Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

The new art of ad feminam

By Martin Spalding
Created 23/03/2006 - 09:18

G'day. This is Martin Spalding's first piece for Webdiary. The Australian article Martin is criticising appeared a week ago, and I should in fairness to Martin disclose that for various reasons it is my fault that the following was not published much earlier. But there is real grist here for Webdiarists, and a challenge to us in conclusion. Thanks Martin and welcome. Hamish.

by Martin Spalding

Probably the last thing Janet Albrechtsen needs is more attention. The self-styled Ann Coulter of the Australian media has made a fair name for herself from stirring the pot on the opinion pages of The Australian. Writing rationally and carefully would probably be detrimental for her career, as the flow of uncritical adulation and frothing outrage would both dry up. Such is the way in this hyper-renaissance of opinion over ‘straight’ journalism.

Knowing that questioning her arguments just plays into her hands, I have long switched off Albrechtsen's work altogether. What’s more, she has been badly caught out twice by the ABC's Mediawatch for some questionable journalism: once for using the words of a French academic out of context [1] and for the opposite purposes to that intended (regarding Muslim boys and rape); and once for attributing a series of Iraq 'good news stories' to the Wall Street Journal [2] when in fact the source was a little-known conservative blog only loosely linked to the WSJ. With this in mind and more, I have struggled to believe or engage seriously in her work.

But her article in The Australian [3] on 15 March about Julia Gillard cannot be left to pass. This reaches new depths, not so much in journalistic accuracy but in sheer ad hominem brutality. Or should I say ad feminam. Albrechtsen’s attack is singularly bizarre and nasty precisely because it targets not just personal qualities but female ones. One strong-willed female lawyer attacking another strong-willed female lawyer. Never have I come so close to thinking of a woman’s writing as sexist towards women.

There's no attempt to hide it either. The seventh paragraph begins simply and ominously: 'First to her personal circumstances'. Except it’s not ‘first’ at all. Back in the second paragraph, Albrechtsen states: ‘Gillard is single and childless.’ Then after the template Latham put-down automatically used by News Ltd writers, she refers to Gillard’s ‘scary robot voice’. To run out of substance so early and fall back on schoolyard bitchiness is way scarier.

But now to the main course: Gillard’s lifestyle. Her unmarried and childless status is described as ‘austere’, by contrast with the ‘usual aspirations’ of settling down, getting married and having children. Never mind that choosing career over family has long been an acceptable choice for anybody, and that marriage and children are not within one’s total control. Albrechtsen has a funny and selective idea of when to invoke ‘choice’.

‘Her kitchen is bare. She struggles with tongs at a barbecue,’ Albrechtsen continues. Now it’s just getting silly. What is Gillard fighting for – a Federal Labor government or to be Australia’s Nigella Lawson? Was New Zealand’s Helen Clark required to meet such standards?

Then the caveats, as inevitable as the disclaimers on a lawyer’s brief: ‘try not to shoot the messenger here’, ‘there's nothing stopping the right single, childless woman…’. ‘Some of my best friends are austere’, you half-expect next.

But it’s not all ad feminam. Another target is tellingly there: Mark Latham. You barely notice it at first because of the focus on Gillard, but the former Labor leader’s name pops up a whopping 15 times in the 1,127 word piece. On a second reading, the second half of the article appears less concerned with Gillard per se, than the whole Gillard political ‘way’, which still bears Latham’s mark. Albrechtsen measures Gillard’s contributions first and foremost by their relationship to the Latham era. Gillard was, Albrechtsen writes, ‘one of the most prominent technicians behind the failed Latham experiment’. Tarring by association.

Albrechtsen of course has reason for grievance, for it was Latham who infamously called her a ‘skanky ho’ – perhaps the ultimate ad feminam putdown. The two have long loathed each other. It has shown in many of Albrechtsen’s columns, even after Latham’s resignation, and in The Latham Diaries (although it is interesting to note that Latham in that book put the ‘skanky-ho’ comment down to an ill-advised bet with a staffer, not knowing what the term meant. He regretted the incident as one of the stupider acts of his career, not that this is an excuse).

But the point is not so much who Albrechtsen’s focus is, but the very fact that her focus tends to be ‘who’ and not ‘what’. This is perhaps the hallmark of the Albrechtsen style. It’s also the feeling that accompanies the focus. There’s nothing dispassionate about her writing. Some would see this as a strength. But while passion makes for good copy, it can distort perspective. Albrechtsen’s passion comes a tad bitter for my liking, and hollow, as if there were no intellectual foundation to it, only. Which is strange for someone who describes bitterness as ‘an unhelpful quality’.

Many regard journalism as having undergone a revolution over the last 20 years, in which ‘straight’ grassroots fact-reporting has declined in favour of opinion writing. Both political colours have been part of this shift. Albrechtsen and stablemates like Greg Sheridan – who has also been embarrassed by some exposures of questionable journalism – still appear loud and proud on their opinion pages. So opinion is clearly good business, even if quality is found wanting. Either that or The Australian believes winning the culture war necessarily means dispensing with some of the ‘civil liberties’ of journalism. In any case, controversial writers can always hide behind the subjectivity inherent in the world of ‘opinion’.

So what does all this have to do with Webdiary? Well it’s clear that Webdiary’s participants, being the intellectual and reflective lot they are, have long been engaged in a search for the site’s identity and purpose, particularly after the departure of Margo Kingston. What do we write about? How do we write? What niche do we fill in the media environment? What do we stand for? The answer to this is complex and in a sense has been unfolding for several months. Can I add my contribution to the debate by suggesting that Albrechtsen’s attack on Gillard, and much of her writing, stand as an example of what Webdiary doesn’t stand for – polemic, rant, and particularly ad hominem/feminam attack. We’ve seen the tide towards opinion journalism, both in the mainstream media and the countless blogs. Let’s go against that tide.

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