Reviews Media of the Republic

The Media of the Republic was the author’s first book, published under the penname Gerard Charles. The revised edition will under author’s usual name.

Reviews by:
Tony Abbott, Adelaide Review
John Young, News Weekly
Sam Roggeveen, Quadrant

A SUBVERSIVE INSTITUTION
by Tony Abbott

THE ADELAIDE REVIEW

Can media pressure destroy individuals and tear down societies? This author thinks it can. Not only did journalists hound Princess Diana to her death, he says, but they did so because they adhere to a doctrine he calls ‘theoretic-republicanism’, a species of philosophic rationalism opposed to all forms of traditional authority and moral standards.

There are two problems with the argument as it is developed here: first, even if correct, the author fails to explain what can be done to tackle the media threat. He’s like the earnest activist who carefully explains the devastation nuclear weapons can wreak but not how to live with something which cannot be uninvented. Second, even if his critique of the media’s treatment of Diana is right, it does not necessarily sustain his philosophical analysis. As an explanation, stuff-up beats conspiracy in this as in so much else.

Despite these flaws, for students of the media and the monarchy the book is well worth reading. There’s no doubt that the media’s treatment of the royal family (and the monarchy generally) has been shallow, sneering and self-serving. Many journalists have cause to be ashamed of their coverage of matters royal. The author’s textual criticism is no less persuasive for the smouldering rage with which it is delivered. He describes the media’s anti-Diana (and anti-Charles) campaigns with the righteous fury others have shown in chronicling Ken Starr’s pursuit of Bill Clinton.

A notable absence, however, is any deep understanding of the internal dynamic of journalists or journalism. This may or may not be surprising. Gerard Charles [Wilson]’s back-ground or qualifications are not mentioned anywhere in this quite handsomely presented and heavily endnoted book. A publisher’s letter says that he:

‘… has combined extensive experience in book publishing with a masters degree in political philosophy. ‘

Plainly, he has a well-stocked mind and a fluent literary style. But he has managed to escape from the newsroom (if, indeed, he ever entered one) uncontaminated by the general cynicism and also, he seems unconscious of the essential anarchy of the journalistic ethos.

[Gerard] Charles [Wilson] uses The Australian’s coverage of the royal family to illustrate and exemplify his thesis. Every throw-away line, cheap shot, non-sequitur, and ‘sources close to this typewriter’ piece of pseudo-reportage in the wall-to-wall coverage of the week between Diana’s death and funeral is exhaustively analysed. There is much to justify his criticism (in The Australian as elsewhere) – but much less to support his broader thesis of a conscious conspiracy to destroy the monarchy as an institution.

For one thing, neither The Australian (nor any other major paper) has an ‘editorial board’ to act as ‘thought police’. Mostly, there is a daily editorial conference, usually attended by senior writers of widely varying philosophical pre-dispositions (none of whom are exactly blushing wall-flowers when it comes to expressing a contrary view) which influences the content of the editorial-of-the-day only. Then there are two daily news conferences, where stories, op-ed pieces and ‘angles’ are discussed.

Editors have about as much control over the way stories are written as hospital bosses have over the conduct of particular surgical operations. As the Kelvin McKenzie-type put it in an episode of ‘Yes Minister’, editors are not so much generals in an army as ringmasters in a circus: they can book the acrobats but they can’t tell them which way to jump. Apart from approving the appointment of editors-in-chief, Rupert Murdoch plays no role whatsoever in any of it.

To the extent that the media has a collective mindset, it’s what sells papers (or boosts ratings). If the media exhibits an excitement for the new over the old, change over stability and chaos over order, that is generally because ‘nothing’s happening today’ is not a story. As Walter Cronkite supposedly said: news is not good news unless it’s really bad news in disguise. The media is a profoundly subversive institution, not because journalists are all disciples of Marx, but because the ebb and flow of events and ideas is always shaking our faith. It is also a necessary institution because we grow and evolve in response to the challenges of the times.

