In an age in which Australia’s richest man, packaging heir Anthony Pratt, embarrasses himself almost daily on social media, it can seem rather humdrum to be reminded of the mediocrity of our cultural, political and financial elites. But every now and then comes a shining example to focus the mind on the incessant ordinariness of our ruling class.
On Tuesday night the State Library of Victoria hosted the eighth Keith Murdoch Oration. The library, Melbourne’s bibliographic and architectural jewel, was cleared of its patrons so that the city’s elites could play dress-up, enjoy some food and wine, and hopefully raise a stack of money to fund the library’s continuing redevelopment. This year’s oration was delivered by Robert Thomson, global chief executive of News Corp. Previous speakers have included Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch. As with most things News Corp, it’s something of a family affair.
The event probably would have been like a tree falling in the woods for most, but for the fairly extensive reporting it received in Wednesday’s newspapers. It was here that I discovered, and was quite stunned by, the sheer inanity of some of Thomson’s remarks, so I turned to Google for the complete address. Most helpfully, the News Corp sites were hosting the full text of the speech and video of the evening’s proceedings.
Before we get to Thomson, let me say something about the underwhelming support acts. The president of the library board, investment banker (and Rhodes Scholar) John Wylie, used his welcoming address to suck up to the Murdoch family in a most unedifying way and, almost as an aside, describe Henry Kissinger as ‘the greatest living sage on our planet’. What a delightful way to characterise one of the worst war criminals of the twentieth century. It truly must be blissful to be this ignorant.
Then, host for the evening, journalist Laura Jayes, chipped in with some weary observations about her ‘rewarding and affecting’ profession. ‘There’s a lot to sort through,’ she said. ‘The vacuous, the vicious, the populism, the victim mentality, the superiority, the straight-out sophistry sometimes.’
The targets of these criticisms were not made clear, but this came from someone who works for Sky News, the organisation that just in the last couple of years has had to sack Mark Latham for homophobic comments towards a school boy, provided a friendly platform for a neo-Nazi, and had to sack Ross Cameron for racist comments. Meanwhile it still employs such professional sophists as Rowan Dean, Andrew Bolt, Paul Murray, Graham Richardson and Alan Jones. A lot to sort through indeed.
‘But,’ Jayes’ handful of viewers will be relieved to hear, ‘in all of that there’s some pretty great yarns as well.’ How wonderful.
Finally, it was time for the star of the show. Robert Thomson has worked in the media for forty years as a journalist, editor and now senior executive. Beginning in his native Australia before working in China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, he has had stints at the Sydney Morning Herald, the Financial Times, the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal. An impressive CV, in anyone’s view. Surely the well-heeled audience was in for a thoughtful and stimulating address. Alas, not so.
First, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. As its title, ‘Truth, trust and tech’, suggests, Thomson is a fan of alliteration. His speech contains some of the most embarrassing examples of this unfortunate tendency of half-clever writers I’ve ever come across. Take this passage:
Having been rather vocal, sometimes too vociferously, on this subject for rather a long period, it was surprising that our society’s leaders had been so sanguinely supine. As a result, we have institutionally ingrained some seriously bad behaviour and have dominant digital companies culturally ill-equipped to cope with the contemporary challenges.
Is it possible to read (or listen to) this nonsense without cringing? And it must be stressed that this is not an isolated case. The entire speech reads like a pseudo-intellectual Dr. Seuss book. The examples are far too numerous for me to itemise here, but if you suspect I’m exaggerating please take a look at this Twitter thread for a snapshot of the full horror of Thomson’s prose. How the audience managed to stifle embarrassed giggles I have no idea.
What, then, of the man’s ideas? On this front, there was little improvement. Much of the speech involved ranting about liberal journalists (especially those willing to investigate and criticise the Murdochs), social media users who dare to speak back at their rulers, and ‘Big Digital’, by which he of course meant Google, News Corp’s bête noire.
Thomson also peppered his address with strange detours into artificial intelligence, faith versus secularism, and a long section about China, the main point of which seemed to be to boast of meeting President Obama in the Oval Office. Finally, in true hack style, he concluded with an attempted philosophical flourish, quoting Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata before asking: ‘How will we flow through time? How will we make the most of our time?’ At least a few of the audience members must have been left wondering.
Amid this jumbled mess it was difficult to identify a main theme, but if anything stuck out it was the anti-elitism:
There should be scepticism about elites, and a healthy scepticism is I presume, I hope, still part of the Australian character. But the question we must ask is who are the elites, who is the establishment? It is no longer a few tired, half-sozzled, ruddy-faced inbred gents in walnut-panelled rooms chuffing on cigars and divvying up dividends. It’s far more complicated than that. Australia famously dealt with a tyranny of distance, now the world has a tyranny of the distinguished, a smug, sneering elite that derides popular concerns as ‘populism’, and whose self-image is fuelled by an abiding sense of absolute superiority.
Thomson shares with his boss the delusional notion that because they may not be members of the old gentleman’s clubs, or share the left-liberal political leanings of the kinds of people who donate money to public libraries, they can claim to be anti-establishment. And who knows, perhaps he managed to convince the wealthy diners before him. But most Australians know better. More than half a century after Donald Horne published The Lucky Country, Australia is still ruled by ‘second-rate people who share its luck.’
It’s only natural that the State Library of Victoria needs to raise funds in order to survive and prosper. But if Tuesday night’s display of grandiose mediocrity is any guide to the depths it needs to plumb in this process, it would be much better served keeping the cameras out and employing the Chatham House Rule.
Dominic Kelly is an Honorary Research Fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Political Troglodytes and Economic Lunatics: The Hard Right in Australia (Black Inc./La Trobe University Press, 2019).