Saturday, January 10

Quadrant? Hoaxed with a spoof contribution? How could anybody tell?

Assuming you heard about it, what was your reaction to the hoax which led to right-wing magazine Quadrant running an article containing nonsense?
  • I enjoyed seeing editor Keith Windschuttle exposed as sloppy and/or biased
  • It was an outrageous example of fraudulent journalism and an unethical attack on a staunch defender of Australian cultural values.
  • Boring. Can't we move on to something interesting.

It's clear that most Australians, even if they heard of the hoax – revealed on by media commentator Margaret Simons last Tuesday and followed up by newspapers such as The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald the next morning – just didn't care.

The story would have died in a day or two. But then hoaxer Katherine Wilson released Simons from a confidentiality promise and allowed Simons to publish her name – but not her phone number or address.

Wilson outed herself only after journalists from the Melbourne Age and The Australian, as well as some bloggers, had sniffed out her identity. The hoaxer was about to go into labour with her second child (not a hoax, Ms Simons assured us) and refused to talk to reporters or be photographed.

Whatever, the naming of Katherine Wilson gave the story extra legs, but it's dying fast. Probably all but a hundred thousand or so Australians would pick the third option – Boring!

Among those who did bother to comment, a surprising number would tick the second option. It seems they don't believe an editor has a responsibility to check on an author's credentials, show the copy to someone who understands the topic, or do some basic fact-checking which would have exposed the hoax.

They believe that if a story is well-written and reinforces their preconceptions, it should get a run. It's criminal fraud by the author if it turns out to be nonsense. Does that says something about Quadrant readers?

However, this Grumpy Old Journo would not hesitate to tick the first box – it's a pleasure to see Windschuttle get his comeuppance. In the past, the Grumpy Old Journo blog has listed some of Windschuttle's arguments which go against reasonable, unbiased interpretations.

A little digression: GOJ has just checked Wikipedia and (at 5pm Sydney time, January 9) finds somebody has already updated its entry on Windschuttle. Perhaps the Quadrant editor's foes almost tripped over one another in the rush. The entry now includes:

In January 2009, Windschuttle was tricked into publishing a hoax article in Quadrant magazine. An [sic] bogus author using the pseudonym "biotechnologist Dr Sharon Gould" submitted an article claiming that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation had planned to produce food crops engineered with human genes. However, "Gould" revealed that s/he had regarded the article as an Alan Sokal style hoax. Windschuttle accused the online publication Crikey of being involved in the hoax, a claim which Crikey denied. Two days later, Crikey revealed that "Gould" was in fact the writer, editor and activist Katherine Wilson. Wilson agreed to being named by Crikey, as her name had already appeared in online speculation and it seemed likely that her identity was about to be revealed by other journalists.

Windschuttle has a first-class honours degree in history. He knows how to ferret through source material. But even a first-class degree does not guarantee the holder will interpret his sources reasonably.

For example, I cannot reconcile my reading of Surveyor-General John Septimus Roe's journal account of the 1834 “Battle of Pinjarra” skirmish south of Perth with the conclusions Windschuttle drew from the same pages.

In 2002, in the first volume of his The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Windschuttle checked the references and footnotes of writers who argued that Aboriginal people were badly treated in the European settlement of Tasmania. He found many errors, many of them trivial. But they led to the conclusion that all such historical accounts were false.

Indeed, only two weeks after Windschuttle published that first volume, conservative newspaper columnist Miranda Devine – once a member of the Quadrant editorial committee – wrote that Windschuttle had refuted the black armband view of our history. Not just made a strong case against it, mind you, but refuted it.

Refute means to disprove. Do not say “Indonesia today refuted claims that . . . “ unless the context makes it clear that Indonesia has, in fact, disproved the claims. Use denied, rejected or rebutted. – from News Limited's 2001 Style book (which may be in error about rebutted, which I'd call a synonym for refuted).

Windschuttle is passionate in his defence of freedom of speech – when defending it against left-wing attackers. He has criticised the student protests against historian Geoffrey Blainey in Melbourne and pyschologist Hans Eysenck half a century ago in London.

Yet when director Dawn Casey's labels at the then-new National Museum upset the conservative commentariat, Windschuttle was in the pack baying to get rid of her.

They succeeded. Prime Minister John Howard initially extended her contract for just a year, then failed to renew it. The Quadrant mob may defend fellow conservatives' right to free speech but they show a glint of satisfaction when they get an opponent sacked. There's a word for people like that, but I'd better not say it.

In mid-2007 with Paddy McGuinness as editor, Quadrant had acknowleged we're right to worry about global warming, and that governments should be doing something about it. Under Windschuttle, Quadrant has again become a bible for deniers of man-made climate change.

So thanks, Katherine Wilson, you've brightened my week. Apart from that, you haven't achieved much.

When Australia voted Prime Minister John Howard out of office and out of parliament, they also signalled they were bored with tired old men peddling tired old ideas. Back when the Quadrant conservatives had duchessed Howard into adopting their ideas as policy, we were right to be concerned.

Today, Windschuttle and Quadrant are not worth worrying about. People are bored with them.

Only a few newspapers bothered to run the hoax yarn. In today's Sydney Morning Herald (the issue for January 10-11), acting letters editor Harriet Veitch listed the issues which fired up letter writers in the past week – Gaza, dog control, George W. Bush's awarding the Medal of Freedom to John Howard and the Howards' stay in Blair House, and cricket. Quadrant, Windschuttle and the hoax didn't make the list.

But what about Grumpy Old Journo? Look at me – I'm posting this long, heavy analysis of a subject most Australians now find boring. No wonder I have so few readers.

There is hope. My previous post, in which I referred to my concerns, attracted some really helpful advice, and I've talked it over with some knowledgable friends. I expect my next post will consider a new approach for Grumpy Old Journo. I'll try to put something up by midday Monday, January 12.

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