In the republic of panic
HEN an outsider fluked Walkley Award a few years back, a colleague was heard to soothe his incredulity with the response: ‘‘ Well, we can’t go giving them all to David Marr.’’ Such is the Sydney journalist’s reputation for quality work — yet Marr’s speeches on awards night are almost drowned out by the slushing of so many rolling eyeballs.
Marr is a long-time sovietnik for the ABCSydney Morning Herald confederacy, as famous for his campaigns against champions of the Right (John Howard, Alan Jones, Janet Albrechtsen) as he is for his excellent Patrick White: A Life, which set a new benchmark for Australian biography in 1991.
Panic is a collection Marr’s work since 1997, reworked and updated to appear as ‘‘ dispatches from the republic of panic, stories of fear and fear-mongering under three prime ministers’’. The book is the product of Marr’s recent realisation ‘‘ that I’ve been writing about panics all my career’’, that ‘‘ big political careers have been built in this country on little more than a talent for whipping up fear’’. He has come to believe, he writes, that ‘‘ the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between Right and Left as Panic and Calm’’.
The Right will naturally challenge this notion: What is a ‘‘ bleeding heart’’ Leftie if not an anxious wringer of hands, forever spooked by Big Brother government, the evils of capitalism, the spectre of global warming and the poverty of the arts? But the post-9/11 world has become a Conservative paradise, our fear of ‘‘ undesirables’’ putting good people in prison, bigots at the microphones and sniffer dogs in the pub. Life’s good for those who prefer ‘‘ old-fashioned values’’ to social change, and Marr’s point is that the best way to preserve such a status quo is to ‘‘ maintain a perpetual state of false alarm’’. This sort of panic is rarely real, and its chief architects are almost always selfserving frauds.
The best example of this in
is the chapter that deals with Bill Henson’s now notorious exhibition of 2008, which featured photographs of naked 12- and 13-year-old girls. Marr clinically tracks the brewing firestorm from the newsroom at the SMH, where published commentary was reasonably concerned, to the attentions of 2GB shock jock Chris Smith, a man whose ‘‘ particular line in moral indignation earned him a huge audience’’. Unable to find any relevant authorities who gave a toss, Smith turned to his listeners, encouraging them to descend upon the gallery in question, which they did, and the subsequent closure of the exhibition was seen as a victory for decency against pornographic ‘‘ art wankers’’.
What one personally thinks of Henson’s photographs is not important to Marr’s story, the author cautiously reserving judgment in favour of the facts, official statements and reactions of the belligerents. What is important to Marr is who, exactly, was whipping up the panic, and on that score he was more successful than Smith in finding official mentions on his subject, concluding with a knockout that Smith, self-appointed guardian of our children, was given a suspended sentence in the 90s for ‘‘ forging a signature in order to spring a prisoner he wanted to interview for Channel Nine’s A Current Affair’’, sacked again by Nine in 1998 for drunkenly broadcasting his penis to two women in the station boardroom, and suspended by 2GB for groping four other women at the station’s Christmas party in 2009. Marr deftly gives us something to panic about, but it’s not to be found in anything so benign as a photograph.
Though never short on opinion (he does not like Howard or Jones, digs drugs and thinks Pauline Hanson is sexy) Marr is at his best when he plays the game straight. He was present at Sydney City Recital Hall when the John Howard launched his post-tampa election campaign in October 2001, and, to those unfamiliar with his views, Marr’s report on a scene that ‘‘ rang with a sound like victory’’ might seem a fairly objective affair — enthusiastic, even, of the man he calls ‘‘ a genius of sorts’’ who ‘‘ looks this country in the eye and sees us not as we wish we were, not as one day we might be, but exactly as we are’’. To others, Marr’s depiction of the ‘‘ tumult of whistling, stamping and clapping’’ as Howard grips the lectern, ‘‘ straining upwards a little as if trying to catch the light’’, is haunted with menace. Marr’s skills are such he can write for his audience in plain sight, but in private.
The are several chapters that deal with immigration, a couple that will please drug libertarians (‘‘No sniffer dogs came through the premier Bob Carr’s Christmas drinks on Tuesday’’), and a powerful piece on Jones’s role as puppet master of the Cronulla riots of 2005. But most interesting is a chapter that begins with an interview with Brian Harradine in 1997, during which the Right-wing Tasmanian senator argued a ruling elite is preferable in any democracy where the voting public prefers such things as the death penalty (which we did at the time).
Like all honest Lefties, Marr is willing to doubt the realistic value of his position, something those who believe in ‘‘ my country right or wrong’’ never have to do. Always the losing team in a capitalist game, the Left has to work harder, think harder, dig deeper for facts, and present them more eloquently. Marr is one of the best they have. Jack Marx is a journalist and author. He won a Walkley Award a few years back.
John Howard took a strong stance against boatpeople arriving on our shores