In the repub­lic of panic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jack Marx

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

Panic

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.