July 08, 2008 | Graham

In Defence of Online Opinion

Clive Hamilton and I had a vigorous exchange of views in On Line Opinion. We’re drawing the line on OLO at that. But we have been receiving some pieces that deserve consideration. This piece by Marko Beljac is worth publishing, and we’re giving it air here. There may be others, from all points of view. Marko’s most recent OLO piece (which I personally commissioned) is here.

As someone who characterises himself as being just about as Left as they come, and despite that someone who actually gets published here, it was only all too natural that my interest should have been piqued by Clive Hamilton’s strong critique of Online Opinion. Hamilton upbraids Online Opinion for increasingly airing the viewpoint of climate change sceptics.
Hamilton’s main charge is that Online Opinion has been captured by climate change denialists and that, in fact, it is actively promoting a denialist agenda. He points to the disproportionate number of denialist articles published in recent times and a possible connection between the Australian Environment Foundation, which he states was set up to disseminate dis-information on global warming. The implicit assumption is that a relationship, perhaps of a financial or personal nature, has developed between the two entities which accounts for the rise of denialist articles.
I believe that the conclusions Hamilton reaches are unwarranted, based on the evidence that is before us. To establish a case for bias Hamilton would need to establish that the discrepancy exists, if it indeed does exist, because denialist articles are published and climate change articles are thrown into the rubbish bin, but Hamilton does not provide any such evidence.
Based on the available evidence it would be possible to infer that denialist articles are published because denialists continually submit them. Hamilton strongly suggests that they are an organised movement. Continually submitting articles for publication is what such movements do. Many Green groups, in my view correctly, no longer engage in this debate moving on to the more important issue of solutions. However, there is a much bigger issue here and it is worth putting all this within a broader framework that goes to the very nature of the Australian media.
He states that Online Opinion does not meet the standards that one expects of a newspaper op-ed article. That is indeed the case.
Rare it is that Online Opinion would provide space for such frivolous garbage as “Sheila’s with wobbly bits”(,http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/05/17/1210765255167.html) a pathetic disquisition on the term “cunt” ( http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/02/18/1203190737637.html?page=fullpage)or pop- psychoanalysis on “rites of passage” and Brazilian bikini waxing (http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/01/07/1199554567704.html?page=fullpage). This type of hairhead nonsense is regular fare on the Op-Ed pages at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Pathetic pop-cultural analysis of this nature is designed to generate hits so Fairfax can sell advertising space on its websites. They are invariably written by staff reporters, which lowers labour costs. These articles also provide a more pernicious purpose, which is to divert people from the issues and have us all concentrate on matters of no great moment.
The opinion articles published in Australia’s “quality newspapers”, if they do find space on their august opinion pages for topics of a serious nature, usually fit within a very narrow spectrum of opinion. You will have to try very hard to find an article that questions the corporate domination of Australian politics (save for Mark Latham’s pieces in the Australian Financial Review that dare use the term “socialism.”); that points out that business has a privileged role in policy planning; that politics is the shadow cast by big business over society; that the ALP and the Liberal Party are increasingly two factions of the same pro-business party; that the “free-market” is for the poor and powerless not the rich and privileged.
You won’t see that because, far from being neutral, Australia’s major media outlets are corporations and it would be difficult to imagine that Australia’s “quality media” should question the corporate domination of Australian politics, economics and society. We also need to consider that they generate a profit by selling audiences to other corporations and it is simply inconceivable that media outlets so financed would question the corporation’s privileged position in society on pretty much the same grounds that the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did not question the leading role of the Party in Soviet society. This is of no small moment given the corporation’s evolution from an institution chartered by the public sector for moral ends into a top-down tyranny dominated by the profit motive.
Hamilton points out that the institutional affiliation of authors, in contrast to the mainstream press, is not given at Online Opinion which has the affect of masking bias. This is, at best, a minor issue. One can expect every week multiple articles from John Roskam, from the slavishly pro-corporate Institute of Public Affairs agitprop unit, on Australia’s newspaper opinion pages, but you will struggle to find its Left equivalents. In other words, the affiliations are listed but the favourable bias toward minor servants of the rich and privileged obtains all the same.
Moreover, let us consider an article published by The Age in recent times by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans on the need to implement the “doctrine” of “humanitarian intervention” in international relations(http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/time-for-an-aid-invasion/2008/05/18/1211049061508.html). This would have been considered an article of great gravitas but the appropriate response would be to crack up in ridicule at another example of the contrast between the much vaunted Evans intellect and reality. It would not have been of surprise to see Australia’s culturally connected intellectual classes node sagely at the power of the Evan’s thesis.
Nowhere would it have been explained, however, that Evans was one of the most important supporters of the “Jakarta Lobby” during Suharto’s reign, when the Indonesian Army was rampaging its way through East Timor. Nor would it have been pointed out by the editors that the Government in which Evans served provided De Jure recognition for Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. It would have been inconceivable for the pompous intellect to cite Iraq as a case example of a humanitarian crisis requiring a “duty to protect;” protection from us that is.
This is not a mere academic point for it demonstrates the critical support provided by a biased media for imperial ventures. Let us consider Afghanistan. Rarely is the war in Afghanistan questioned on moral grounds in the Australian press. To the contrary, the war in Afghanistan is taken as a paradigm example of a just war. However, Afghan society is being systematically destroyed as a result of the conflict and the fact that no opinion to the contrary is allowed to appear in the mainstream media provides an important structural role in sustaining a conflict being waged by liberal democracies, such as Australia.
The point that Hamilton implies, that the mainstream media is objective (hence the statement on affiliation and bias in his article) whereas Online Opinion is not is fallacious. In fact, the systematic bias shown by the mainstream press provides the critical support needed by imperial power in places such as Afghanistan, where people are dying and living in misery because of the depredations unleashed by military power with the critical support provided by a biased media and an obedient intellectual class.
So, we wait with baited breath for Hamilton to cease reading The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. However, I predict it won’t be long before Hamilton submits an opinion piece for both publications despite their systematic bias in favour of power and privilege.
If consistent, we expect Hamilton to write an op-ed piece in these publications upbraiding them for their bias and announcing his desire to have nothing to do with them. I submit that such consistency is highly unlikely.
For the record, let me begin where I began. As I noted I consider myself to be as Left as they come. Yet, I have never encountered publication problems at Online Opinion on grounds of content. I have had articles that question US policy in Iran; that provide a moral critique, rather than a pragmatic one, of the Iraq War and yes I have even had one published on climate change emphasizing the link between climate change and human survival.
I believe that there is a good reason for this. It is quite evident, to me at least, that at Online Opinion one can read articles that are “outside the box” and which question received wisdom, including on climate change. I, for one, celebrate its diverse opinion and commitment to free thought, which means supporting the airing of views that one despises and that precisely appear “loopy”.Of all the people in the media that I have dealt with I have found the editor, Susan Prior, to be the most courteous and helpful.
We know that progress in the sciences occurs on the basis of the continual questioning of received wisdom even if that questioning appears loopy. The noted physicist C.P. Snow long ago observed that there are “two cultures” with the sciences on one side and the humanities on the other. In the humanities what matters is who you know rather than what you know, and how many people know you given the emphasis on academic celebrity (the reason why the Monash University School of Political and Social Inquiry provides a daily list of media commentary by staff members no matter how trivial). The most important quality that one can posses is “collegiality”. Yet, generally speaking, the “loopy” questioning of dominant “modes of discourse” by the cantankerous in the sciences is actively encouraged, as it should in any domain characterised by rich intellectual content.
In short, the systematic bias of the mainstream media is of greater human consequence than any alleged bias here. Hamilton would do well to ponder the human consequences of the mainstream media’s bias toward big business and imperial violence and his choice to continue supporting the corporate media at the expense of a smaller media outlet, albeit not perfect and not without flaws, that does show a greater propensity to air viewpoints outside of the spectrum of respectable opinion than generally appears elsewhere, certainly a greater propensity than appears in the corporate media.

