It is 20 years this year since one of the most notorious and incorrect hatchet jobs in Australian newspaper history. On August 24, 1996 then Courier Mail editor Chris Mitchell splashed a ludicrous story on eight over-heated pages about esteemed Australian historian Manning Clark being awarded the Order of Lenin by the former Soviet government. It didn’t take long for the story to unravel though the Courier Mail held to its line and never apologised for its lies. Clark died in 1991 so they were protected from defamation. But the Brisbane paper’s already shoddy reputation took a massive hit it has never really recovered from.
Fellow historian Humphrey McQueen (who had worked with Clark) does an excellent job of deconstructing the affair in his book Suspect History: Manning Clark and the Future of Australia’s Past. McQueen noted that by 1996 the Courier Mail was already a mere “suburban throwaway” that cosseted Queenslanders from the outside world (little has changed in the last two decades other than it has descended to ever more tabloid titilation).
But McQueen’s bigger point was that the Clark affair was part of a cultural war that came with John Howard’s election win that year and how interpretations of the past help set an ideological agenda for the future. The Clark story itself was derisory. The paper relied on one person’s memory, could produce no photographic evidence and did not contact the Clark family until the night before publication. Editor Mitchell’s excuse for that was Clark’s son Andrew was an editor for a rival Fairfax publication and he didn’t want to give warning about the story (as if Clark’s son would somehow scoop them with the accusation his father was a traitor).
Journalist Wayne Smith wrote the series of stories which relied on the recollections of retired journalist Peter Kelly who knew Mitchell’s father. Kelly told Mitchell that Geoffrey Fairbairn, who worked with Clark at the Australian National University, had seen Clark at the Soviet embassy wearing the Order of Lenin medal. But Fairbairn had died in 1980 without writing about the incident. In 1991 Kelly spoke to poet Les Murray who also claimed to have seen Clark wearing the medals at the home of David Campbell (also deceased).
The paper misrepresented Fairnbairn’s wife Anne and never interviewed Campbell’s wife Judy. The story “By Order of Lenin” conjured up artwork of Clark in a Russified blouse next to a photo of the medal with a snippet from his ASIO file about his “communist beliefs”. Using smear and innuendo, the paper worked on the belief that whatever they said three times must be true, McQueen wrote. At the very end Smith admitted there was no smoking gun.
Yet Smith and Mitchell were convinced their story was “as big as world war three”. The editor probably believed he had a Walkley award sown up but the story was only greeted with widespread derision, with even his own News Ltd stable treating it with caution. The Australian gave more weight to the denials than the story forcing a defensive Mitchell to publish a list of “Questions the Courier Mail would ask its critics”.
There was further embarrassment when a Russian-speaking academic checked the archives and found no Order of Lenin given to CMH Clark during the years 1969 to 1971 when it supposedly happened. A Polish activist also dismissed the likelihood of communist beliefs saying Clark addressed several Solidarity meetings in the early 1980s.
Faced with mounting evidence, the Courier Mail changed tack saying the medal was irrelevant and claimed incorrectly the Soviet archives had mentioned his award. The Press Council eventually found the Courier Mail published the story with “too little evidence” and called for a retraction. The paper buried its retraction on page 15 while devoting its first two pages to a rebuttal.
McQueen said the paper’s case rested on a circularity. Clark got the Order of Lenin, therefore he must be an agent: he was an agent therefore he deserved the medal. McQueen went on to systematically destroy the Courier Mail’s evidence brick by painful brick including answering every question Mitchell “would ask his critics”.
This included the unreliability of Murray’s memory, the paranoia of ASIO’s activities and the McCarthyite ravings of one of the paper’s chief witnesses, the post war right wing Victorian MLA Frederick Lewis Edmunds. The paper made much of Clark’s frequent visits to the Soviet Union but didn’t mention the historian travelled everywhere frequently. His book Meeting Soviet Man was reviled by the right but was equally loathed by the left for his refusal to see the USSR as a workers’ paradise.
The true purpose of Clark being “innocent as charged” by the Courier Mail was that some of the mud would stick. There were three reasons for enmity against him: resentment by academics, unease with his personality and antagonism towards his politics. Clark was a voracious writer who looked under the bonnet of human behaviour. The biggest criticism today is that he didn’t give enough credit to the indigenous experience but otherwise he was an excellent historian who took Australia seriously and dared to think beyond traditional boundaries. But it was too easy for the Courier Mail to dismiss his writings as an endless how to vote card for the Labor party.
The paper was fitting in with the tenor of the times which as new prime minister John Howard said, would suit him. Fed up with Paul Keating’s “hectoring on history” Howard wanted to “set the record straight” and make people feel “relaxed and comfortable” again about their history. What Howard’s chirpier view of the past was really about was leverage over the future. This is why it was so important to downplay Clark’s achievements. As McQueen concluded, the courage and courtesy to admit wrongdoing provide reason for optimism about how the majority will handle the future. It is an aspect of the culture wars that has not gone away 20 years later.