It’s hard to think of a more symbolic rendering of all that is wrong with Australian mainstream intellectual life than the decision by Ita Buttrose and her board to offer Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest the Boyer Lectures, the ABC’s premier series of broadcasts designed to explain ourselves to ourselves.
I defended Ita Buttrose when she was appointed ABC chair, but this decision is indefensible.
I have nothing against Andrew Forrest either, per se, only that the very idea of a mining billionaire is an obscenity in any country that calls itself democratic and thinks its sovereign wealth should benefit all of us.
But now, not content with extracting and hoarding our mineral wealth, he is to be given that equally rare public resource, our national airwaves, on which he will get to recite, no doubt, the same self-serving, self-interested schtick he already has a bottomless ability to communicate in the halls of power and the mainstream media.
It is such a wasted opportunity, and it points to a bigger issue.
The problem is not just the Boyers, but our public culture in general. By and large, especially in its mainstream presentation, that public culture is run by people lacking in daring and imagination who seek only to reproduce their own dull views and ensure that power is never troubled by those who would question its rightness and its virtues. Few media landscapes are as dominated by a single proprietor in the way in which News Ltd dominates the Australian media market, and it has a stifling effect on all aspects of public conversation. Indeed, New Ltd is very happy to play bully boy and beat cop on the nation’s intellectual life and will go after anyone they decide is beyond the pale: ask anyone from writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, to journalist Margaret Simons, to former prime minister, Julia Gillard.
As Tim Lyons noted on Twitter, as news of Forrest being asked to do the Boyers broke: ‘In 1997 Mark Davis wrote Gangland, about how boomers and fellow travellers dominated elite debate in Australia. Flicking through the index it is truly amazing how many of them (the ones that aren’t dead) that we are still having to hear from on what seems like a weekly basis.’
The tragedy is, our country is full of thoughtful, brilliant engaging people who barely get a chance to fully enter into the intellectual life of the country. Anyone of these—Amy McQuire, Jack Latimore, Lizzie O’Shea, Tim Lyons, Tim Hollo, Amy Cooper, Jane Gilmore, Jess Hill, Emma Dawson, Ingrid Matthews, Richard Cooke, Richard Chirgwin, Elise Klein, Jane R. Goodall, to name but a few—would make excellent Boyer lecturers, but few of them are in a position to ever make their presence felt, certainly not on any sort of sustained basis.
I wonder, for example, how many Ita has even heard of?
Davis (and Lyons) are right: the problem that Gangland identified in 1997 still exists today. But I think it is important to note the changes that have occurred too.
Of course, the mainstream hates social media—many of its representatives seem to spend half their life on Twitter explaining to everyone how awful Twitter is—but the fact is, sites like Twitter and Facebook and platforms like Patreon and Substack—which given writers the ability to build a following and earn some money from their work—have created an alternative, parallel, public sphere, For those who would never have found an outlet for their views in the mainstream, and for the audiences they help create, they are a godsend.
For example, Twitter plays a vital, and rarely acknowledged role, in giving voice to an emerging intelligentsia of Indigenous voices, and other marginalised groups. Issues like domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, have become ‘mainstream’ almost entirely because of the ability of social media to short-circuit the usual lines of power that help keep these issues, and these voices hidden.
Beyond social media, we are lucky, in Australia, to have sites like The Conversation and Inside Story which provide an outlet for (mainly) academics to reach a non-academic audience. They license their articles to other outlets, including the mainstream, and this helps too. (Just by-the-by: The Conversation is an Australia startup that is arguably one of the great success stories of media startups in the world in the last two decades, and we rarely acknowledge the achievement.)
We are also lucky to have the likes of The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, though it has to be said that, for all the good work they produce, they tend to be cliquey, with a favoured set of contributors, and it can be difficult for people outside those groups to a find a space on their pages. It is a risk any ‘small publication’ has to be aware of if they are to fulfill their role in the life of the nation.
The likes of Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Overland, Arena, Sydney Review of Books, The Griffith Review and others are increasingly open to new voices and new ideas, but they exist on the smell of an oily rag and there is a limit to the nurturing they can do. It is difficult to be a site of lively intellectual discussion when those running such outlets are constantly tap dancing on the precipice of financial ruin.
Another site worth mentioning is Quillete. Although I am rarely a fan of their content, which apart from any political issues I might have with it, I tend to find ponderous and self-important, they are an incredibly successful model of what can be done to nurture alternative voices. I wish some on the left could follow their example instead of just turning up their nose.
Change, it is true—almost by definition—comes from the fringe, but ultimately there needs to be a path into the mainstream too, however ameliorated or changed the final work may be. The point is, don’t ever fall for the bullshit that Australia lacks a robust intellectual culture. What we lack is a robust mainstream culture, and a class of editors with the courage and vision to bring new voices into the fold, to perform that act of intellectual transubstantiation.
A mainstream that doesn’t renew itself in this way stagnates and dies, and who could deny that at the moment, our mainstream is gasping?
As I say: we are in the midst of a pandemic that is fundamentally exposing the way in which power works in our societies, and showing us the extent to which lines of class and wealth, gender and ethnicity, separate the haves from the have-nots. It is teaching us that unless we confront these faultlines and find ways to eliminate, or at least, alleviate them, we are heading for a future of massive inequality, the end of anything remotely like the egalitarian Australia we still envisage.
New ideas simply have to be on the table. New voices need to be heard. Marginalised voices need to be given platforms so that we can understand possible ways forward for all of us.
But sure, let’s give the Boyer lectures to a mining billionaire.