David Bowman, Australian Society, August 1989, pp. 17-22.
Not many people will be surprised to hear that Paddy McGuinness has always been contrary. At Riverview College, Sydney, the Irish Jesuits thought he would make a fine priest, but he thought otherwise and was an atheist by the age of 15 or 16. On becoming a cadet journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald he fell out, instantly, with the editorial manager, Lou Leck, and departed, remarking that it was the Herald‘s loss, not his. Teaching economics at the University of New South Wales, he failed 60 per cent of a final-year class, and when the authorities revised the marks he said that if those were the standards he wasn’t prepared to accept them, and left. Now, in each week about three-quarters of a million copies of the Australian newspaper go out carrying the opinions of Paddy McGuinness, and these are as contrary and independent and sceptical and courageous as his supporters would wish. Or perhaps they are merely contrary, bigoted, ignorant and blustering.
People do disagree strongly about McGuinness, and he, huffing out five columns a week, Tuesday to Saturday, gives them plenty to disagree about. He has become a priest after all, a secular priest, garbed in black, preaching not only economics but political and social beliefs grounded in economics. At its best, his writing is clear and well argued; at its worst, it is like a wandering steamroller, crushing without much distinction the unbelievers, the erring, the misguided, and the “loonies” — the loonies of the left, the loonies of the right, the loonies of the feminist movement, the loony animal liberationists. That is his style. There is no question that he is read: he draws more letters, I should think, than any other columnist in the country, and the best of the letters are more intellectually rigorous than the column.
When he began in the Australian last February, that paper, in a flight of fancy, described his position as “arguably leftist” apparently on the strength of his family background which, he says, instilled in him a respect for ordinary people. And there was a long-ago interest in philosophical anarchism, the legacy of which seems to be his dislike of the legacy of which seems to be his dislike of centralised authority today. Earlier, at high school, he had adopted dogmatic Marxist beliefs, Marx to be extruded in due course, dogmatism to remain. There were other influences. He believes his thinking has moved in directions that can help ordinary people, while others are bogged down in rigid old ideas and contribute nothing practical. Today people usually see him as a man of the right, some say a profound conservative (which he would certainly deny), so that there was some surprise when in March he went to bat for Norm Gallagher, facing contempt proceeding brought by the Arbitration Commission.
There should have been surprise; there was nothing inconsistent. The cause was free speech, an easy one, and besides, he probably disliked the Arbitration Commission even more than he disliked Norm Gallagher. Gallagher was hauled up because he had let off steam to reporters when the commission deregistered his Builders Labourers Federation, and McGuinness gave evidence to the effect that not only Norm Gallagher but a lot of other people, including himself, did not think much of the Arbitration Commission. (“To expect economic sanity from the Arbitration Commission is like expecting celibacy from a rabbit”, he wrote once.) Norm got off one count but was fined $250 on another, whereupon McGuinness wrote a column saying that the conviction was a stain upon democracy in Australia, and strengthened the case for a Bill of Rights.
“I’ve got quite a bit to say in the areas of economics, politics, law, literature, society and history that is reasonably interesting”, McGuinness told the Australian in an interview before he began. So perhaps it is time to see if he is making good the boast. For a start, he tells us that the country’s only hope is to open up the economy to the rest of the world to a degree that Keating has not yet achieved, and with this goes more of the usual formula: competition is the bottom line, the Accord has had it, the unions have to be curbed, and so on. In some other directions his views are rather more original and interesting. He is contemptuous, as he was all those years ago when he taught at the University of New South Wales, of the intellectual standards of Australian universities (“debased intellectual milieu”). He thinks investigative journalism has become “almost a synonym for the peddling of unsupported allegations and smears”, but he has become just a little more impressed by the corruption disclosures in Queensland, having in the past consistently pooh-poohed the notion that corruption was a real problem in Australia.
Most interestingly, he is obsessed by what he calls “the AVRSL”, or the Anti-Vietnam-war RSL, by which he means the generation of young Australians who once demonstrated and worked against the Vietnam war, and who now hold various positions of influence, sharing notions they like to think “progressive”, but really alienated by the mainstream of society. So the theory goes. It is not original. Years back, I recall the conservative Anthony McAdam writing on the topic, with particular reference to infiltration of the ABC. McGuinness sees his AVRSL everywhere. He sees them dominating the white-collar administrative classes, causing the problems in education and journalism, and even helping kill the great Sydney pub, the Criterion in Liverpool Street. The AVRSL was presented to readers of the Australian as a simple truth, and a splendid example it is of how to make assertion into fact. Where, one asks, is the supporting evidence? If you object that the number of anti-Vietnam-war activists was too small to account for the state of affairs described, you will find that McGuinness has anticipated you. We are not talking only of the anti-Vietnam activists, but also those who succumbed to their influence in later years. Ah.
