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When a newspaper calls in its lawyers: the chilling effect of The Australian vs Robert Manne

Some news organisations take the view that their access to a wide audience gives them the capacity to defend themselves against their critics, so they should never need to resort to the defamation laws…

Hide of a rhino: Robert Manne has taken on an organisation that buys ink by the barrel.

Some news organisations take the view that their access to a wide audience gives them the capacity to defend themselves against their critics, so they should never need to resort to the defamation laws.

Over the years the Australian newspaper has made a number of strong statements to this effect, including the following editorial from 2004:

“The defamation law as it stands has done grave damage to public culture in Australia … The whole legalistic approach ignores a fundamental truth: freedom of speech and a vigorous and open marketplace of ideas are essential to a democratic society … In fact, reputation is something established in the marketplace of ideas…”

Yesterday the Australian threatened legal action against the ABC aimed at forcing it to take down an opinion piece by Professor Robert Manne on comment site The Drum.

In a pre-emptive strike, Manne was responding to inquiries from a journalist at the Australian after the newspaper had used freedom of information laws to obtain documents from the Australian Research Council about grants to him.

Last year Manne wrote a Quarterly Essay sharply critical of the Australian’s political bias, so he distrusted the paper’s motives and indicated that he believed the investigation of his personal affairs was payback. He wrote that it is “time for fellow democrats in Australia to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Murdoch press”.

The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, who had previously said he would “never sue”, told Crikey yesterday that Manne’s article is “an extraordinarily defamatory piece”. He said that he had known nothing of the FoI request or the story that was being prepared.

There are a number of aspects of this unfolding story that ring alarm bells across Australian campuses. The foremost is the fact a powerful media organisation has launched legal action aimed at silencing one of its critics. Whatever the merits of the claims and counter-claims in this case, legal threats inevitably have a chilling effect on public debate.

Academics across the nation — especially young ones, those with insecure tenure and those who have never needed to grow a thick hide will be frightened by the possibility that they may attract the same kind of attention if they are critical of powerful interests.

When intellectuals engage in self-censorship for fear of offending the powerful, our democracy is diminished. One or two high-profile cases such as this one involving Robert Manne and The Australian are enough to undo years of effort to encourage academics to use their expertise to better inform public debate, efforts epitomised by this outlet, The Conversation.

The second aspect of this case that must cause concern on campuses is the innovative use of FoI laws to gain access to ARC documents.

It should be stressed that, as the ARC dispenses public funds, there is no reason why any member of the public should not have access to all documents relating to applications, assessments, funding decisions and evaluations.

The ARC has stringent procedures to ensure not only that grants are made on merit but that funds are spent as defined in grant proposals and adhere to strong principles of prudence and accountability.

So the question must be asked: Why did the Australian pick out Professor Manne as the target of an FoI request? The paper has claimed it has not sought documents concerning other academics. Mitchell has said his newspaper was acting on a tip-off from another academic who suggested Manne may not have fulfilled his obligations to the ARC.

The third concern is that, following its successful FoI request, the Australian asked Manne to answer a series of questions about payments he may have received for publications such as his Quarterly Essays or royalties from books.

Given past hostility from the paper towards him, the line of questioning indicated to Manne that the newspaper might try to make out that he has somehow received money unethically, despite the fact that universities and the ARC are relaxed about academics being paid for their publications, including returns from the Copyright Agency Limited.

In writing his Quarterly Essay critical of the Australian, and now his pre-emptive opinion piece, Robert Manne has decided to ignore Mark Twain’s advice never to argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.

Although he can only dream of buying barrels, as Australia’s leading public intellectual Manne has an inkpot deeper than most.

He also has the hide of a rhino. But if he and the handful of other public intellectuals willing to challenge powerful interests are driven from the public domain by legal threats or personal attacks then democracy in this country will be severely weakened.

Join the conversation

15 Comments sorted by

  1. Dan Nolan

    logged in via Twitter

    I honestly wonder how deep the conspiracy goes.

  2. Dan Nolan

    logged in via Twitter

    When are you going to take Graeme Bird's advice?

