and lesbians shouldn’t be teaching? Donnelly’s politics are not a million miles from Abbott’s own, and Abbott were aggressively enough pursued on that stuff, either he would have to discipline his own team against his own inclinations (which would might blunt the curriculum stuff) or else double down on unpopular bigotry.
      OK, it wouldn’t be the storming of the Winter Palace but it might be a Thing.
      The problem is, as always, who is gonna do this? Which is where my suggestions and your suggestions both founder …

  8. Jeff, I was as outraged as you when I first read Paul Toohey’s report of 3 men dying crossing a river in the jungle after having been dumped on a beach in West Java on a pushed back lifeboat, courtesy of Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB).

    But now, five days after that report was published, I’ve reached the tentative conclusion, that the deaths most likely didn’t happen. My reasons are as follows –

    Michael Bachelard interviewed the asylum seekers from that lifeboat soon after they made it back through the jungle to their villas in Cisarua (check). He was not told anything about people dying. (see: http://m.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/asylum-seekers-say-they-were-tricked-by-navy-20140116-30xtz.html ) After Toohey’s story broke, he went back and checked and reported on Twitter: ‘My sources (one of whom was on the boat) deny the second-hand report here saying three people died after turn-back’.

    Yesterday, Al Jazeera reported on the story and included interviews with two men who had been on the lifeboat – neither of them mentioned deaths in the jungle.
    (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHG8DG8Cr9A&feature=youtube_gdata )

    George Roberts tweeted that he had been ‘trying to verify the reports of the deaths’. So its not as if other journalists have discounted the story. I believe the reason it hasn’t been followed up in the press is that no one has been able to find any evidence to support the story.

    The question is why did Paul Toohey include this information in his article? Why was it included as a virtual footnote – just one line in a very long article? What were his sources?

    And how does OSB continue to get away with its contempt for parliamentary democracy, accountability and transparency?

    • Well, that’s interesting. Mind you, it still underlines the desperate need for good journalism. I mean, surely we should know definitely one way or another by now.

  9. But I wasn’t suggesting going on the defensive. My suggestion was that a campaign should try and draw out the common themes – about widespread support for a public sector with a degree of independence – that underlie most of the things that are being attacked.
    I agree that one shouldn’t pass up a good get like Donnelly’s pernicious nuttiness, but my argument is that responding to each attack separately is a form of defensiveness, because it elevates tactics over strategy.
    There’s also a blowback there. attacking a particular nutter doesnt attack the central premise of a crudely politicised curriculum process.
    my suggestion is/was that a ‘public good’ campaign could be taken up by unions, greens, environment groups, etc, and connected to the charge that abbott committed to these programmes as the price of getting elected, and made a compact with the electorate.
    But it’s not the only way to approach it. Starting point for some strategic thinking, if nothing else.
    Part of that responds to yr final question i think. need a campaign which emphasises the whole, without asking fragmented groups and individuals to come together in some grand, not-gonna-survive-autodemoralising group.

    • Yes, the right recognises that issues like the culture wars are part of the ideological contest that is politics. “The culture of entitlement is over! Let the age of personal responsibility begin!” That sort of stuff. A key part of the right’s ideology is that the rich and powerful are rich and powerful because they are good, hardworking, moral etc; that they deserve their riches and power. So teaching, however obliquely, that western societies are rich and powerful because they were so good at stealing land and wealth and people is a direct challenge to their ideology.

      Unfortunately the Left doesn’t like ideology (although we are definitely ideological) and gets bogged down in irrelevant details.

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