The Murdoch press and the end of critique



On 27 March, The Australian published a story entitled 'Gallipoli Anzacs "killers": lecturer' by Andrew Burrell. Burrell opens with the claim that students at Murdoch University (named after Walter Murdoch, not Rupert Murdoch who owns The Australian) are being taught 'Anzacs who fought in Gallipoli were "killers", that the British arrival in 1788 was an "invasion" and that asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru are "prisoners"'. 

Dr Dean AszkielowiczCiting a carefully chosen snippet from a lecture by my colleague, Dr Dean Aszkielowicz (pictured), Burrell continues that when a student in Aszkielowicz' class suggested that ANZACs who fought in Gallipoli were killers, the lecturer suggested that this viewpoint might conceivably sit alongside 'this other version' — that is, the accepted view — of the significance of the ANZAC legacy.

Aszkielowicz thus offered his students the opportunity to consider two possible alternatives — orthodox and heterodox. In other words, he did his job: it is the academic's role to draw attention to the way preconceptions and power determine the way things are perceived.

The redacted version of the lecture The Australian has made available — just over three minutes of an hour-long session — makes plain that Aszkielowicz clearly indicated when he was expressing his own view, albeit the expert view of a historian who has published a book on the topic of Australia and war. This, again, is as it should be. Aszkielowicz is, after all, educating adults, and those of us who teach adults understand that we teach interactively, offering the fruits of our own long engagement with sources and literature, and allowing our students' questions to challenge and inform our own understanding in turn.

With regard to how asylum seekers and refugees are described, Burrell's story goes on to cite a statement ostensibly made by another of my colleagues, Associate Professor Anne Surma, claiming that award-winning author and Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani should be regarded as a 'prisoner.'

On the accuracy of referring to recognised refugees such as Boochani as prisoners, many might demur: prisoners have rights that those detained on Manus Island and Nauru lack. If, however, the point is to inform readers of inaccurate nomenclature, why draw attention to this, when in the past journalists so pointedly ignored former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and current Prime Minister Scott Morrison's characterisation of asylum seekers as 'illegals?'

The Australian's attack on Murdoch academics continued on 29 March 2019, with a piece entitled 'Degrees of vincible ignorance' published on the opinion page. In it, the anonymous author quoted Dr Brendan Nelson's assessment of Aszkielowicz' teaching as 'offensive in the extreme'.


"Students who are not taught the true nature of critical thinking are never led to challenge their own understandings, and therefore are never inspired or challenged to imagine a different, more just, world."


While the piece notes that Nelson is the director of the Australian War Memorial, it leaves out the fact that Nelson was seeking $498 million to expand the Memorial. As reported in the Canberra Times (24 March 2019), 83 signatories penned an open letter protesting this expansion of funding, and querying whether the money might be better spent on a memorial to 60,000 years of Indigenous history, or perhaps direct assistance to veterans. Surely this fact is cogent to the objectivity of Nelson's view, and the propriety of seeking his comment.

Routinely, the implication of such reporting is that the academy only presents one side of an argument. In not fully informing their readership of some of the pertinent facts I have indicated here, The Australian fails to reck its own rede.

Further, both stories display an impoverished understanding of the academic role, and the nature of 'critique'. Critique is derived from the word kritike, best translated as judgment or assessment. The critic's task is not merely to present all arguments as if they had equal merit, but to draw on the best knowledge and scholarship available and exercise judgment in order to offer a genuinely informed assessment, teaching students to do the same.

This requires a great deal of learning. In many cases, sound criticism requires pointing out the power imbalances in the way one view is favoured over another, which is precisely what Aszkielowicz and Surma have done.

The attempt to silence, coerce or dismiss academic experts, as if their engagement of the breadth and depth of scholarship should be regarded as having no more value than anyone else's less informed opinions, means that no genuine criticism — assessment, judgement — of the way things are is possible. This is particularly problematic when injustices, such as the treatment of Boochani and many others in offshore immigration detention, are permitted to stand unchallenged.

Students who are not taught the true nature of critical thinking are never led to challenge their own understandings, and therefore are never inspired or challenged to imagine a different, more just, world.



Mark JenningsDr Mark Jennings is the Adjunct Lecturer in Religious Studies at Murdoch University, and Continuing Education Coordinator at Wollaston Theological College. His primary area is Sociology of Religion.

Topic tags: Mark Jennings, Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island, asylum seekers, Anzacs



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Existing comments

What have we come to? Why did this (excellent) article need to be written at all?
Joan Seymour | 04 April 2019

***named after Walter Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch's great uncle***
Louis Williams | 05 April 2019

My unpublished letter to The Australian. Congratulations to those academics at Murdoch University for telling the truth. (Andrew Burrell, "Gallipoli Anzacs 'Killers': lecturer" The Australian Wednesday March 27 page 1). Yes, those Australians who fought at Gallipoli were killers; yes,the British 'arrival' in 1788 was an invasion; and yes, those refugees and asylum seekers held on Manus Island and Nauru - concentration camps as former judge Stephen Charles QC calls them - are prisoners. The fact that The Australian, much of its readership, and some disgruntled Young Liberal students think otherwise is neither here nor there. The fact that such academics are under attack for telling their truth is however very important. This attempted censorship of alternative views is a major development in mainstream media and governments in 21st century Australia. While I think The Australian should target and expose right wing extremists, I know that will not happen because, as a letter writer to The Canberra Times put it on Wednesday 'right-wing extremism is within.' The Australian has been at the forefront of nurturing that extremism. Academics who tell the truth are not our enemy. Mainstream media who concoct anti-democratic scare campaigns to silence them are. John Passant
John Passant | 06 April 2019