In its ferocious pursuit of the royals, the media has failed the test of ordinary decency rather than succeeded in a diabolical master plan. Yes, consumers have a right to know about the failings of public figures—but only to the extent that these impact on their fitness for office. Senior journalists would understandably cry foul should anyone publicise their sexual adventures, financial dealings, and personal quirks. As a class, they have done to others what they would never have done to them. They have been guilty of hypocrisy and self-righteousness more often than ideological malice. By and large, journalists eschew ideology. Instead, they have a tendency to turn public life into a series of morality plays with particular individuals and institutions typecast as bad guys.

If journalists were just the ‘stalkerazzi’ of Gerard Charles [Wilson]’s demonology, almost no one would buy papers. In fact, the media’s harshest critics are invariably the most hooked; sometimes, to be sure, out of public duty but, no less often perhaps, to see who gets flayed next. The fact that there is a ready market for prurience masquerading as news does not excuse the media’s ‘publish and be damned’ approach. But if, as [Gerard] Charles [Wilson] insists, the forces of self-destruction are abroad, the contagion is certainly not confined to journalists.

The age is dominated by the question: what’s in it for me? Why should I surrender my judgement to anyone else’s? Why should I value anything which has no immediate use? Where Western culture is concerned (although not third world culture or the physical environment) the idea that we have a responsibility to introduce our grandchildren to the patrimony of our grandfathers is deeply uncongenial. In common with all other institutions, the monarchy’s problem is that it has been stripped of the benefit of the doubt. For this, the fault lies not in our journalists but in ourselves.

[Gerard] Charles [Wilson]’s book would be much more effective as an argument if he had criticised the media for failing to uphold its own standards rather than for matching to the beat of an alien and dangerous drum. But conspiracy theories can help market books just as effectively as royal scandals can help sell papers. Perhaps Messrs Murdoch and Charles have that much in common.

THE JACOBINS OF THE MEDIA
by Sam Roggeveen

QUADRANT

On the eve of the republican referendum, we have here an unapologetically Christian conservative attack on the forces driving Australian republicanism. The Media of the Republic is a political and moral tirade against the excesses of Enlightenment liberalism, an uncompromising diatribe against the media, and even in part a mystery. One hesitates to say ‘murder mystery’, but the author makes a convincing case that at the very least the media metaphorically (and maybe even literally) drove Diana, Princess of Wales, to her death.

The media’s coverage of the death of the princess serves as the vehicle for this book’s central argument, which is that an ideology the author calls ‘theoretic-republicanism’ is the primary destructive force in Australian public life. And while Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian is at the centre of the investigation, author Gerard Charles [Wilson] argues that theoretic-republicanism is the guiding ideology of the entire media and indeed of Australia’s ruling class as a whole.

The book takes the form of a detailed content analysis of The Australian in the week following Diana’s death, with this narrative interrupted only by a chapter explaining the historical and philosophical underpinnings of theoretic-republicanism. Those acquainted with Edmund Burke’s attacks on the French Philosophes, and Michael Oakeshott’s anti-Rationalism will find this chapter familiar reading. The author argues that theoretic-republicanism stands in direct opposition to traditional Australian life.

But what does any of this have to do with the media’s coverage of the death of Diana? The author argues that the role of the media in furthering theoretic-republicanism’s agenda is crucial, and accuses them of nothing less than a relentless propaganda campaign against every element of traditionalism in Australia, including of course, the constitutional monarchy. At every turn the media falsely and even maliciously misrepresented the actions of various members of the royal family in order to paint a picture of a hidebound, stiff, uncaring institution which had lost its relevance to Australia.

The account given of the depths to which the media sunk whilst prosecuting this campaign is one of the highlights of The Media of the Republic. Gerard Charles [Wilson] mercilessly exposes what he calls ‘the gutless bastardry of the media’, the breathtaking lengths which they went to either deny or ignore their culpability in the stalking of Diana. In the aftermath of her death, members of the media protested that because Diana had manipulated them to further the aims of her charities, this thereby justified their persecution of her. The author dubs this the ‘You asked for it’ defence, which ignores the morally obvious point that dealing with the media on one level does not excuse intrusion on every level. Paparazzi are also quoted as arguing that celebrities should simply be more co-operative in the relentless quest for new photographs, which the author likens to ‘asking the rape victim to be done with the struggle and submit to being violated.’