Karl Marx and Keith Looby
Here perhaps we should begin to separate the man from his column. He is, fortunately, more amiable than his writing, being polite and courteous, and from the accounts of his friends a good family man. He was a decent bloke even at school, and pretty bright, according to a contemporary to whom his politics are anathema. He is married to Brigitte, from East Germany, and they have an 11-year-old daughter.
Around their pleasant home — dominating in parts — are paintings by Keith Looby, through whom McGuinness has already got as close as he will ever get to immortality. Looby’s portrait, P.P. McGuinness with Paddy Doll, now hanging in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, was painted for the Archibald Prize of 1979, and it was widely thought should have won easily. “No other choice”, said the Sydney Morning Herald art critic, but somehow the judging was botched. Humphrey McQueen, in his book on Looby, Suburbs of the Sacred (Penguin 1988), describes it as “one of the few aesthetically important portraits made in Australia … Paddy’s face lent itself to Lobby’s moulding of paint and the nose is perfect for a drinker, while other features were obliterated under sunglasses, fat and beard. Looby stuck an old pair of the dark glasses that Paddy always wears into the paint. The doll is recognisable as Paddy, yet it is reminiscent of Karl Marx, and thus of Paddy’s erstwhile radicalism.” Looby was disgusted by the decision, and in his next year’s entry, a portrait of Anne Summers, he twisted the judges’ tails by including a Paddy doll in the canvas.
McGuinnes and Looby have been friends for many years, since the days when McGuinness, the older by 15 months, was a young man on the fringes of the Sydney Push, posing as a model for drawing classes at East Sydney Tech and contributing Marx to Looby’s education.
On the Escalator
McGuinnes became a journalist in the end because he wanted to exercise influence. To be a pub talker, even a distinguished one, had its limitations. His was a late entry, but even in newspaper journalism that is not necessarily a handicap — it may be an advantage; it depends on your talents and on what you have done in the meantime. McGuinness, after the false start at Fairfax, threw himself into economics, taking an honours degree at Sydney University, teaching briefly at the University of New South Wales, then learning a bit more about real life — as a stage hand with the Australian Opera, as a psychiatric nurse, as a labourer for the Water Board. And he attended philosophy lectures.
By 1963 he had saved enough money to go overseas. He was finding Australian society “narrow, provincial and racist”, as he told an interviewer a few years ago, and he was “pretty crapped off”. In London he became chief economist with the Moscow Narodny Bank, took a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, worked with the OECD in Paris, then, back in London, taught economics. He had now established a link with Vic Carroll, editor of the Financial Review in Sydney, contributing analytical pieces on the British economy, on monetary policy, and other ephemera. In all he spent eight years away from Australia, and when he returned in 1971 it was natural that Carroll would want him on the paper for his expertise. He left after 18 months to become economics advisor to Bill Hayden, Minister for Social Security in the Whitlam government, but in 1974 was by his own account persuaded to return as economics editor by Maximilian Walsh, then editor.
He was on the escalator. In 1980, he was editor; in 1982, editor-in-chief, a pretty grandiose post for a small paper, which the Financial Review was (and is). In 1985 it was back to London and Paris as European editor of the Financial Review. He returned to Sydney in 1987, and began a four-day-a-week column at the beginning of last year. He wrote a fifth column for the Times on Sunday and after the paper died, for the Sun-Herald. Then, this year, he moved to the Australian. It will be seen that his career as a journalist has followed a narrow path. He has never been a news-breaker, but a specialist in analysis, comment and opinion, for which there are few openings. All along, it has been an exercise of influence. And despite his reluctance to categorise himself now, it is self-evident that his current views and attitudes have made him congenial to the most illiberal of the major Australian newspapers, and brought him a privileged position there, in harmonious relationship with the very conservative editor. A mutual admiration links editor and columnist, and it is not an attraction of opposites.
At the Other Pole
The itch for influence may have decided McGuinness upon journalism eventually, but there is a more obvious explanation for his early attempt. His father, Frank McGuinness, was editor of Ezra Norton’s Melbourne Truth in the thirties, and the first editor of the Sydney Daily Mirror when Norton founded it in 1941, working under editor-in-chief, Mark Gallard. Frank McGuinness died in office in 1949, when Paddy was 11, leaving mostly debts.
