Greg Sheridan: Principles, privilege and punditry

Jan 27, 2021

The Australian newspaper’s foreign affairs editor Greg Sheridan epitomises the capacity columnists have to promote ideological agendas – even ones that are seemingly at odds with their professed values and beliefs. They are hardly conservative.

Having access to a soapbox, even the modestly proportioned variety, is a privilege. Having a guaranteed audience of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, many of whom are amongst the most influential in the land, is an even greater opportunity to speak truth to power and help to shape the debates that determine our collective fate.

We might hope that those who enjoy such opportunities would take their roles and responsibilities seriously. And yet it is emblematic of the times that even to make such a claim can invite ridicule and accusations of hopeless naivety. It is hardly controversial to suggest that the majority of the opinion writers who work for the Murdoch papers, for example, seem happy to align their views with those of the owner. The rise of Donald Trump and his poisonous legacy is the direct consequence of such ideological rigidity and intellectual pusillanimity.

To be fair, many of Murdoch’s writers – and their readers, for that matter – may actually share and enthusiastically endorse their boss’s well-known views about climate change, the role of the United States in global politics, the dangers posed by leftists, woke politics and much else. Indeed, it would be surprising if there wasn’t a meeting of minds between Murdoch’s minions and the people who read his papers. After all, we know all too well what to expect from his ubiquitous publications and the people who write for them.

What we don’t really know, though, is how some of his most prominent pundits manage to reconcile their words with their consciences, especially when they claim to be conservatives bent on preserving order, morality and traditional values.

Greg Sheridan is a quintessential example. Although I’m reluctant to personalise such things, I’ve felt compelled to read his work for decades, to get a sense of what passes for ‘sensible’ mainstream opinion. There is a numbing and depressing predictability to his views, even though they are usually thoughtful, well informed and even persuasive at times. That’s part of the problem: say something often enough, convincingly, and in a supposedly authoritative outlet, and many people will think it’s true.

Over the years we may have become accustomed to Sheridan’s partisan support for the likes of his friend Tony Abbott, or his spiritual hero Cardinal Pell. Yet such politicking and favoritism isn’t a good look for any responsible journalist.

It is interesting just how many cultural and political warriors on the right of Australian politics were prepared to make Faustian bargains with Donald Trump while he was in power.

With Sheridan, what is remarkable and increasingly implausible is his claim to be a champion of conservatism.

Sheridan takes his faith seriously, and yet was happy to offer his support to, not merely overlook, the manifold personal failings of Trump, one of the most morally bankrupt, dishonest, and psychologically damaged individuals in public life.

Just before the recent election that Trump refused to accept with such devastating consequences for American democracy, Sheridan suggested that:

“A Donald Trump victory would be better for Australia than a Joe Biden presidency. This counterintuitive view is widely, if semi-secretly, held in Australian national security circles, and it is almost certainly right.”

I fear he may be correct about one thing, at least: the enduring appeal of Republican presidents to many in the Canberra security bubble. One might have thought we would have learned lessons from the epic folly of our participation in the invasion of Iraq, not to mention the increasingly controversial role in Afghanistan.

We might also have hoped that Trump’s disdain for multilateralism, without which the fabled ‘rules based international order’ cannot function, would have encouraged some self-criticism: nothing more corrosive of international stability and the prospect for international cooperation than the Trump administration can be imagined.

The most urgent task for multilateralism, to which the preemptively disparaged Biden administration seems committed, is doing something about climate change. Even to mention the environment will, of course, induce apoplexy among ‘conservatives’ like Sheridan who view climate change as a niche interest confined to ‘upper-income, service-industry, limousine liberals’.

And yet environmentalists are arguably the real conservatives. What, after all, could be more conservative than trying to ensure the planet upon which we all depend for our survival doesn’t become quite unlivable?

I’m not sure what Sheridan tells his sons about their future prospects or those of any children they may have, but perhaps he has some soothing words to trot out for them, too. Yet, anyone who has been paying attention must realise that we have wasted four precious and unaffordable years while Trump was in power.

Sheridan may not be personally responsible for Trump’s dismemberment of environmental regulations in the United States, but the media empire he works for certainly did its bit. Even one of Murdoch’s own sons can no longer stomach the destructive and dangerous impact of his father’s views.

Global warming really isn’t just a leftwing conspiracy. More’s the pity; it might be a good deal easier to fix if it were. I don’t think allowing powerful and/or misguided interests to trash the planet in the meantime is a good advertisement for ‘the Word becoming flesh among us’ either way.

For an intelligent and apparently principled man to support someone like Donald Trump takes some explaining. Sheridan is far from alone, of course, but not everyone claims to be answering to a higher authority or makes quite such a display of their religiosity. Might be time to take the proverbial long hard look in the mirror, Greg. I’m sure God would approve.

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