A bookshop owner guides readers by his/her choice of material. That is, unless there is a best-seller which many customers may enquire about. An opera critic reviews a particular production and gives an expert opinion. Opera lovers then read the review and make up their own mind, no doubt informed by other sources as well. Academic freedom is very important and the lecturer in this article is teaching adults. Life experience, both before and after the lecture, will determine the students' reaction and comprehension.
Pam | 08 April 2019

You are absolutely right of course but it is a shame that the same openness to ideas and academic courtesy is not extended to academics not conforming to the zeitgeist. Witness the treatment of Ridd in Queensland, the treatment of Bjorn Lomborg by WA Uni and even Cambridge’s treatment of Jordan Peterson.
Peter Stokes | 08 April 2019

Thank you for excellent article. I despair at the lack of avenues to public debate of academic inquiry into the way things are presented politically as a fair accompli. No encouragement or exploration is given in the public domain to those who would open the questioning. The use of language to clothe that which is unpalatably true is but one part of this grooming of a nation to stop thinking critically and just accept what the political leaders decree. I am reminded of sitting through 3 years of detention centre community / Serco / immigration meetings as The word “guards” was expunged and “officers” substituted. I was ritually corrected as I refused to use the new approved term. No critique allowed. And so it goes...
Pamela | 09 April 2019

Don Watson, ex-PM Keating’s speech-writer and author of “Weasel Words” rightly condemned unintelligible cliche-ridden jargon that is spreading through our public language. One would wish that Australia had an equally robust opponent fighting the distortion of language that the so-called progressive elements (aka the politically correct) employ to make their case (when not also demonising those who disagree with them as Nazi, fascist or racist etc.) Dr Azskielowicz’s use of the word “killer” to describe Anzacs, in response to a student’s query about whether they could be called “murderers”, is one such example. Yes, all soldiers everywhere, Australian and otherwise, are killers. But such terms as killers or murderers are usually only applied to those who have deliberately massacred defenceless civilians or unarmed POWs. Or when psychopathic idiots like Brenton Tarrant gun down unarmed worshippers. Soldiers, whether Anzac, Turk or whatever are not usually called killers or murderers) when fighting those who can shoot back. One would have thought that in the interests of academic objectivity Dr A. would have corrected the student’s abuse of language. Instead he substitute’s one inaccurate and emotive term for another. Traditionally teachers sought to correct, not encourage students’ mis-use of words by doing the same themselves. Similar criticisms could be made of Dr A’s reckless use of such words as “invasion” and “prisoners”, but space does not permit.
Dennis | 09 April 2019

There was a time when 40% of the Year 12 English Expression examination in Victoria was a section called Clear Thinking, where candidates were asked to analyse arguments of various points of view, having been taught the skills of analysis of argument, and formal logic and valid conclusions. There was a further 20% allocated to the art of Precis, being able to shorten a document by 2/3rds whilst maintaining its argumentative essence. Our media is now filled with examples where brief opinions quickly assume factual status and the public have been denied being taught the formal skills of being able to show faults in logic, partial selection, and invalid conclusions. This leaves many vulnerable to illogicality and unclear thinking, sensing something is wrong, but unsure about how to deal with it. I still find myself applying skills I was taught and taught to others, and disagreeing so often with public figures, not with opinions, but with their invalid conclusions. Students from all walks of life found Clear Thinking - difficult - but an essential life skill. Three cheers for Mark Jennings and like-minded others.
Tony London [Aged 74] | 09 April 2019

I write as a retired teacher of history and geography . At University we were always given the option to see all sides of an issue. Our lecturers went to great pains to encourage us to examine all sources. I and others are for ever in their debt. History is a version of an event as seen by various witnesses at a point in time. Their observations may vary enormously. Like observers of a traffic accident, each witness sees the incident from a different perspective- at times quite contradictory! The Murdoch Press is well known for its strong right of centre political bias and its ultra conservative view of the world. Its unrelenting attacks on Climate Scientists is well documented , so this attack on Historians presenting differing views of history which don't accord with its world view, comes as no surprise. Sadly the objectivity of the commercial media has been hijacked by a few media owners who try to impose their blinkered views on their editors and journalists. The advent of Blogs on the Net have not helped. I am concerned that todays students tend to quote information, opinions and facts in references from these sources in their essays without first checking the veracity and bias of the authors. I have read some real "howlers" in my time!
Gavin O'Brien | 11 April 2019

Tony London. recall 'clear thinking' well, in fact most important part of the curriculum; disappeared in (Vic) transition to VCE. Flicking through the Oz reminds me of opinion makers and/or 'political activists masquerading as journalists'.
Andrew Smith | 13 April 2019


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