He and his wife were both of Irish descent, and both staunch Labor supporters. He was a Catholic, she a Presbyterian, and though his family had been in Australia since 1860, and hers perhaps longer, the cause of Irish nationalism burned still. Thus in 1938, when their son was born, they christened him Padraic Pearse McGuinness.
The Padraic Pearse whom they honoured was the president of the provisional Irish government proclaimed at Easter 1916 by the rebels who seized the Dublin Post Office and other key points and held out for a time against hopeless odds. Pearse and 15 others were later executed by firing squad. It is a sad, terrible and proud story, and to go through life with a name that chains one to it must surely affect a man in some way. For a start, of course, it has provided the most sonorous byline in Australian journalism: “By Padraic Pearse McGuinness”. And yet — is it just a bit too showy for everyday use in this prosaic land? McGuinness signs his columns “Padraic P. McGuinness”, and, alas will even answer to P.P. He tends to save the full broadside for the telephone book and state occasions such as the paper he wrote last November for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, titled “Australia 1988 — State of the Nation” (which incidentally gives a fuller picture of the author’s ideas than is possible here).
But there is more than a name between the two Padraic Pearses. Pearse, too, was a journalist and a teacher, and edited a Gaelic-language newspaper called An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light). As a writer he, too, was naturally didactic, and according to his biographer Ruth Dudley Edwards he strode powerfully across a range of topics remarkably similar to that of his namesake. Pearse, too, used to state his convictions as absolute truths. He had great moral courage and was no more cut out to be the faithful follower of any political party than is McGuinness. Oh, and at one stage of his life Pearse dressed in black. Naturally, Pearse looked back in sorrow to Charles Stewart Parnell, the Nationalist Party leader, and was bitter at his downfall. Padraic Pearse McGuinness has called his small daughter Parnell.
But these are slight things and McGuinness discourages speculation that he might have any special interest in Pearse. He has visited Ireland but never sought out relics. Pearse was a romantic, deeply religious, and so far from rationality that he took folk tales and legends literally. McGuinness is at the other pole. Pearse became preoccupied with death as the key to Irish freedom, a concept that McGuinness seems to find repugnant. He is in fact contemptuous of the chronic Irish incapacity to overcome the past. As to the black clothes — there is an element of the poseur in this, as McGuinness will cheerfully acknowledge, pointing out, however the practical advantages: for a start, you don’t have to decide what colours to wear and match each day. As to any foolish notion that some repressed religiosity might be showing — isn’t black also the colour of existentialism and anarchy?
Cigars And Champagne
One of the more enjoyable quirks of Australian journalism, providing a happy diversion for bystanders, is the enduring feud between the dry Irishman, Paddy McGuinness, and the wet Irishman, Brian Toohey. McGuinness has the larger circulation, Toohey the sharper wit. Their views are largely incompatible, of course. Toohey sees McGuinness as a bigot and a hypocrite, urging economic policies that are turning the country over to the rich. Intermittently in the Eye he runs a small comic strip, Cuddles the Commentator, who wears the unmistakable trade mark of heavy beard and dark glasses. (Typical punchline: “There would be no poverty if people like me were allowed a tax deduction for domestic servants.”) He satirises and excerpts.
It must be said that McGuinness played into Toohey’s hands when in May last year he wrote a column in the Financial Review headed “Tucking into Excellence”. A series of quotations appeared in the Eye, of which the following catches the flavour:
“When Mr Senderens cooked at the Regent, while the meal was excellent it was not of the memorable quality which he provides in Paris, a quality which makes me vividly remember a lunch I had there more than 12 months ago — and not just for the price, over $800.”
And McGuinness goes on to criticise the Regent for carrying only Davidoff cigars, observing that they are to good Havanas “what a cheap champagne is to Roederer Crystal”.
A biff for the Labor Party follows for its envy and “boofheaded puritanism”; and McGuinness can see no reason why ordinary wage-earners cannot benefit from the best of food, cooking and restaurant service, “As the French who flock to the best restaurants on special occasions know”. To this Toohey appended a comment of his own: “Readers will be delighted to learn that not only is Paddy a food and wine expert … he also delivers a great fire-and-brimstone sermon on the need to cut real wages.”
