I’ve lost a lot of friends this week. News travels fast and the idea of someone writing a weekly column for a magazine like the Spectator doesn’t wash particularly well in the Sydney University, Glebe and Newtown, left and liberal circles in which I typically fraternise. I jest. But the bit about losing friends is true. I am in that awkward stretch of early-twenties transition: graduated but with a social foot still planted firmly on campus, staring down the barrel of a working life but by no means ready to seize it with both hands. And if you mix in those circles, it’s inevitable that many of your friends, also caught in this transitional limbo, will transition themselves, quite literally — to another place. Of mine, two have fled the shores of Sydney for the cocoon of Canberra; one to the press gallery, the other to the public service. One has left for Melbourne to study law, and another for London to practise it.
It is one of those things that are inevitable yet shocking, and no amount of forewarning can quite prepare you for the reality. It feels almost indulgent to be sad: after all, Canberra is not far away and plenty of people have had friends stripped from them in more permanent, heartbreaking circumstances. But it does make you reflect on your life trajectory. When others move on, you are forced to consider your own immobility. Could I pack up and leave my family and friends? Do I have that internal resilience, or am I dependent on a known environment? These departures — marked with their long goodbyes at restaurants and cocktail bars and their midnight promises of continued correspondence — are ultimately positive in their effect. Because the fewer ties you have to a place, the freer you are to leave it — and however nebulous that Maslowian notion of self-actualisation might be, the closer you are to achieving it.
As a progressive, I welcome political change with open arms. But personal change — that’s harder to deal with. I tell conservatives our best days are ahead of us, not behind. But applying that same maxim to my life can be difficult. David Marr has said that Australians don’t like the idea of change, but they readily accept it when it comes. And so it will be, most likely, on the opposite side of this quarter-life crisis. If anything, perhaps this experience has taught me some empathy for those whose natural inclination is to resist change. Their fears might be unjustified and irrelevant, but they are real. And even those of us who pride ourselves on welcoming progress can come unstuck when change gets too close to home.
Another maligned publication within those aforementioned social circles is the Australian. It’s not hard to understand why: it is an aggressive, right-wing publication whose editorial line frequently moulds its news reporting. Most of all, it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, who could not escalate his villainy if he suffocated babies in their sleep. Those things might also deter me, were I not a journalist with a fairly adept understanding of the media landscape and its practice. I can read newspapers critically. The Oz’s reporting on climate change, industrial relations and Israel doesn’t particularly bother me because I know where it stands. Much more valuable is its coverage of Indigenous issues, regional Australia and national health and education policy.
But the Oz has a problem and its name is Greg Sheridan. On 25 January, page one of the Weekend Australian led with something purporting to be a news story but really resembling an unholy alliance between PMO press release and Sheridan op-ed. Labelled an ‘exclusive’, the lede informed us: ‘The Abbott government is absolutely determined to stop illegal immigrant boats coming to Australia, even if this means enduring significant damage to the relationship with Indonesia.’ How this exclusive revelation of decidedness could be established without an interview, I am not sure. But no quotes were forthcoming — not a single one. Indeed, the remainder of the article consisted only of commentary, including the declaration that ‘this is not a miscalculation by the Abbott government’ and a confident prediction that ‘there will not be any significant difficulty in repairing the relationship with Jakarta’. Such phrases you would not expect to find in any news story, let alone one leading the paper.
The Monthly carried a wonderful compendium of Sheridan quotes on Abbott, who he remembers as his ‘best friend’ from university. Among them he describes the PM as ‘brave as a lion’ and ‘a soldierly kind of guy’ whose October tour of Asia was ‘brilliant’. He recalls old road trips and dinners together, and Abbott’s presence at his father’s deathbed. Yet we are also supposed to believe, as Sheridan wrote in 2012, that ‘since Abbott went into politics I’ve always been happy to criticise him’. I have nothing personal against Sheridan. I had him as a guest lecturer once — I found him hilarious and would quite like to have his company as a dinner guest. And it would be perfectly fine for him to pen obsequious columns, week after week, about the government run by his close friend. But Sheridan is a senior editor on a major national newspaper. He has significant responsibilities to readers and to the masthead itself. He writes page one news stories on breaking, internationally consequential issues. His relationship with the sitting Prime Minister should be considered a conflict of interest. His current position seems unwise if not untenable.