Posted by Graham at 7:03 am | Comments (13) |
Filed under: Media


  1. How can you accuse John Quiggen of “brownshirt tactics” for a single sentence in his blog directly regarding OLO and this issue, while you publish entire articles backing up your views?

    Comment by Raest — July 9, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

  2. I think you’re commenting on the wrong piece. There’s nothing here about “brown shirt”, and if you look at my comments about Quiggin in context you’ll be able to see why I say that.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 10, 2008 @ 4:52 am

  3. What, that it’s completely over the top, and randomly pulled out whenever you want to make it seem like you’re the victim?

    Comment by Raest — July 10, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

  4. I think you’ve got the wrong person. I’m not a victim. And yes, his behaviour is completely over the top and discreditable.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 10, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

  5. Graham’don’t get too stressed about it.Your site eminates from a left wing world,of people who have gone from the protected environs of home,school,uni and then a Govt job.They are totally institutionalised.Their survival instincts have not even been aroused,let alone tested.
    You have dared to take them out of their comfort zones and broken from tribal rituals that believe in a world that is often divorced from reality.
    Unless academics interact with the real world of ordinary folk,they are destined to suffer the ridicule and indifference of us ordinary folk,who actually provide real goods and services.

    Comment by Arjay — July 10, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

  6. totally agree with Marko’s analysis. In the US, a group called FAIR, fairness and accuracy in the media, (fair.org)catalogues and encourages correction on endless examples of bias, even in the ‘public’ broadcaster. We aren’t far behind, and the ABC is often knobbled. ONO is a ray of hope.

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