McGuinness, for his part, has to wait for Toohey to get into the news, which is usually through what Toohey calls his Early Archival Release Scheme, a satirical reference to the leaked documents by which he throws a light into the darker corners of government. When this happens, McGuinness will protest about dangers to national security and the irresponsibility of journalists and others who deal in these wares, and urge action to uncover the leaks.
When the federal government hauled Toohey before the High Court on a fishing expedition last November, the basis of the case was speculation by Foreign Minister Evans that Toohey might publish in the Eye an article naming an officer of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and describing his operations in a South-east Asian country. Evans, while the case was under way, told a radio interviewer that two ASIS contacts had been killed “in circumstances where a connection was easily able to be drawn between them and our operation”. Only much later did it become clear that this had nothing to do with anything ever published anywhere. In the meantime, Paddy McGuinness appeared on Hinch at Seven to be questioned by Emily Booker. As reported in the Eye, it ran like this:
BOOKER: Do you think he (Toohey) plans to publish at all costs?
McGUINNESS: Yes. Including the threat to the lives of Australian operatives overseas.
BOOKER: What do you think about that?
McGUINNESS: I think that’s contemptible … Brian’s the classic black Irishman. He’s full of undirected malice and bile. Brian’s genre isn’t journalism, it’s hatred.
Toohey wrote: “McGuinness, of course, was in no position to make any informed statement about what I might be publishing — or the likely consequences. But this did not inhibit Booker or McGuinness from proceeding on the unchallenged basis that he did [know], despite the fact that I had stated clearly that I had no intention of naming the person whom the government had raced to the High Court about.”
Well, that’s television. Since then, Toohey has spoken on other matters at a Press Council seminar, and in the Australian McGuinness has described his remarks as “trivial and jejune”, joining this writer, who also spoke, in the same flatteries.
Quantity vs Quality
If anything tells against McGuinness’ column, it is not his views and attitude as much as his style and disagreeable tone. The loonies that I mentioned early on were a symptom. The Catholic Education Commission is not merely wrong, but “arrogant” and “impertinent in the extreme”. The report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission on street children is “unforgivably sloppy”, a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”, the outcome of a “pharisaical approach”. “It is ridiculous that …”; “It is even more ridiculous that …”; “The truth is that …”; “It is precisely clear that …”. Not everybody enjoys a birching over breakfast. The strange thing is that McGuinness can also write, “It is surely time that all newspapers and other media began to reflect on the desirability of conducting debate, analysis and reporting in a civilised manner, without the gratuitous sneer or the cheap jibe”.
Can we fallible journalists really afford to be unnecessarily severe? McGuinness can pontificate about the study of Latin and Greek, yet refer to an “anno mirabilis”; he can display a knowledge of literature, yet think a quotation from Dr Johnson comes from Adam Smith; complain of the inability of many teachers to handle formal grammar, yet in the same column write the following: “It is not, of course, to denigrate other great cultures (it ought to be said, for the sake of the ‘relativists’, that not all cultures are equal) like those of Asia to stress the special importance to native English speakers of Greek and Latin and the associated history.”
He can be careless with the facts. While still writing for the Financial Review, he said there was “clear evidence” that Wilfred Burchett “was active in the cross-examination and torture of American prisoners-of-war, and not only in Vietnam”. Quite false; Burchett’s record in Vietnam is clear, and no one, as far as I know, has claimed that he tortured anyone anywhere. There is evidence, not universally accepted, that he cross-examined Allied POWs during the Korean war. In the Australian McGuinness wrote a harsh piece about New Zealand (“Essentially, as it stands, New Zealand is doomed to decline”). A fortnight later, with the benefit of a visit to that country, he recanted and wrote several reasoned and reasonable pieces. As, of course, he is perfectly capable of doing, having shown as much in a range of columns about Australian attitudes to Indonesia, legalising heroin, the tax file number system, and so on.
Five columns a week is an enormous burden, and while McGuinness shows no sign of wilting, I wonder whether he is not paying a price nevertheless. Does he want a column a day, or does he want it good? Is he to be a careful thinker, or a mental gymnast? For this reader at least, too many of these columns — not all, of course — are flawed, either by inadequate argument or inadequate writing. Journalism, of course, is all compromises, and no doubt McGuinness thinks he has got it right, though the serious criticism in some of the published letters can be seen as a warning.
McGuinness has an unprecedented chance to help improve the quality of public debate in this country, and it will be a pity if it is lost by the blind pursuit of quantity.
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