  3. Alvin Stone

    logged in via Facebook

    This is not the first time The Australian has turned threatened commentators with defamation lawyers if my memory serves me correctly.

    Reading the essay on The Drum, I have to say with all the media resources at their disposal The Australian or those who instituted the action are displaying an incredibly thin hide and a lack of judgement. Perhaps emotions got in the way of common sense.

    Manne's essay will draw much more attention as a result of this action than had it been left alone…

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  4. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Elsevier springs to mind.

    Don't buy the papers, don't subscribe to the website, don't quote the papers, do not contribute, do not engage with reporters, just ignore them, simply act as if they are irrelevant, which, at least academically, in the main part, they are. It won't send them broke, it won't stop the mob reading them, but it will cut off a little oxygen.

    I haven't bought a Murdoch paper except for the HES for 5 years, I will simply cease with the HES.

  5. Norman Partington

    logged in via Twitter

    so the editor of the australian was unaware of what was happening with stories in his newspaper. sounds remarkably like a murdoch defence.

  6. Iain Davidson


    This is very disturbing. The Murdoch press is worrying enough but when they start going after people who present reasoned arguments against them democracy is indeed threatened. The state of the press generally is appalling at the moment (which is why The Conversation should thrive) and the influence of people with very deep pockets is something to be feared.

    1. Jane Critti

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Iain Davidson

      I did stop buying or reading anything from the Murdich stable (including Fox TV)

  7. Paul Wilson


    So let me get this straight.

    Robert Manne can make allegations against a newspaper or any other body and if in his opinion they are bigger and stronger than him, they are not allowed to hold him to account for those comments.

    If a newspaper makes allegations against Robert Manne they deserve to be held to account for them and face legal action for defamation if they are found to be untrue.


    1. Alvin Stone

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Wilson

      As a former newspaper editor myself, I would always view our newspaper's response to attacks on us as a matter of degrees. If someone was to write something about myself or my journalists in a tiny publication, I would respond either to the editor of that publication or directly in the publication and leave it at that.

      That way, you talk directly to the people who have written or have read the opinion.

      The Drum is not a major media outlet no matter how it may like to frame itself, so a response…

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  8. craig sambell

    environment journalist (ret)

    My suspicions on why the Manne piece disappeared so quickly now confirmed.
    The dirty diggers bully boy Aus mob has just put another nail in its grubby coffin and hopefully lost another gaggle of readers. Grave should be just about deep enough for the whole Australian outfit to be buried unceremoniously and forgotten

  9. William Bruce


    Who said "The News is what they don't print, the rest is advertising"?

    I reckon providing for peoples ability to "comment" as The Conversation does is a huge opportunity for progress.
    Due allows bad thinking & press can be countered. Also, enables synergy for better solutions.

    The main problem with mainstream Media (and also with Politics) is the "lies by omission" of information.

    Who said "Defamation laws protect the wrongdoers"?....perhaps the law ought only require equal exposure for the right of reply.

    Seems to me the mainstream media is full of "War Propaganda" and "Global lending" propaganda?

  10. David Healy


    Clive, your article prompted me to listen to Manne's interview on SlowTV. I'd never heard of him. He struck me as singularly inoffensive.

    Phillip's comment is fair. However, Alvin's point that an appropriate response is a matter of degree is also true. Who wants to waste time arguing with 'The Drum'?

    The front page of a newspaper is not the place for editorials. News is good on the front page of a newspaper.

    I used to read the 'Australian' regularly, but grew tired of its tedious 'ram it down your throat' format. That said, my reservations about it have more to do with form than substance.

  11. Marilyn Shepherd


    I fail to understand why the Australian want documents about the work done by David Corlett under the tutelage of Robert Manne.

    The essay and book about returned refugees have been available for years or haven't the Australian noticed.

  12. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    1. I've read the Quarterly Essay article by Manne and it's lacking in substance and strong in personal invective against a newspaper which Manne clearly has issues with. The QE article left me none the wiser as to the detailed or serious concerns that Manne has against The Australian
    2. If Manne is 'Australia’s leading public intellectual', that says more about the poor state of Australian academia than it does about The Australian. Because of the stoush between Manne and the newspaper…

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