Opinion

Mike Carlton
Fairfax and Turnbull’s Potemkin village

All over Italy the oleanders are in summer bloom. Great galleries of pink, red and white flowers cascade through Rome’s Villa Borghese gardens, flourish high on the terraced streets above the Bay of Naples, march along the E90 autostrada from Palermo to Messina. Our villa on a Sicilian hillside had drop-dead views over the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Aeolian Islands, where volcanic Stromboli glowered in the haze. The sunsets, gold and palest lilac, were pure J. M.W. Turner.

The view backwards was less enticing. Depressing, even. Travel abroad gives you Down Under through the long lens, another perspective on the dismal charade that is Australian public life. Distant from the daily babble, you discern more clearly the bloody-minded, muddle-headed, provincial mediocrity of it all. The lies, the smears, the bottomless bullshit of politics and government, of the media, of business. The sour futility of the so-called culture wars. The arrant racism of the uncouth Benito Dutton, whose cynical attempts to inflame fear and loathing over the so-called Sudanese gangs of Melbourne were beneath contempt. The Frecciarossa train from Rome to Naples does the journey at 300 kilometres an hour. In Sydney our politicians can’t run a tram down George Street.

Cheerfully retired though I am, there is still enough of the hack in me to get a stream of newsy notifications on my iPad. In Italy it was apparent that the Murdochracy had set the media narrative for last Saturday’s federal byelections: Malcolm Turnbull was making a slow but solid comeback. The vote would be a referendum on Bill Shorten, the devious union bully whose leadership was faltering on the brink. Labor was in crisis, as ever. Ambitious Albo was prowling in the wings, sharpening his shiv for the Shorten shoulder blades. Pages and pages spewed forth.

With a few honourable exceptions, the mainstream media uncritically went along with this News Corpse agenda. It became the conventional wisdom: so much easier to write than the grind of policy or what voters on the ground might truly care about. On the eve of the vote ABC News reported that, while the prime minister had been out on the hustings, Shorten had “failed” to campaign that day, a locked’n’loaded verb if ever there was. Actually, work done, the Labor leader had taken the time off to collect his daughter from school. That the poll might equally be a referendum on Turnbull’s leadership went largely unremarked.

Sensibly, the only people paying no notice to this drivel were the people. I’m guessing they ignored the media theatrics and had a good think about what needled them. The bastardry of the banks. Inexplicable tax cuts for big business. Gross inequality in funding the education of their kids. Wage stagnation, cuts to weekend penalty rates, whopping electricity bills, unaffordable housing. And, yes, maybe even some big picture stuff, such as the government’s war on the ABC or its flip-flop confusion on climate change. They might not like Shorten very much, but they looked at the Turnbull lot and liked them less. A byelection was the opportunity to say so. In Longman in Queensland, the Liberal National Party primary vote tanked to a risible 29 per cent, no doubt a shock for Benito, whose fiefdom of Dickson sits next door. In the Adelaide Hills, Georgina Downer took a right thumping in what was once her family’s pocket borough of Mayo. (And how delicious to see Lord Downer castigate the peasantry for their disloyalty that evening. “Our family have been nation builders,” he huffed to a TV reporter as he fastidiously double-dunked a half-eaten dim sum into the soy sauce.)

Allora, back to Italy. Our sunny days at Capo d’Orlando were a deception. The northern hemisphere is enduring a savage summer of record temperatures and wild weather. The Washington Post reported this week that a town in Finland, Sodankylä, had registered a new high of 32 degrees, a jaw-dropping score for a place nearly 100 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. London and much of Britain have roasted in the mid 30s for days on end, with parts of the country beset not by gentle English drizzle but thunderous downpours. Japan reported a record 41 degrees in a heatwave said to have killed 65 people. In Greece at least 91 people have died in the wildfires there and in California another dangerous blaze has closed Yosemite National Park.

The intelligent world recognises that climate change is real. The science is in. The debate is over. But not in backwoods Australia, where we continue to dither about what, if anything, to do. Incredibly, many of the jabbering oiks of the government party rooms still believe that human-induced climate change is a hoax, a swindle confected by scientists to keep themselves in jobs or a sinister plot by Marxist Greens to establish a one-world government. Or both. The Paris targets are an attack on Western capitalism. Whipped up by the Mad Monk and his ilk, cheered along by the Murdochracy, the denialists holler for new coalmines to be dug, for coal-fired power stations to be built, for renewable energy technologies to be exposed as the fraud they are. Terrified of upsetting “the base”, as the Liberals’ Trump-loving nutters are now known, Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, flounder along in the slipstream, incapable of prosecuting the case for sanity.

Here you get to the guts of it. Abandoning any political principle that had once been his ticket to ride, Turnbull now makes only a show of leadership. He’s the mayor of a Potemkin village. Behind the facade there is nothing. His impulses are Trump-lite: a reverence for the banks and the big end of town; a blind belief in neoliberal, trickle-down economics even as it is daily more discredited; a disdain for the disabled and disadvantaged, immigrants and refugees – anyone who does not fit the Darwinian conservative matrix. He has evidently abandoned any attempt to rein back the quasi-fascist ambitions of Benito and his furious construction of a security superstate to monitor us all.

Turnbull’s reaction to Nine Entertainment’s takeover of Fairfax Media was instructive. “To be frank, I welcome the announcement,” he said. “I think bringing them together will strengthen both of them.” No sliver of doubt, then, that this further concentration of media ownership might not be for the public good. Trumpist again, all that mattered was the deal.

I worked for Fairfax in radio, television and newspapers for 20 years or so. Happily, I began there in that last golden age, 30 years ago, when the late James Fairfax rolled his increasingly erratic father, Sir Warwick, and seized the company chairmanship. Urbane and cultivated, a generous philanthropist, James had the very good sense to choose his executives and editors and then get out of the way while they did their job. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age enjoyed their finest hour. James’s corporate demise at the hands of his dopey half-brother, Young Warwick, precipitated the agonising Fairfax death spiral of incompetence whose inevitable end has now arrived. The Fairfax name will disappear, and it cannot be long before its printed flagships expire as well. God alone knows what will happen to its scattered network of regional and bush newspapers, but it will be ugly.

One of those giants of the golden years was Evan Whitton. Reporter, writer and editor, Evan crusaded against police, political and legal corruption, moulding a generation of Fairfax journalists with his courage and style and a matchless sardonic wit. He reached his peak, perhaps, as editor of the now defunct National Times, a spiritual forebear of The Saturday Paper, which brought forth such talents as the writers David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, and the artists Patrick Cook and Michael Fitzjames. Evan died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 90, an impressive innings for any hack. Tomorrow, Sunday, the old Fairfax mafia will gather fondly and respectfully at a wake for him in Sydney’s inner west. We’ll revive the comity that used to enliven the trade, with speeches made and stories told and toasts drunk. We’ll look about us surreptitiously, wondering who’ll be the next to go. 

But the loss of Fairfax itself? It gave me a pang at first, a surge of regret at the passing of the name and ethos, and anger at the greed and stupidity that killed it. And I am sorry for its dwindling band of journalists who loathe being bought and sold yet again like stockyard cattle, only to be flung aside whenever the next new master of their universe needs a few synergies.

But we move on, as we must. The urgent task now is to save the ABC from Turnbull and the barbarian Mitch Fifield. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. The newly elected Italian coalition government bids fair to be as nasty as our own. Its dominant figure, the alt-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, would get on with Benito Dutton like a house on fire. Basta!

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "The Italian job". Subscribe here.

Mike Carlton
is a journalist and broadcaster, and the author of naval histories.

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