In Peter Carey’s new novel, Amnesia, the subtext of press freedom is woven through a plot about hacking, love, eco-terrorism, politics and journalism. And sometimes, it seems to be less of a sub-plot and more of a raison d’être. The novel, published in Oct. 2014 by Penguin, Australia and in the US by Knopf in Jan. 2015, is set in today’s Australia and deals with current issues, but is actually a history of the less salubrious moments in Australian government going back to the early 1900s. Carey has issues with the current Liberal Party right-wing government, with their stance on climate change, and a definite bee in his bonnet about freedom of expression and the Australian press. In the meantime, back in the real world, on the other side of the globe, fingers are being pointed at the Canadian press, with accusations that “there’s no overall culture of media criticism here”, that there is a “kind of a cosy culture of journalism in this country”, and that the Canadian press remains “largely unscrutinized”.
Different angles on press freedom
In comparison to what happened at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January this year, these events are small fry. We are talking local effects as opposed to global repercussions. But the underlying principle at stake is the same for news media around the world, in France, Australia or Canada; namely: freedom of the press. This means the freedom of communication and expression and absence of interference by outside entities in what gets published.
But the flipside of freedom is the responsibility to set and adhere to industry codes for published information – and be open to scrutiny and self-monitoring. While various existing codes have some differences, most share common elements including the principles of — truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability. The battle for press freedom has been going on since the invention of the printing press in Johann Carolus’s Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, published in 1605 in Strassburg, recognized as the first newspaper. The first fight for press freedom probably occurred around in England. So this is a centuries-old battle.
Cosy culture of journalism
The “cosy culture of journalism” alleged of Canadian journalism is not so much a comment as an insult. Being in a cosy, non-critical relationship with readers, owners, managers – in fact, any outside party – is exactly where the press should NOT be. Journalists, investigative journalists in particular, should, by their vary nature, be inherently suspicious, skeptical and snooping. They should be able to smell a lie, cover-up, white-wash or conflict of interest a mile away, and be able to home in on it like a whippet to a duck.
Easier said than done, though, as demonstrated in Amnesia, Carey’s discomforting novel about a lone, dissolute and disreputable reporter, “Felix Moore”, who is commissioned to write the story of a hacker / cyber-terrorist – and ends up almost getting himself killed. The truth is stranger than fiction in this instance, and Felix’s investigation into the girl hacker is the opportunity for Carey to expose a particularly dramatic episode in the history of Australia. Certainly, I had no idea that had actually happened. I first thought it was one of those instances of alternate history or alternative reality in fiction because Carey’s character is such an anti-hero. But it’s not the case. (This is, I think, what the title, Amnesia, refers to – recalling a forgotten but critical part of history. There are parallels with The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung.)
“He was an unlovely old scoundrel with his wide hunched shoulders and his long arms, carrying a cardboard box down onto the dock that morning. His hair was thick, wiry, not quite grey, in the style of forty years before, and if this contributed, to a small degree, to his furtive air the latter was not, it must be stressed, the consequence of his present situation. He has already before this recent turn of events been known as ‘Wink’ Moore and Felix ‘Moore-or-less-correct’. (p. 151)
“More-or-less correct” is a sure indication that Felix had fallen off his pedestal as serious reporter, into the bilious depths of tabloid and yellow journalism.
So when “Celine”, the yummy mummy of a young hacker, “Gabrielle (Gaby) Baillieux”, with the handle of “Angel”, who was responsible for a global jail-break, contacts him to write the story to “reposition” her daughter’s public image, Felix agrees and hobbles after the truth like the aforementioned hound. Carey uses this plot to recall a most peculiar, extremely tense moment in Australia’s history – the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis (often known simply as “The Dismissal”.
This has been described as the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australian history. It culminated on 11 November 1975 with the dismissal from office of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, who then appointed the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, as caretaker Prime Minister. Read up on this, it makes the Australians of those days sound like a bunch of manipulative egomaniacs. As was said afterwards:
“Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.”
At this point, I had to get some idea of the differences between Australia’s Labor and the Liberal parties.
Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was elected in 1972 after 23 years of rule by a coalition formed by the Liberal and Country parties. The Labor (ALP) Government had a majority in the House of Representatives, but did not control the Senate. It instituted a large number of policy changes, and offered much legislation. The Opposition, which still controlled the Senate, allowed some Government bills to pass the Senate, and blocked others. While the ALP was at it, albeit briefly, they tried to do some good and right some wrongs.
