Once seen as a journal of intellectual weight, today’s Quadrant has gone off-leash to become a ranting voice of the reactionary right. By Mike Seccombe.

Quadrant and its slide into deluded extremism

Let us imagine for a moment that someone other than a member of the reactionary right had, on the official site of the media organisation for which they worked, publicly wished violent death on their ideological opponents.

Imagine if, immediately following the Manchester terrorist attack, that person had written this:

“Had there been a shred of justice, that blast would have detonated in the headquarters of News Corp. Unlike those young girls in Manchester, their lives snuffed out before they could begin, none of the likely casualties would have represented the slightest reduction in humanity’s intelligence, decency, empathy or honesty.”

Imagine if the author had gone on to single out one target in particular, a “tireless self-promoter”, “loathsome creature” and “filthy liar” and written:

“Mind you, as Andrew Bolt felt his body being penetrated by the Prophet’s shrapnel, bolts and nails, those goitered eyes might in their last glimmering have caught a glimpse of vindication.”

Suppose also the organisation that employed this writer was a venerable one of more than 60 years’ standing, with pretensions to intellectualism and a self-claimed insistence on “civil discourse”.

You might reasonably expect that author would be shown the door, immediately and justifiably. You might also expect the Murdoch media and the broader right in politics would be remorseless in their hounding of that person.

Now, let’s stop imagining and supposing.

The reality is that the words quoted above have been slightly altered. It was not News Corp the writer suggested should have been bombed, but the Ultimo studios of the ABC. And the specifically mentioned target was not Andrew Bolt, but a guest on the Q&A program, physicist Lawrence Krauss.

The journal on whose website the outrage ran is Quadrant, which calls itself “Australia’s leading journal of ideas, essays, literature, poetry, and historical and political debate”. The author was Quadrant’s online editor, Roger Franklin.

And Franklin still has his job. 

He has been “counselled”, according to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Keith Windschuttle. One might well wonder about the terms of that counselling, given Franklin’s long, previously unrebuked history of offensive commentary – to which we will return – and Windschuttle’s original response when contacted about his employee’s piece.

“You’re talking bullshit,” he told the Fairfax reporter who rang him. “Don’t call back.”

As to why we substituted the Murdoch media and Andrew Bolt for Franklin’s original targets? To underline a point about selective outrage. After a Muslim woman, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, on her private Facebook page posted “Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)”, the Murdoch media hounded her for weeks. Likewise, many members of the government, most notably Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the most senior member of the hard-right faction in the government, celebrated the ABC’s subsequent axing of Abdel-Magied’s program. “One down, many to go,” he said.

But when an angry white man posts a lengthy tirade, suggesting an act of terrorism against the national broadcaster? From Dutton, nothing. And from the News Corp commentariat? Andrew Bolt’s initial response to the Franklin piece was that the author was “magnificent in his anger”.

Like Windschuttle, he was subsequently revisionist, conceding that the piece had gone too far, but also finding fault in the critics for having taken Franklin’s “satire” so seriously.

Others among the large Murdoch stable of right-wing commentators also defended Franklin’s piece. Chris Kenny, associate editor of The Australian and host of a nightly show on Sky News, pushed back against those who saw it as an incitement to violence.

That was, he said, an “unfair characterisation … best read the piece and make up your own mind…”

Later, Kenny did condemn Franklin’s comments as “sick and reprehensible”. But he also followed up with a comment piece in The Australian, arguing that while Franklin’s rhetoric went too far, his anger at the ABC was “understandable” because it was wont to “echo the jihad denialism of the green left”.

In fact, Kenny devoted much more space in his piece to justifying extremist anger at the national broadcaster than to condemning Franklin’s wish that the ABC be bombed.

Then there was Chris Mitchell, the former editor-in-chief of The Australian, whose Monday column dismissed the Franklin tirade as a “rather silly” and “tame” piece on commentary.

Nick Cater, formerly a senior journalist and opinion editor at The Australian, now executive director at conservative think tank the Menzies Research Centre and a director of Quadrant, strongly condemned Franklin, but said he would not be pushing for his dismissal.

And within a couple of days, they all dropped the issue. All in all, it amounted to a late and rather cursory acknowledgement of an egregious foul by their team.

And make no mistake, Quadrant is very much part of their team. Quadrant’s ideology, targets and, to a significant extent, its personnel, are common to News Corp and the Liberal Party right wing.

Quadrant was born of the Cold War, in 1956. It was founded by Richard Krygier, a Polish refugee fleeing Nazism and communism. As recorded in detail by historian Cassandra Pybus in her book about its first editor, The Devil and James McAuley, much of Quadrant’s funding came from a US Central Intelligence Agency front organisation.

“Quadrant was one of 20 magazines the Congress for Cultural Freedom established in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia,” Pybus wrote. “On advice from Bob Santamaria, Australia’s most virulent anti-communist campaigner, Krygier chose James McAuley as editor.”

More interesting than the simple fact of the CIA’s funding during McAuley’s 11-year tenure was its influence on the magazine. In Pybus’s version of events, the CIA was a force for moderation, its paymasters constantly pushing for more liberal voices in Quadrant and less of the likes of Santamaria. And Krygier and McAuley pushed back. 

“The whole point of the covert operation was subtlety; to win over the left-leaning intellectuals to the American position, not further alienate them,” Pybus wrote.

