Catholic conspiracies and ‘intellectual poverty’

The blog and its PR company enjoyed some campaign successes over the years for governments, companies and organisations. But it must admit that the success of the Louise Adler media campaign in The Age, and the word of mouth Catholic conspiracy version of the controversy, is up with some of the most effective communication campaigns it has known – albeit with lots of help from the newspaper itself.

Except for the odd letter The Age has managed to find a pro-Adler story or op-ed almost every second day. However, it is probably editorial incompetence rather than malevolence that on the same day The Age carried an op ed from former MUP Board Chair, Laurie Muller, in the print edition it buried an op ed by a UoM academic (see later) putting a contrary view in the entertainment section of the website. It is sort of like Fox News’ concept of fair and balanced. Nevertheless, the online op ed finally ended up in print a few days later after what justifiable pressure the blog can’t imagine. Once The Age would have had subs and editors who would have realised both op eds would be most newsworthy on the same day and the same page. But now one of the founders’ descendants, John B. Fairfax (along with Cameron O’Reilly), is setting up a journalistic investigative online site with crikey. Perhaps they will employ a few of the people Greg Hywood, who the blog remembers when Greg was a cadet, fired.

Meanwhile the ongoing Age PR campaign for Ms Adler even went to the extent of embracing the former Australian Border Force chief, Roman Quadleveig, using him to support the former MUP management. He demonstrated it with anguished concern that he had to withdraw from MUP because no other publisher would understand the complicated issues and nature involved in his tome. One has to wonder about the definition of complicated from anyone once working with Peter Dutton and whether he is returning any advance he received. The Age even forgot to mention in its report its outrage when the ABF staff announced, under Quadleveig’s leadership, that they were planning to stop people in Melbourne streets and ask for their papers. The peremptory ‘papers’ episode would hopefully have received more attention in the book than it did in The Age news story.

But Mr Qadleveig has been blessed by Ms Adler and is now a representative of important public policy contributions being denied a voice by the totalitarians running the University of Melbourne – a situation finally being remedied by what Jeff Kennett used to call the Spencer Street Soviet but now perhaps could be called the Ms Adler newsletter.

However, if Mr Quadleveig’s book appears somewhere else we may find that it contains a mea culpa which washes away his sins, although last time these public sins were in the news it was the fault of some poor PR person and not the ABF chief – shades of Senator Michaela Cash.

And speaking of mea culpas brings us to Catholic conspiracies. Now the Catholic Church has been pretty good at conspiracies from almost two millennia of keeping people in ignorance; to claiming Papal infallibility was an eternal verity rather than an invention of an odious 19th century Pope; Guy Fawkes and the plan to blow up Parliament; justifying burnings and torture of those who were intelligent and brave enough to stand up to its teachings and authority; systematic anti-Semitism; and, of course, covering up priestly child sexual abuse and the enslavement and exploitation of unmarried mothers by orders of nuns.

The blog won’t detail the versions of Catholic conspiracies regarding MUP that it has heard from otherwise intelligent and rational people other than to say the UoM one is apparently of the order of some of the above even if the rhetoric describing them is a bit less vehement than suggesting that Ms Adler and the MUP board’s fate is comparable to that of the Cathars.

However, like many of the contributions to the controversy it rests on some pretty dubious grounds. The most popular version of the conspiracy theory would, if the allegations it involves were introduced into public policy practice, effectively preclude any barrister working in a cab for hire jurisdiction from taking public roles.

Meanwhile, outside The Age there have been some different takes on the situation. First was information about the new VC, Duncan Maskell. ‘Why bring someone from Cambridge was the cry?’ although the man is an Australian and having a VC with a science background is a very good thing. But from a publishing point of view his experience at Cambridge is illuminating. UK sources say that among other things he was part of the decision to set up a cooperative distribution system with Oxford, Harvard and others as well as a sophisticated IP rights system. It seems he may want to try to set up something similar with other universities in Australia along the lines of the system UNSW Press (of more later) participates in. It may not bring in the vast sums the Cambridge agreement did but would be hugely beneficial to MUP’s finances and Australian publishing. Whether the MUP Board and/or Ms Adler were aware of any such plan, approved of it or opposed it has not been discussed by The Age and is unknown to the blog.

But for people who read more than The Age there are a variety of differing views being discussed including some AFR coverage of the MUP finances. But two pieces struck the blog in particular – one from a publisher who knocked back two of the blog’s books (so the blog has no conflict of interest unlike many of Ms Adler’s defenders) before they were published elsewhere – and one from an academic and author.