There has been endless conjecture about exactly which role the American government and the CIA had played in The Dismissal. This too is part of Felix’s story. “I had published several books, fifty features, a thousand columns, mainly concerned with the traumatic injury done to my country by our American allies in 1975.” (p. 5)
Of course, Carey, always exhaustively researching his subjects and sticking as close as dammit to historical accuracy, was almost prescient with this particular angle of his story. This book came out in Oct. 2014, but in March 2014, a former US intelligence contractor, Christopher Boyce, who was jailed for 25 years for leaking information about US spying and political destabilization operations against the Whitlam Labor government in Australia during 1974 and 1975, spoke out about the role the CIA played in the constitutional crisis. Boyce, now 61, confirmed his previous statements that the CIA—aided by agents inside the Australian labor and trade union movement—was centrally involved in the 1975 “Canberra Coup” that ousted the Labor government. Google this angle, and you will find no end of original sources and debate on the subject. It may be true but it’s lovely fodder for conspiracy theorists.
Felix, who refers to himself as a “socialist and a servant of the truth” is, and has always been vehement about the policies of the center-left labor versus the center-right liberal party coalition:
“I had been sued ninety-eight times before they brought me down with this one, and along the way I had exposed the deeds of Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch, always a very dangerous occupation for a family man…” (p. 7)
Felix’s old flame and client, “Celine”, used to be married to a Labor member of Parliament in the 1970s. Felix was a hanger-on; they were radicals who put their lives on the line to expose corruption in big business and government, particularly where the environment was concerned. In those days, it came down to sit-ins and lie-ins and peaceful demonstrations. And of course, getting into the papers. But – big BUT:
“I worked as a journalist in a country where the flow of information was controlled by three corporations, Their ability to manipulate the ‘truth’ made the right to vote largely meaningless, but I was a journalist. I did my best.” (p. 7)
“Gaby”, the hacker who may have opened all those electronically controlled jail cell doors by accident or on purpose, was immediately vilified by the press. Felix called it a “lie of Goebbelesque proportions”. Retracing Gaby and Celine’s backgrounds reveals other problems in Australian history, particularly the tensions between black American soldiers stationed in Australia from 1942 to 1945 – referred to as The Battle of Brisbane. It was another unpleasant episode involving “our American allies”. Felix and Celine, in their young days, were against US involvement in Australian politics.
As Felix says:
“After almost two centuries of grovelling, we grew some balls. At the UN we spoke up for Palestinian rights. We welcomed Chilean fleeing the CIA coup. We condemned nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. To Celine this was proof that we had won. I said our victory was built on the mad idea we would not be punished. For it was exactly these ‘proofs’ that caused Nixon to order the CIA review of US policy towards Australia. In our beginning was our end. Our victory triggered an ever-escalating covert operation which would finally remove the elected government from power.“ (p. 136)
A bit much at first
The whole tangled web of tales within a tale of journalists, activists and anarchists tracking and exposing the truth comes to a very nicely tied-together, exciting conclusion in the last two chapters of a hefty 377-page novel. It’s long and dense and not the easiest to understand. The novel has a very wide scope, both in terms of historical period and themes.
The reader’s attention is held mainly because of Carey’s entertaining characterizations, particularly the voices of the different protagonists and antagonists – a teenage girl full of angst, a black WWII soldier, a megalomaniac publisher, a snooping journalist. Carey’s novel Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), was much tighter and focused on the two main characters, even though, as a historical novel, it stretched over about two decades, the 1820s and 1830s. By contrast, this novel depicts the progress of freedom of expression in Australia from the 1920s to today – almost a century. It is a big chunk for readers to digest, despite Carey’s fluent style and mastery of form.
It is a strong, maybe overly strong, expression of the author’s anger against the Australian government, which he calls “a right-wing corporation state” that is “terrifying” to live in. But one should not take anything written by Carey, even his novels, lightly. He may produce fiction, but Carey has already won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Literature twice, first in 1988 and then in 2001. He is a world-class author and a giant of Australian literature. What he writes always makes an impact, whether it’s Oscar and Lucinda or True History of the Kelly Gang. At times it even seems that the novel is too close to Carey’s reality and Australia’s history to be truly imaginative. Don’t expect to finish it without having to reread large chunks of it and checking out most of the references for yourself.
About Peter Carey
Think important author, think influential, impactful, highly skilled and pretty darn clever. That’s Peter Carey. Not as complex and inaccessible as, let’s say, Umberto Eco (thank goodness), but certainly as profound and though-provoking as any educated reader could hope for. He has won a lot of awards. He was distinctly unhappy about the 2013 decision to open up the Commonwealth-focused Booker Prize to US contenders. Do I hear en echo of Felix having an anti-US rant?