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Exposure reverses prize idiocy

26 September 2018 No Comment

Readers will find it even harder to take ‘The Saturday Paper’ seriously after its shameful shenanigans in trying to censor its own nonfiction award, the $15,000 Horne Prize for reportage on contemporary Australia. On Monday The Saturday Paper’s editor-in-chief, Erik Jensen, capitulated after The Weekend Australian exposed the competition’s ban on entries about the experiences of Aborigines, gay people and other minorities unless the author was a member of such a group.

Exposure of the rules also prompted the resignations, to their credit, of two of the judges: author Anna Funder, who won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2012 for a novel partly set in Nazi Germany; and journalist and author David Marr. Judges were not consulted in advance about the rules.

Funder told ‘The Australian’ she “really disagreed” with the restrictions and that “a lot of my work would be disqualified, and I can’t really be judging a prize where my qualifications for doing so are ruled out of bounds”. In the ‘Guardian Australia’, Marr asked, legitimately, how he would have been able to write about political parties, the Catholic Church, criminal syndicates or the High Court under such restrictions as he had never belonged to any of them. Indigenous academic Marcia Langton, who opted to remain a judge, sympathised with what Jensen was trying to achieve but argued, correctly, that the condition “crossed the line on censorship and free speech”.

Jensen has learned a lesson, conceding the guidelines should not have been imposed. He has opened up the competition and extended its deadline. But such a mindset on the part of the head of a newspaper purportedly produced “for independent minds, for people who want the whole story” shows alarming narrowness and disregard for good writers’ ability to get inside their subjects, regardless of their own backgrounds. There is nothing chauvinistic or condescending about doing so, as Jensen suggested.

Historian Ross Fitzgerald is right. Donald Horne, whose name the prize carries, would have found such Orwellian thinking “absolutely ludicrous”.


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