The moral shamelessness of the media seems to know no bounds. Another line of defence is to accuse us, the public, of guilt by association: we consume the media product therefore we are all partly responsible for Diana’s death—though this defies the most basic moral reasoning. How can reading about or looking at an act make one complicit in the act itself?

Lastly there is the ever-convenient pose of democratic duty: the public’s right to know. ‘It is a measure of the prevailing moral blindness,’ says the author, ‘that so many commentators cannot get their heads around the fundamental proposition that media persecution of an individual is wrong in itself.’ If such outright condemnation sounds a little extreme, reflect on these issues again when, as the author predicts will soon happen, the photos taken of Diana and Dodi at the crash sight are bought and published by one of our women’s magazines.

But the spin doctors of Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Disgusting Empire’ need not have bothered constructing such rickety moral barricades anyway, for soon enough evidence of drunk driving on the part of Diana’s chauffeur came to light, and in their own minds the media were off the hook. The author in fact devotes the entire last chapter to the crash itself, arguing that it was not Henri Paul’s drunkenness but the coordinated ambush tactics of the paparazzi which were really to blame. But it is a shame the book places so much emphasis on the crash, because although the case implicating the paparazzi is interesting it moves the reader away from the far more important issue of theoretic-republicanism. This is by far the strongest theme of the book, and it is undermined somewhat by leaving the reader with the impression that the author’s entire argument is built on proving the culpability of the paparazzi in the crash, a case which he cannot, by his own admission, make.

So what of theoretic-republicanism? Is it really the governing ideology which informed all aspects of media coverage of Diana’s death? Of course the book only looks at The Australian and has no pretensions to being a comprehensive literature review, yet Gerard Charles [Wilson] makes a compelling case that the bias he describes in this one newspaper is manifest throughout the media. One example will have to suffice here, concerning The Australian‘s correspondent Juliet Herd. It is worth quoting in full, as it conveys all the crude prejudices, all the simple-minded bigotry of the theoretic-republican mind which the author is trying to convey.

Already the royal family can be seen to have closed ranks around the boys, taking them to church at Balmoral on the morning of their mother’s death—showing them that duty is the royal way of overcoming grief. But the boys will also need to be given the chance to express their loss through tears and talk and Charles, despite his stiff reserve at times, is likely to encourage them to release their anger in private.

Throughout the book, the author’s response to comments like these is of exasperation and even disbelief. That any citizen of an ostensibly Christian country like Australia can display such breathtaking ignorance about the comfort which religious ceremony can provide in times of grief, dismissing it airily as a matter of royal duty, is for the author a testament to how far this country has declined.

The reference to Prince Charles’ ‘stiff reserve’ is indicative of another deeply-held media conviction, namely that the heir to the throne is a cold, starched, emotionally detached eccentric, deserving only of mockery. To the media, Prince Charles’ reserved demeanour in the days following Diana’s death was completely inexplicable: ‘the more Prince Charles remained in control of himself, the more the media made him out to be stuffy, feelingless, emotionally crippled, and so on.’ For the author though, Prince Charles represents a lost ideal of manhood; upright, composed and dignified, yet capable at important times of displaying genuine love and affection for his sons.

At times the book gets a little carried away in its condemnation of the ‘feral male’ who has replaced this man of traditional virtues. Nevertheless, The Media of the Republic completely convinced me that the media’s cynical ridiculing of Prince Charles is symptomatic of their hostility to the values he represents. I still am convinced of this, and yet the recent media frenzy surrounding the retirement of [Australian cricket captain] Mark Taylor caused me to reflect on this matter in a new light.

In the early stages of Australia’s last [cricket] tour to England, at a point in his professional life when he was being put under almost unbearable scrutiny and pressure by a relentless media, when the prevalent male sporting culture would have told him that this was the time to lash out, Taylor maintained his self-control. Taylor’s stoicism and quiet dignity represent a definitively Australian equivalent to the ‘manliness’ which the author so admires in Prince Charles. Yet far from being mocked by the media for his steadfastness (as Charles constantly is), Taylor received nothing less than a media beatification after announcing his retirement. Figures such as football champion Ted Whitten and Catholic political identity B. A. Santamaria, who in very different ways both represented traditional Australian life, were also paid touching, heartfelt tributes by the media when they died.

