For several years I have worked not so much in as on the public sphere. I have done this work mainly with Morry Schwartz, on books, the Quarterly Essay journal and The Monthly magazine. I say on not in because I am not so much a contributor to the public sphere as a kind of facilitator of it. My role has been to maintain places for writers to produce work of public interest that is then offered up to a commercial world of readers. In doing this, I’ve developed an interest in what makes for a secure and flourishing public sphere, what kinds of writing are most distinctive to it, and whether Australia indeed has a healthy public sphere.
First, there is the idea of a healthy national debate. I believe that a public sphere can be both corrupted and redeemed. The United States, I think, offers some very clear recent examples of this. With the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq War, we saw a concerted effort to ‘fix the facts around the policy’. Evidence about weapons of mass destruction was distorted or exaggerated in the service of a policy and an underlying world view. Unsupportable or dubious claims were made to the United Nations and in the media about military capabilities and al-Qaeda links; the doubts of UN inspectors were dismissed out of hand. On this view, the public sphere – especially in the form of critics and independent forums – was something to be shaped, suppressed and bullied. We saw papers such as the New York Times buckle, and unlikely possibilities aggressively presented as certainties by government. Later the Times would apologise for ‘coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been’ and acknowledge unbalanced reportage and instances when it ‘fell for misinformation’.
By contrast, when President Barack Obama gave his so-called race speech in 2008 – the speech entitled ‘A More Perfect Union’ – we saw the public sphere redeemed. It was a case of reasoned discursive argument on a topic of unresolved historical pain and conflict. Obama spoke of injustice and ‘the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow’:
Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For [some], the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years … the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.This is not to say that Obama’s speech resolved or redeemed this history, but that it at least redeemed for Americans the idea of a public sphere that was not corrupt.
What is the public sphere? At least since Immanuel Kant we have known it as the space in which people make public use of their reason, where they think for themselves, argue, criticise and so on, in a way that is open to the scrutiny of others and for the purpose of deliberation, discrimination and judgement. For Kant, you most fully think for yourself in the public sphere, not in private. The contrasts he draws are with private reflection on the one hand, and the official speech of institutions on the other.
In this connection the idea of discursive argument is absolutely crucial – it is the most distinctive mode of the public sphere. Reporters uncover and sift information. Scholars and policy-makers explain new findings and offer technical expertise. But argument, criticism, whatever you call it, is fundamental.
Reporters do such work, of course, but what I am referring to goes beyond reporting. Argument is the key mode in which claims are made on the public good or the national interest, in which civic ideals are pursued and contested, in which we form judgements in dialogue with others. Criticism is deeply connected to a distinctive voice, so that scholars can do it, but they have to forsake impersonality and abstraction to some degree. (That is, they have to depart from the strict protocols of formal academic discourse. In Anatomy of a Moment, a recent book about politics, Javier Cercas writes of ‘certain intellectuals whose difficulty in emancipating themselves from abstraction and the absolute prevents them from connecting ideas to experience’.)
For me, this kind of contribution is fundamentally a response or report that doubles as an argument or analysis. It can take many forms: Pauline Kael’s film reviews, George Orwell on English society and culture, Robert Manne on the Demidenko affair, to take some less party-political examples.
What of today’s Australian public sphere? Sometimes I think of it as if with its own geography and history, à la Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Thus, there are the new realms of the internet, some barbarous, some rich with potential. There are Gollum-like figures; there is the Murdoch imperium. For a long time it seemed that the academy in Australia had decided on a self-imposed exile from the public sphere. But now, what with online forums such as Inside Story and The Conversation, a return from exile seems to be occurring.
Cercas writes of key moments of decision that reveal both character and an underlying political culture. Thinking about this, I recall an incident of a few years ago. One morning in 2004 I received a fax from the attorney-general’s department informing me that they believed that Black Inc. and Andrew Wilkie were in breach of national security laws. The book we soon intended to publish on the misrepresentation of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War would need to be modified to prevent the breach being exacerbated.
We soon found ourselves in a meeting with the deputy head of the Office of National Assessments, the chief litigation counsel of the Australian Government Solicitor, and someone senior from ‘the attorney-general’s department’ – a pseudonym, we took it, for ASIO. The venue was our solicitor’s office, which was adorned with all manner of cricket memorabilia, thereby lending events an odd ambience, part le Carré, part Wisden.
Naturally, we sought legal advice. Our first port of call was a large and prestigious law firm that did a lot of work for the government. I remember ascending in the lift with Black Inc.’s proprietor, Morry Schwartz, for the meeting. Upon our arrival in the labyrinthine and well-appointed chambers, we were sounded out by a large, bald, suited butler as to whether we wanted tea, coffee or pastries. Then, very rapidly, we were told by a lawyer that we should do whatever the government wanted us to do. There was no other option.
In the lift on the way down, Morry and I looked at each other, shell-shocked. Then came one of those Cercasian moments. Morry decided to seek a second legal opinion. This time we dealt with a small, family-run law firm whose principal had dealt with the nation’s intelligence services years before. And this time we were advised that there was the possibility of negotiation.
Robert Manne came to the first of these meetings, and this produced another telling moment. Before we got down to negotiating particular amendments to the Wilkie manuscript, Manne made a short speech on the themes of secrecy, the right to publish and the necessary constraints that needed to be balanced with government accountability in the service of national security. This elicited an equally eloquent reply, in general terms, from the bowtie-wearing deputy head of the ONA on the necessity of safeguarding information about national intelligence capabilities, the role of confidentiality in the civil service and so on. For a moment it seemed that the public sphere had inserted itself into our meeting. After a couple of painstaking sessions, it was agreed that the book would be published with some small amendments concerning tradecraft. There was some give and take, and some non-negotiable changes.
What to make of this encounter? Was the public sphere any better off as a result of there having been a negotiation? Only marginally, I suspect. The book would have been published in any case. The risky and brave decision was Andrew Wilkie’s original one: to blow the whistle on the misrepresentation of intelligence, thereby forsaking his career in intelligence and inviting legal sanction. The important thing was that his arguments were made in public, first in the form of media interviews and then in a book.
But for me, the two small moments I have discussed – seeking a second legal opinion and participating in an open-ended discussion of principles and issues – showed up something essential to the maintenance of a public sphere. It is the impulse to discuss and negotiate – as opposed to order and obey – that is at the base of any healthy public sphere. This applies in small and large things. If there is not such a quality to our democratic considerations, even (or especially) when it comes to national security, then we are essentially moving in the same direction as the Bush administration did – to a point where we fix the facts around the policy, and where notions of expert advice, negotiation and principled refusal are ruled out of bounds.
There was one chilling moment in our meetings. We asked about the legal consequences for Andrew Wilkie following publication of his book. No direct threats were made, but the chief litigation counsel intoned, in an abstract and absolute manner, that ‘Mr Wilkie has not been forgiven’.
Connoisseurs of such things will note that Andrew Wilkie was elected to the Australian Senate in 2010. Not long after, he obtained a place on the Senate committee on intelligence and security, and also introduced whistle-blower legislation. For the term of the government, Mr Wilkie was in a position not to be forgiven, or forgotten, but to serve and protect the public sphere.
State of the Nation: Essays for Robert Manne will be released in October in print and ebook.