A week ago, John McLaren, former editor of Overland and Australian Book Review, literary and cultural critic, a man of great intellect and heart and concern for the welfare of others, died.
My last conversation with him had been about a fortnight before, when he rang the Overland office seeking computer advice.
‘I thought that was a good issue, the recent one,’ he said. ‘I quite enjoyed it.’
‘Thanks John,’ I replied, ‘that’s nice to hear.’ Which it was: John McLaren was an intimidating intellect.
‘I didn’t agree with everything in it,’ he added.
‘Neither did I,’ I assured him.
‘But that’s the point of a magazine, isn’t it? To make you think.’
That’s certainly the point of a left-wing magazine: to raise questions, to shift perspectives, to show that the world is vast and people’s experiences of it vary dramatically.
Frequently, in the Overland office, there are pieces or pitches that come in that my deputy editor and I debate, or a piece that one or both of us disagrees with. The same thing happened when I was deputy editor. But the publication isn’t a mouthpiece for our positions. Sure, we sometimes seek out interventions we think are important, but most of the time we just try to create a space for the broad left to debate issues and tactics. Sometimes, if a piece just makes you consider something new (such as the Neko Atsume piece earlier in the week – I mean, why do we so enjoy surveilling cats?), then that is sufficient.
Left-wing media, particularly a gutsy publication such as New Matilda, have natural enemies: Bolt, the Australian, the IPA, politicians, mainstream media, those hostile to Black Australia.
Left-wing publications often punch above their weight. They publish on big topics – corruption and hypocrisy, war and oppression – and often have even greater agendas; at the very least, they want people to be less comfortable with the status quo. Because of their democratic desires, they’re often a space where many different writers – people who are publishing their first piece or don’t consider themselves writers at all – can write and be heard.
Left-wingers also irk: they’re self-righteous and they hate politicians, and they’re always telling people how they’re wrong, or what they should be doing differently, or trying to make people care about some new cause.
People expect a lot of left-wing publications – they’re held to a higher standard, and it’s only natural, really, because they hold their readers and writers to a higher standard, too. Other journalists and other writers are seen as apolitical, and therefore not wrong in the same way – not ideologically wrong; they’re wrong because they lied or misrepresented someone or didn’t fact check. When left-wing publications are wrong, people tend to feel betrayed.
But if there was a formula for left-wing politics – a calculation for getting the argument or action right every day in every way – we’d already be living in a better world.
The truth is, of course, that editors fuck up. I have many times and will again in future. Because of the internet, our mistakes are far more noticeable now than they were ten years ago. But editors fuck up because they’re only human: they misjudge a debate, or the temperature of an issue. Some days they don’t know the right argument or intervention to make, or they publish a piece that’s undercooked. Sometimes they misunderstand a piece, or the way it will be read. Some days, they are simply bound by their publishing schedules. Other days they make a callous, reckless remark in a Facebook thread (after all these years, we are still surprised when such comments resurface elsewhere).
Perhaps what people don’t understand about small publications, however, is how understaffed they actually are, and how much this can impact editorial decision-making. Overland, for instance, has two editorial staff (one four days a week, one two days a week), to produce a quarterly magazine and a daily online magazine, plus the many other practical, intellectual and administrative tasks we perform in those roles. It is part of our founding principle to publish new and marginalised writers and perspectives – those voices often excluded from more traditional publications – but we can only devote so much time to polishing arguments and pieces. Or, as Chris Graham, editor and owner of New Matilda, explained earlier in the week, he’s the only editor on the NM deck at present – and he’s working full-time in other jobs to keep the publication afloat and to pay his writers, and yet still managing to publish multiple times a day.
Some of the conversations I’ve seen recently seem to think Graham is looking to profit from his media venture. Certainly, there are pressures for a small left-wing publication to be involved in debate – and there are so many debates and global events that it can be hard to know what to cover; moreover, online magazines are all competing for audiences in an oversaturated market, which is pushing publications into more commercial models, whether we like it or not. But we all want readers because we want these debates and ideas to be disseminated as widely as possible.
None of this is to argue Graham’s position for him, but at Overland, our impression has always been that rather than being a profit-seeking media venture built on clickbait, Graham believes in something bigger than himself or one unfortunate mansplaining article: he believes in New Matilda and the writers he’s banded together – Amy McQuire, Max Chalmers, Ben Eltham, Wendy Bacon, Michael Brull, Chris himself – and their capacity to make a difference to the Australian political landscape. And they do so on a daily basis, running articles and investigations other publications wouldn’t dare touch. If not for them, we wouldn’t know about the Whitehouse scandal or Barry Spurr or much of the work of Amy McQuire. A quick look at NM’s featured categories shows what that team thinks important in Australia in 2015: Aboriginal Affairs, the Environment, Workers’ Rights.
In the wake of her Kitchen Cabinet article, Amy McQuire spoke about the need of journalists to hold those in political power to account: to be a muckraker for the people, particularly Indigenous Australians. I mean ‘muckraking’ in the sense it was used historically: the journalistic ambition to expose gross wrongdoings or ameliorate the lives of overlooked communities, while emphasising the larger social issues. As McQuire’s brother, Jacob, who New Matilda is trying to secure a paid cadetship for, writes:
‘I want to go into journalism because I want to do something important and what’s more important than the truth? Truth is a hard thing to come by especially in politics, because the political sphere is governed by those with big money and those who can easily seduce the masses. We need more truth.’
Long live left-wing muckrakers: publications that think the world can be a better place, even though they sometimes fuck up.