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Newsletter 445

Published June 27, 2022
The Judith Neilson Institute: a former glass factory but far from transparent

It’s been an interesting week for the Judith Neilson Institute for journalism, with four board members quitting and executive director, Mark Ryan, allegedly negotiating an exit package. It’s ironic that a meltdown at a philanthropic institution devoted to supporting and improving the standard of journalism has been reported in such a scratchy fashion. The first stories made it sound as if Judith Neilson, who put up $100 million to start things rolling in 2018, had been acting in a high-handed, dictatorial manner. The suggestion was that Judith’s role was to hand over the money and then let her hired experts at the Institute run things just the way they liked. The idea that she wanted to have a say in the way her money was spent seems to have been a bridge too far for those who fled.

To me, this sounded bizarre. Surely, if you’re the person putting $100 million of your own money into a project, you have not just a right, but an obligation to ensure those funds are well spent. What’s outrageous about that?

Later in the week we had a story about how one senior executive, Prue Clarke, had quit after 18 months because the Institute had “no guiding strategy”. She cited a lack of transparency about process and how grants were allocated.

Do I know anything about the Institute beyond what I’ve read in the papers? No. But what I could never understand is why the JNI provided funds to mainstream media organisations to do the things they should be doing with their own money. This included giving a grant to The Guardian to establish a Pacific editor, and to the Australian Financial Review for a South-East Asian Bureau. The Australian was given money for podcasts. Surely these media organisations are not charity cases. Do they need a handout before they do something of value?  If these businesses weren’t profitable they wouldn’t exist. Why should the JNI, supposedly devoted to supporting quality journalism, financially support a Murdoch publication packed with ideologically constipated commentary, week after week? The Oz has some excellent journos, but the editorial direction is repellent in its shameless support of the Coalition and constant attacks on Labor. Attack only one side, over and over, and any paper – left or right – loses credibility.

Lest we forget, there was the ludicrous episode of the JNI paying for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in June 2020, to employ five young arts writers. Four out of five soon quit because they did a quick stock-take and realised they were all white. It was a farce that I watched from the sidelines. What was most ridiculous was that these writers preferred to cancel themselves and humiliate their hosts rather than use their positions to advance some of the causes they supposedly felt so passionate about. To play the martyr is easier than doing the work. If you blow an opportunity because you’re concerned about your white privilege, don’t be surprised if your commitment to journalism is called into question.

Then there was the weird stuff I wrote about in a newsletter in May 2021, when I came across a puff piece on the ABC’s new TV arts program that had been plagiarised and hilariously garbled – on a page that proudly announced: “This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.”

And so, in three examples, we find the JNI funding major media organisations, petulant wokeness, and illiterate plagiarism. One wonders what strategy was at work in supporting these projects. I’m not party to the inner workings of the (mostly departed) board, but it would be surprising if anybody blindly bankrolling such things didn’t have a few questions to ask. Let’s see if new management, with a more hands-on approach from the Neilson family, brings any significant changes. While philanthropy may be an unalloyed good, the mechanisms employed to dispense the largesse often take on a life of their own. Maybe it’s time to open a few windows and let in some fresh air.

This week’s art column finds me in Brisbane – for the first time in over a year! – for Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles, at the Gallery of Modern Art. I’ve seen Shiota’s work in many places over the past two decades, from Hobart to Venice to Busan, and she’s always come across as an artist of ambition and integrity. The survey at GOMA, put together by Mami Kataoka of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, is pretty sensational. The backstory, of Shiota fighting off two bouts of cancer, makes it even more extraordinary that she’s been able to produce so many installations on such a grand scale. It’s good to be impressed once in a while.

I wish I could say I was impressed by Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, but I’ve spent much of the last year dreading the thought of what Baz might do to the King. As it turns out, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated, but it’s everything else one might expect: flashy, vulgar, superficial, a crazy collage of moments of Elvis’s life. It would be foolish to imagine Baz could ever change his trademark style, but it’s just as hard to imagine that I’ll ever get to like it. I’ve got nothing against entertainment, I only wish it wasn’t so relentless.