Beating Keating and losing

Mar 18, 2023
Screenshot- a conversation with Paul Keating

But if we could communicate with the mosquito, then we would learn that he floats through the air with the same self-importance, feeling within itself the flying centre of the world.

On Wednesday at the National Press Club (NPC), former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, was invited to speak about the AUKUS submarine deal, and he didn’t hold back. He declared it the worst policy administered by a Labor Government since Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription, and he held Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong responsible for, what for him, was a major failure of political courage, diplomacy and foreign policy making.

He ripped several members of the press gallery a new one, and he wasn’t administering anaesthetic. Matthew Knott (who was present) and Peter Hartcher (who wasn’t) were the main targets, and Keating—rightly, in my view—held them responsible for the shortcomings of the so-called Red Alert series run on the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Although a couple of the questions were fine—Phil Coorey did okay, and so did Paul Karp—most were ill-considered or were playing the gotcha game. I would go as far as to say that it was the weakest performance by the press gallery since the Albanese “gaffe” nonsense at the last election, and that most of the questions were underprepared and unthoughtful.

It was hard not to sympathise with Keating’s impatience. (The Q&A section starts at about 28:20, if you want to skip ahead).

In their anger and their pain, the mainstream media have been quick to turn his responses into a matter of decorum, focussing on Keating’s ‘take-no-prisoners’ language, and sure, you can have that argument.

But you can’t hide behind it.

Whatever offence you might want to take at Keating’s language, there are much bigger matters at stake, and one would’ve thought that the media would be more attentive to the case he made than the way he made it.

Keating’s point was this: We are spending nearly $400 billion on weapons that change the nature of our defence policy, from one that defends the country to one that, with the aid of the US, projects force towards the Chinese coast, the coast of our biggest trading partner. The policy is, in effect, created in the strategic interests of the United States, and further, represents a retrograde step in our relationship with the United Kingdom. We could’ve have fashioned a much more effective and focussed response and spent less money achieving it.

It is a reasonable case to make, based on a deep understanding of the issues, and you would think a mature press Corp would’ve focussed on the substance of the matter, but you would be wrong. Instead, we got tweets about who he called a Ning Nong.

(Spoiler alert: not actually a good question).

Or whether he might be a nicer person if he went to university.

Come on.

We were delivered a whole editorial note from the SMH, from editor Bevan Shields, who declared that “we are not above criticism, but these attacks go too far.”

Any argument that takes the form of we are not x, but is immediately suspect, and the rest of Shield’s piece is little more than pearl-clutching and butthurt. I mean, for heaven’s sake, he not only engages in his own example of personal abuse—comparing Keating to Trump—he ends with a statement that is demonstrably untrue:

As for Keating, it’s disappointing that a man who has had such a profound impact on public life for more than 50 years now has nothing of substance to add on such a huge issue for our country.

The idea that anyone could watch Keating’s discussion with Laura Tingle and conclude that he has “nothing of substance to add” is merely to underline how completely Shields—and any other journalist who thinks this—have been unable to separate the form of Keating’s observations from their content. To separate their personal affront from what the man argued.

And if you can’t do that—separate form from content, personal hurt from reasoned analysis—you can’t do journalism.

None of this is to let Keating off all hooks, I might add. The fanboying that tends to surround him, including his inimitable style, is often cloying and misjudged, and I think he and Hawke, for all their good works, are also the architects of some our biggest problems, that he himself is part of the reason the likes of Albanese and Wong have drifted so far from the left.

But let’s have that discussion too, not just dismiss him as somehow beyond the pale.

Really, the media’s response to Keating NPC appearance is a spotlight on their own failings.

We are meant to believe that the mainstream media is this vast and powerful institution, full of hard-nosed professionals in relentless pursuit of malfeasance, speaking truth to power, and holding our leaders to account, but here they are having the absolute vapours because a former prime minister took them to task.

Under such circumstances, audiences are right to doubt the media’s bone fides, and I say that as someone holding the media to their own professional standards, taking seriously their claims to be the sort of “fourth estate” without which a democracy cannot function.

Instead, we see them wilting under legitimate criticism from someone who doesn’t much matter anymore.

The point is, if the media can’t take what Keating dished out yesterday without spending days licking their wounds and writing editorials about how mean he was, what chance of standing up to real power?

In fact, Shields gives the game away in his defensive editorial:

For years, we have laughed along with Keating as he hurls his trademark barbs. But it’s not funny anymore. His attack on Wong, defence of the CCP and the Donald Trump-like abuse of journalists doing their jobs shows just how far removed from the political mainstream Keating’s views and behaviour have become.

That’s it exactly, isn’t it?

Keating’s big crime was to be “far removed from the political mainstream”, and in so complaining, the editor of the SMH shows he is more interested in supporting that mainstream than in challenging it.


Republished from SubStack March 16, 2023

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