The latter, by Frank Bongiorno, an ANU Professor, pointed out in The Monthly that: “The debate about MUP’s decision to shift its focus towards scholarly publishing has been remarkable for its intellectual poverty. Any unsuspecting soul who entered the Twittersphere and observed the journalists and politicians falling over one another to lament MUP’s change of direction might imagine that under its long-standing director, Louise Adler, MUP had been the one bright beacon of intelligent debate in Australia’s cultural Badlands.”

“Sales and profit figures have been thrown around on each side of the debate, as convincingly as a Soviet commissar reporting last year’s steel output. MUP, it is said by its defenders, has been making a profit. But it also runs on a large subsidy from the university, $1.25 million a year (and $26 million over the past 15 years)”, he said.

“No one among the barrackers has explained what a university would be getting in return for supporting the publication of the insubstantial memoirs of a thirty-something Labor senator fallen on hard times, or a cookbook by the wife of the leader of the federal Labor Party”.

The publisher who knocked back the blog’s books, Phillipa McGuinness, has a considered and enlightening piece on university publishing in Inside Story. Phillipa is New South/UNSW Press Publisher. Inside Story is supported by Swinburne and Uni SA universities and carries some of Australia’s best journalism including occasional pieces by Tim Colebatch – perhaps the most outstanding economics and electoral data analytical journalist of the past 40 years – and the wonderful Rod Tiffen. It is an indication of what universities can contribute to public debate with limited resources and without resort to celebrity cookbooks.

Phillipa’s piece is balanced and objective, although some academic interested in literary text analysis might run across the odd stiletto hidden in some of the sub-text. She writes: “We publishers — particularly those of us who publish nonfiction — tend to be anonymous, except when thanked in a book’s acknowledgements, which I imagine only other publishers read, or when mentioned by an author at a book launch. Few publishers have become public figures like Louise Adler has, largely thanks to her appearances on Q&A……..Collegial but also competitive, university press publishing in Australia is more energetic and diverse than the media coverage of MUP this week would suggest. (In fact, I would suggest that the publishing landscape in general — including serious, provocative books across a range of subjects, as well as collaborative highly illustrated books published with museums and galleries — is bigger and livelier than this week’s discussion implies.)”

She also draws attention to another MUP subsidy that the blog had forgotten – the existence of the Miegunyah bequest which also helps fund MUP books – and mentions that she was often outbid by Ms Adler on books she would have liked to publish.

Phillipa was also enlightening in a Radio National interview which was another balanced view – plus some semiotic scalpels.

Ronan McDonald, who took up the Gerry Higgins chair of Irish studies at the University of Melbourne in February 2018, is a Cambridge University Press author.

In The SMH entertainment online section (later published in print in The Age) he wrote: “Nothing brings Australians together more than the whiff of elitism or intellectual snobbery. No other country is more horrified by the threat of ‘dumbing up’. Academic eggheads taking over a university press which has been the cosy coterie of political memoirists, journalists and their friends is, allegedly, a terrible blow to Australian cultural life.”

“Overseas, Tony Blair went to Random House, Bill Clinton to Vintage. I doubt if David Cameron, currently in his famous garden shed chewing a self-exculpatory pen, will be approaching Cambridge University Press. But in Australia, politicians who have spent decades bloviating on Q&A think that Australian culture will wither unless their memoirs come out with a prestige university press. It is not snobbish to say that not every book, even a great book, is right for a university press, especially one in receipt of a university subsidy.

“No British university press that I know of would publish a cook book by Mrs Jeremy Corbyn (Chloe Shorten is on MUP’s list) or populate its list with memoirs by gangsters and celebrities.

“There is little evidence from the MUP list that the press is committed to the values and mission of a university: scholarship, teaching, academic excellence. The decision by Melbourne University to reconnect Melbourne University Publishing to its academic mission is overdue.”

The blog, in defence of Comrade Corbyn, has to say that a cook book produced by his ex-wives and lovers would possibly be more internationally oriented than Ms Shorten’s, and thus have some sociological interest if nothing else.

But, whatever, as the blog’s children used to say: the point that university presses and Australian publishing are bigger than Ms Adler seems to have been lost on The Age and others. So it is refreshing to see some other views.

And, consistent with that Oscar Wilde aphorism about being talked about or not, and its relevance to some of the participants in this controversy, this is the blog’s last contribution to the MUP controversy. It does though look forward to reading the sort of books Ronan McDonald believes will be published by MUP in the future.