Back in August last year, journalist and writer Tim Robertson couldn't help but notice something missing in Morry Schwartz's Saturday Paper:
"There's been high praise for the Saturday Paper... the paper's commentary is insightful and well-informed: it has a stable of some of Australia's best writers... and it's a welcome addition to the Fairfax/News Ltd duopoly that's been one of the great scourges of Australian democracy... Nonetheless, the Saturday Paper's coverage of Israel's assault on Gaza has been conspicuously, well, non-existent. As the death toll rises and more atrocities are committed, the Saturday Paper's pages remain, to date, devoid of any comment. One might consider this highly unusual. After all, it's long been left to independent Left-wing media to support the Palestinian cause in the face of the grossly more powerful Israeli state and its supporters here in Australia. But for long-time readers of The Monthly, which, like the Saturday Paper, is published by Morry Schwartz, the coverage might not come as such a shock. (Mr Schwartz also publishes Black Inc. and the Quarterly Essay.)" (Excerpt from Palestine & the Saturday Paper, overland.org.au, 1/8/14)
Robertson went on to quote John Van Tiggelen, former editor of the Saturday Paper and now staff writer at The Monthly, speaking at the June 2014 Wordstorm Festival in Darwin. (Since Robertson's original quote is highly edited, I've reproduced the Van Tiggelen quote below more fully):
"I have to be careful here because I still get most of my wage from The Monthly. But, um, it's very different from Fairfax. I have to be honest here and say that at Fairfax, at the Good Weekend writing the long features, I never experienced political interference... Whereas when you work at a small publication, and it doesn't matter whether it's Graeme Wood at The Global Mail or Morry Schwartz... at The Monthly, you work very closely with a publisher and things do get spiked and you have raving rows about what goes through and what doesn't. And there are certain glass walls set up by the publisher that you can't go outside of. And we were talking about it beforehand with Antony [Loewenstein] - one of those is Palestine. [The Monthly's] seen as a left-wing publication but the publisher is very right-wing on Israel. He's Jewish, um, and he's very much to the Benjamin Netanyahu end of politics. So you can't touch it. We just don't touch it. There's just a glass wall goes around it." (abc.net.au/tv/bigideas, 25/6/14)
Robertson concludes correctly that the editorial regime which prevails at the Saturday Paper (and by extension at Schwartz's other publications such as The Monthly and the Quarterly Essay) "is no different to the Murdoch press' universal support for the Iraq War (though the scale is smaller): top-down, institutionalised censorship based on the political beliefs of one individual," adding that "It's fundamentally undemocratic and undermines the whole notion of a free press."
But that's not all - apart from being destructive of journalism per se, the erection of glass walls (and the phenomenon of self-censorship that accompanies it) leaves the consumer of that journalism in something of a quandary.
Take, for example, the following passage from Van Tiggelen's admiring profile of Labor's Tanya Plibersek in The Monthly of November 2014:
"If deputy leaders didn't get to choose their portfolios, foreign affairs might have eluded Plibersek. Her reputation has been built on tackling social issues, such as homelessness, domestic violence and discrimination. More significantly, she is of the Left, a faction less inclined to bipartisanship (and, specifically, to pro-Israel views) than the portfolio generally demands. Back in 2002, in an otherwise sharply argued speech dismantling the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Plibersek described Israel as a 'rogue state' for its flouting of UN resolutions. She also called its then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, a war criminal. Today, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find a crack between the Government and the Opposition on security or Middle East policy. Plibersek has long recanted her comments on Israel and appears to be in lock step with the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, on the matter of Australia's renewed military engagement in Iraq."
Take that highlighted bit. I may be wrong but Van Tiggelen seems to be suggesting that, but for the references in the speech to Israel, the speech was fine. And yet he makes no attempt to explain why those references are in any way problematic. More importantly, what about his failure to probe the issue and circumstances of Plibersek's recantation of those references, surely a matter that goes to the very heart of Plibersek's intellectual and moral courage? I mean, isn't that what any journalist worth his salt would do? Could Van Tiggelen be self-censoring or Schwartz red-penciling? Who is really speaking here, Van Tiggelen or Schwartz? See the problem?