Others tell a rather different story. In a long piece for The Monthly, written when Quadrant turned 50, Krygier’s son, Martin, a professor of law and social theory at the University of New South Wales, called the little journal “a cosmopolitan magazine, and a cosmopolitanising force, from the start”.

And McAuley – who Pybus noted was “viewed by many in the literary world as a mediocre poet and a Catholic fanatic” – was lauded by Martin Krygier for “the cultural richness, range and assurance of his thought, the grace and power of his prose, and the intellectual altitude at which much of the discussion in the magazine occurred”.

Regardless of what ideological tensions did or did not exist in the early period of Quadrant, it was widely seen as a publication of intellectual weight and a fair degree of pluralism, although it narrowed and became somewhat more partisan under its next editor, Peter Coleman.

Fast forward to 1987 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Soviet communism and Quadrant’s original raison d’être.

“Robert Manne took over as editor on the day the wall came down, in 1989,” says Dominic Kelly, a political historian at La Trobe University. “He immediately knew the times had changed and the magazine needed to be about more than fighting the Cold War. He tried to broaden the debate. This caused some issues.”

That’s putting it mildly. There was a power struggle that played out over a decade, as Manne, a bona fide intellectual, attempted to resist a harder, nastier new conservatism driven by the likes of Ray Evans and Hugh Morgan.

“Morgan’s Western Mining was heavily funding it at that point,” says Kelly.

Manne ultimately lost the battles. In a long piece published in the December 1997 edition of the magazine, he sought to explain “with as much objectivity as I can muster” the reasons for his resignation from the editorship. He lamented that he had been unable to reverse Quadrant’s decline from being the “volatile, lively, argumentative, diverse” publication of its early years into one that, by the 1980s, too often featured articles “of thoughtlessly reflexive anti-leftism, often written in bitter and sneering tone”.

He was driven out, he suggested, because he would not turn Quadrant into an “Australian Thatcherite magazine, socially conservative and economically dry”. Manne lamented what he called the “new politics of race”, the new right’s hostility to Mabo and Wik, its dismissive response to the Stolen Generations, its dalliance with Hansonism. He could no longer stomach the “visceral anger” directed at him.

The next edition of Quadrant featured an even longer piece by the incoming editor, P. P. (“Paddy”) McGuinness. It was titled “The Future for Quadrant” and, as Kelly notes, “was open in its contempt for the magazine under Manne”.

McGuinness’s piece held that in order to reclaim its place as a “leading magazine of ideas”, Quadrant “must slough off the stultifying mediocrity and conformism which has dominated Australia’s media, its little magazines, and its universities for the last decade”. 

It must, he said, “throw off the mawkish sentimentality which has become prevalent on a number of policy issues, most importantly on Aboriginal issues”.

The new editor’s direction statement ran to several thousand combative words. As Kelly fairly summarises: “His first manifesto about what he would do with the magazine was essentially ‘Culture War, let’s go’.”

And other culture warriors were loud in their appreciation. In 2006, when Quadrant turned 50, Prime Minister John Howard paid extravagant tribute.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Quadrant has been Australia’s home to all that is worth preserving in that Western cultural tradition,” he said.

He singled out McGuinness for “special praise”, and lauded the magazine for championing causes “close to my heart”, of which “none is more important than the role it has played as counterforce to the black armband view of Australian history”.

Martin Krygier put it rather differently and vastly more elegantly in his Monthly piece: “Where Quadrant once appreciated the complexity and variety of motives, options and choices, exhibited curiosity and even occasional puzzlement, raised the tone and enriched the vocabulary of debate, its central role now is as radical vulgariser and simplifier. In particular, its energies are directed to composing an enemy, against which it and its allies can flaunt their fearless contrarianism.”

And that was back in 2006, before Keith Windschuttle took the magazine even further to the right, before Howard appointed him to the board of the ABC, and before Roger Franklin and Quadrant Online.

Most people would never have heard of Franklin before this latest incident. But he has a long history of floridly offensive commentary. In Franklin’s world, Australia’s race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane is a “race pimp and sinecured Labor hack”. The Human Rights Commission is a bunch of “taxpayer-funded thugs”. 

There are innumerable examples, but perhaps the comment that best defines him was his Twitter trolling of Rosie Batty, whose son was killed by her estranged husband, and who was later made Australian of the Year for her tireless work against domestic violence.

“If I disregard a protection order I sought and my son dies as a result, can I be Australian of the Year too?” Franklin tweeted on Australia Day 2015.

And yet it was not until he suggested the ABC should be blown up that the right – both politicians and the Murdoch press – realised the necessity of putting a little distance between themselves and Quadrant.

Where Quadrant’s money comes from now is uncertain. Quadrant Online lists about 100 sponsors by name and also acknowledges 40 other anonymous supporters. Until last year, it received funding from the Australia Council for the Arts. When that was cut off in May, Windschuttle, usually an advocate of reduced government handouts, complained bitterly. He noted other small journals – Overland, Australian Book Review and Griffith Review – had received grants. It was, he said, “a political decision designed to devalue our reputation and demonstrate that the Left remains in control of the arts”. 

The Saturday Paper made numerous attempts this week, by phone and email, to contact Franklin and Windschuttle, but received no response. We also sought comment from Martin Krygier, whose father started the magazine 61 years ago, on its sad decline into angry extremism. He declined to comment, because he can no longer bear to read it. 

Which may actually be the best response.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2017 as "Quadrant and its slide into deluded extremism".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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