Australian Notes

Australian Notes

10 November 2012

It’s an old story — the decline and fall of the press — but this year has been an annus horribilis for journalists, according to Mark Colvin of the ABC in his ‘apocalyptic’ Andrew Olle Media Lecture. The worst of it has been the large-scale sacking (‘redundancies’) of journalists, with more to come. The day of the labour-intensive newspapers is over. The future is digitised. If computer-generation of news takes on, we may have newspapers with no reporters at all. Colvin’s bleak views carry weight. (He has been with ABC since the ancient days of denim jackets, patched elbows and flared trousers.) His touch is less sure when he turns to the other media crises. Newspapers, he says, have lost credibility and authority. Sceptical readers, especially the web generation, now rely on bloggers and social media for facts and comment. The old consensus shared by journalists and their public is gone. Why? Colvin blames phone hackers. But the rot set in long before hacking, and in any case this has not been a problem in Australia. He also blames radio shock jocks, although they too have been around for decades and, like press muckrakers, are an established tradition. Significantly Colvin has nothing to say about the social and political bias, often unconscious, of journalists. When told that someone is a journalist, readers believe they know his opinion on anything from global warming or same-sex marriage to republicanism, Mitt Romney or God. No wonder they resort to the bloggers for relief. Colvin still believes that, unlike digitisation, the media’s loss of credibility and authority may be reversible. He does not say how, beyond quixotically calling for a return to journalistic rigour. A little more self-criticism would help. (At one point, not satisfied with Finkelstein or Leveson, Colvin foreshadows a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to clean out the media stables in Britain. It might do some good in the ABC.) Last year, after Laurie Oakes gave the Olle Lecture, I suggested Mark (‘diddly squat’) Latham as a lecturer. The idea did not find favour. So for next year how about Andrew (section 18C) Bolt?

Many of us welcomed the news that the Australian producer Antony Ginnane was making a film in Melbourne about Islamist terrorism that would not be just another adventure story but would try to say something important about jihadism, Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. The Last Dance has now been released. Some critics find it inspiring. One said she felt as if ‘a knife had been twisted in my heart’. Another went back a second time for more. Others found it preachy and unconvincing. (David Stratton: ‘I didn’t believe a word of it.’) The plot is about a Palestinian terrorist on the run from the bombing of a Melbourne synagogue. He kidnaps an old Jewish woman, a Holocaust survivor, and forces her to give him refuge in her flat. He collapses from his shrapnel wound. She nurses him. He reminds her of her son killed by the Palestinians. She reminds him of his mother killed by Israelis. There is the promise of understanding and respect (until the trigger-happy Victoria Police kill him). It is a thriller, tautly directed by David Pulbrook and well acted by Julia Blake and Firass Dirani. There are indeed implausible moments. But the audience will take them in its stride. The film is a moral tale. It tells us that love conquers all and, if given a chance, will solve the problems of the world, even in the Middle East. I for one am not persuaded. The appeal to love and understanding is sometimes an excuse for evading truth. It is moral blindness to equate the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories with the Nazi persecution of Jews and the Holocaust. The Last Dance takes up a big theme but in trying so hard not to take sides it avoids the truth of the matter.

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When the philosopher Jack Smart died in Melbourne early in October, aged 92, the news was quickly and sadly noted around the world — and not only the English-speaking world. He had been a major, some say a great figure in Australian philosophy since 1950 when, at the age of 29, he arrived from Britain to assume the chair of philosophy in Adelaide (drawn there, he liked to say, by the beauty of Adelaide Oval). Last week old colleagues, friends and family gathered at Monash University’s Centre of Religion to honour him and his work. David Armstrong, who ought to know, spoke of Smart’s ‘huge contribution’ to the body of doctrine which gave Australian philosophy ‘a certain style and flavour’ in the world. A sort of materialism usually called physicalism, the doctrine was dubbed ‘the Australian heresy’ or even ‘the Australian fallacy’. It rejects the traditional mind-body dualism in favour of the identity of mental and bodily processes. It is now a philosophic orthodoxy. Some three years ago Smart fell and injured himself while walking home in the dark. As he waited hours for rescue, he passed the time gazing at the heavens and thinking about the universe. He had apparently lost his former Christian faith but his funeral notice, which said ‘no flowers by request’, asked instead that donations be made to the Brotherhood of St Laurence. Always a passionate cricketer, he noticed that he had come round to hoping Australia would beat England in the Tests. He drew the conclusion that he had become an Australian.

Talking of philosophy, an American poll of 1,800 philosophers found that 65 per cent supported Barack Obama and seven per cent Mitt Romney. What does that tell us about philosophy?

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