No doubt the author would reply that such examples represent the remnants of traditional Australia rather than a sign of its robust health, and although I have no doubt that the dogma described in this book as theoretic-republicanism is the dominant one in the media, the Taylor case raises doubts over whether it is quite so pervasive as the author argues. In a similar vein Gerard Charles [Wilson] implies that the bias he describes is determined by the very highest echelons of the media empires, and that individual journalists simply bow to their editorial masters in putting a particular ideological spin on a story. Once again I doubt that the rot is quite this deep, and in any case it undermines the author’s own assumption about the liberal anti-authoritarianism of these very same journalists.

But these occasional instances of exaggeration might be excused as attempts to try to goad critics into a debate, and if this is the case then good luck to those critics, for the author comes well armed. I remember an SBS interview a few years back in which this magazine’s literary editor, Les Murray, said that the victory of the republic would be a victory for the politically correct. We could certainly quibble about the term ‘political correctness’ (it is difficult to know what it means any more) but I remember thinking at the time that Murray was on to something, and after reading this book I know exactly what he meant. The Media of the Republic is a dagger

THE JOURNALISTIC MIND
by John Young

NEWS WEEKLY

The author contends that a corrupt media hounded the Princess of Wales to her death, and that the media has an underlying philosophy which he calls theoretic republicanism. Chapter two explains this philosophy and related matters; the rest of the book is devoted primarily to the analysis of media accounts in the week following Diana’s death. Background material is given concerning the media’s treatment of the Princess in the years before.

Gerard Charles [Wilson] claims: ‘…no marriage could endure the scrutiny that Charles and Diana’s had to endure. To be constantly the object of attention, to have one’s words and actions constantly analysed, to have one’s image constantly relayed around the world, is a burden that nobody has ever had to endure and nobody could endure. But then to have the added foul and unscrupulous behaviour of the paparazzi, directed by the media bosses, this amounts to a new type of public execution where the observed pain is far more exquisite than any guillotine or slashing Islamic sword could deliver’ (p. 41).

It is impossible, the author argues, to understand what the modern media is about unless one sees the philosophy which is being consciously or unconsciously followed. It is a philosophy grounded on ideas propagated in the period wrongly called the Enlightenment, but reaching back to the nominalism of William of Ockham in the fourteenth century.

It is a philosophy owing much to David Hume (1711-1776), considered by Gerard Charles [Wilson] to be ‘the most destructive and most influential of modern philosophers’ (p.259). It is a philosophy which maintains that we can know only individuals, not common natures. We can know particular characteristics of this or that man, but not an essence which every human being possesses. The result is that no universal order independent of human decisions can be admitted. There is no natural moral law, there are no unchanging social principles which must be followed if society is to be healthy. Any moral order and any social order has to be created by man, and is therefore subject to man, which means subject to radically free individuals who choose to follow these man-made rules.

This outlook has no place for God, for religion, for spiritual realities transcending the material world. Power determines who is ruler and who is ruled. And power is exercised particularly through the media, which strives to control people’s thinking by propaganda which masquerades as objective reporting, but which in fact distorts the truth and incessantly promotes the theoretic-republican agenda.

Mr Charles sees the basic reason for attacks on the royal family as the hostility felt by this outlook for tradition. Whatever the personal failings of members of royalty, the royal family does stand for tradition, for permanence, for a hierarchical order, for a vision that goes beyond the material.

The book examines in detail the events of the weeks following the death of Diana, analysing the newspaper reports and trying to get inside the minds of the journalists. Much attention is given to media efforts, implicit and explicit, to justify the constant hounding of Diana and Charles, and to excuse the behaviour of the paparazzi—especially their behaviour on the last fatal night. The author builds a case for holding that paparazzi vehicles, in the frenzied efforts to get photographs, directly caused the accident.

Written in a direct, clear and vigorous style, with a refreshing independence of thought, this book highlights a merciless media in pursuit of sensational news. But at a deeper level, it lays bare the fundamental mind-set of the general media.

Writer … and still in the fifties