John’s notes for March

Breaking News : Sex, Lies and the Murdoch Succession by Paul Barry, 2013

Last March in my personal reading I commented to the group on ‘Rupert Murdoch; An Investigation of Political Power’ by David McNight. I mentioned then that ‘This is not a biography in the sense of being a detailed examination of Rupert Murdoch’s life, views and actions. Rather, as the title properly indicates, just enough background and family information is included to explain the processes he has employed to create a vast media conglomerate and to be able to impress upon it his views and expectations. The emerging irony in Rupert’s long life is that the processes he has used in the past may well now be turning against him. This can be seen in the ‘News of the World’ implosion based on responsibility for phone hacking and in his relations with politicians (so far, most evident only in Britain).’

Paul Barry (Media Watch) has now taken his professional life in his hands (though one hopes he might outlive Rupert) to fill in the gaps on our very own Citizen Kane. This volume gives some very useful information on Rupert’s silver-spooned early life, the scarifying impact of the loss of his father, his marriages (just in time to cover the Wendy Deng breakup), his three key children (Elisabeth, Lachlan and James) along with their claims to the throne and concludes with an excellent coverage of his current holdings and influences along with the tabloids – hacking affair to date.

Apart from a degree of anger and dislike much sharpened by the breadth and depth of bastardry involved in the hacking scandal and associated matters, it is still hard not to stand in awe of the sheer chutzpah, drive and nervelessness of the man and his capacity to charm and lie his way through situations that must surely evoke pity and some concern in others. This is the case regardless of whether he is sacking yet another business employee or manoeuvring to get rid of the Chairman of a board or entrapping both Left and Right wing governments that sought his support. Barry succeeds in making it clearer as to what drives Rupert and the odd mixture of dot-point issues that concern him and become the hymn sheet for his employees. It is from this that derives so much of the real, imagined and manufactured sleaze that constituted the News of the World Scandal and the distortions that have come to typify his news organs from ‘The Times’ and ‘The Australian’ to the depths of Fox News. It is impossible, otherwise, to understand why he accepts an annual $100 million loss on his three main ‘quality’ newspapers.

Before anyone thinks they can dance on the ashes of the Murdoch empire, Barry makes it clear that the full-time whistle has not yet blown and that the old dissembler is as sharp as ever and more determined to settle his succession on the terms he seeks. Given his mother’s age at death, there could even be another twenty years of Murdochism to absorb and deflect. It is sobering to reflect that the split of his empire into film and television versus newspapers, carried out under boardroom pressure, has simply solidified his grip on his holdings and simultaneously vastly increased their value. How do you get this man down?

The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton,  2014

This is quite a different book to much of the de Botton that I have previously read. The title is enticing and the contents are interesting and at times instructive. However after a deal of being told what ‘should’ be (the most overworked word in the book) this reader is left with a sense of having being usefully challenged but with very little sense of how to act on one’s greater awareness.
de Botton points out that there is ‘news’ and there are ‘news programs’ but that an artefact of perhaps the last 50 years has been a concept of ‘the news’. Many of us have gripes and misgivings about what is presented to us today when we can literally be exposed to a range of 24 hour news presentations which seem to endlessly explore the same content areas de Botton describes below, always lacing their material with doses of fear, curiosity, envy, amusement, pessimism and disappointment. de Botton systematically takes the arenas of Politics, World News, Economics, Celebrity, Disaster and Consumption and deconstructs how these are currently dealt with, finding that the nature of topic choices and even the process of such choosing lead to distortions that are often maladaptive for individuals and society.
At this point, he has my attention and I must confess to being intrigued by his analyases but most particularly those of Politics, World News and Celebrity (it must be those haunting images of Justin Berber police interviews!). It is certainly an interesting book to read after a thorough dousing in Murdoch mania.
The problem is that there are plenty of stimulating ideas here but not much more. I was certainly stimulated and may have been motivated to look more carefully at some of my choices in news media. Apart from that (which may be enough anyway for a ‘user’s manual’) there is not a lot more here.
One of my personal peeves is a TV program entitled ‘The Project’. de Botton has served to reinforce my view that its grim determination to find something ‘jokey’ in the most unlikely material is a triumph of distorted style over substance. I feel less guilty about my judgement and I can go on sampling and constructing my own news reality.

The End of the Homosexual by Dennis Altman, 2013

Reading this book was a little like seeing one’s own life in parallel flashback. Not that there is any specific similarity for me, but so many of the events, places and influences all struck a strong chord of recognition (Altman is two years younger than me). If there were two books that set in train my life’s interest in who and what I was, they would have to be D J West’s ‘Homosexuality’ (1955, 1960) and Dennis Altman’s ‘Homosexual Oppression and Liberation’ (1971,2,3,). The concluding chapter of Altman’s initial work was ‘The End of the Homosexual?’ and he has taken what was essentially a predictive query and used it to title review a life and time devoted to an analysis of homosexual sociology, liberation and, more recently, Queer culture.
While DJ West’s work probably terrified me in my late teens especially with its heavy Freudian influence on parental causation (modified in later editions) and I appreciated his later work on male prostitution, Altman’s work was a beacon for its time and was published far and wide. He remains 40 years on probably the only Australian researcher and theorist in this area who has achieved world-wide status and acceptance (though he has not always been free of disagreements in the always fractious world of liberation and queer culture theory).
This is a measured and insightful view of those 40 years of theory, activism and change. No wonder it keeps on ringing bells of events and changes that centre around notions of ‘where are we?’ and ‘where are we going?’ Much of the tone of the work when examining the range of views from sexual outlaw to indistinguishable married couple cannot escape being quite ironic. No one denies that promiscuity continues a la Gindr as it did in many forms in the past within or without SOPVs. Altman says ‘The old warehouses along the Melbourne docks, once the home of wild dance parties, have disappeared in the urban renewal that has produced the sanitised streets of Docklands.’ One reviewer commented ‘The great irony of our age is that the partying young queers who made our cities liveable once more have become the grumbling old queens complaining about the noisy crowds and 24-hour licences they helped usher in’.
One of my favourite comments is when Altman notes the continuing importance of two phenomena – the business of coming out and the availability of groups with a shared understanding (like this very group).
He examines notions of liberation, the impact of the AIDS years and more recently the debate on equal rights in marriage. Inevitably, there is quite a lot about Altman’s own life history but he includes some very interesting information and insights about changes in a wide variety of international contexts which comes from his travels and representation on national and international stages as a speaker, researcher and consultant. I found this to be a very useful aspect of the book
I would happily recommend this book to anyone, young or old (but especially the younger) who wants to get a grasp within 200 pages on where the phenomenon of the ‘homosexual’ has been over our most seminal (no pun) period and whether we may be absorbed, for better or worse, into the heterosexual world.
Vive la difference!
(There is some use of academic language of the sociological variety but it occurs mostly early and is not too difficult to read with (or over)).

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