Slagging the dead

I want to return, hopefully with whatever wider perspective a few weeks brings, to Paul Keating’s inflammatory remarks about the late right wing pundit Paddy McGuinness.  We should keep in mind for a start, as Peter “Mumble” Brent implicitly noted at the time, that McGuinness himself wasn’t averse to sledging recently deceased political adversaries, often in ways every bit as vicious as Keating’s attack on him:

On the subject of speaking ill of the dead, here’s Paddy on the then recently departed James McClelland (1999) and Jim Cairns (2003).

McGuinnness’s attack on Diamond Jim McClelland, deserved or otherwise, was especially savage.  In those circumstances the argument that one should show public restraint to spare the feelings of the deceased’s family has less force than it otherwise might.

The problem with Keating’s remarks was not so much their savage intent, but the fact that for PJK the essence of McGuinness’s execrable nature was his refusal to give due credit to Keating’s economic genius!  Bob Carr’s comments about McGuinness were almost as negative but exhibited a rather wider, less self-absorbed perspective,  and hence didn’t attract the same level of opprobrium.

However, should we heed pious injunctions to post-mortem restraint in any event? 

At least where a person has played a significant role in Australian public life, I would argue not.  There are severe constraints on what can be said about a person during their lifetime, due to defamation law. The threat is slightly lessened now because the new national uniform Defamation Acts make truth a defence (not “truth and public benefit” or similar higher hurdle than “mere” truth). 

However, that won’t assist a defendant where a public statement seeks to evaluate the plaintiff’s behaviour in ethical terms rather than engaging in straight reportage of the facts, as will amost always be the case with any useful evaluation of a public figure’s behaviour.  Then the defendant’s words will fall to be legally judged by the test of whether it amounts to “fair comment”, a standard affording ample opportunity for courts to award substantial payouts in most cases involving prominent plaintiffs irrespective of whether the statement was one that most people would have regarded as fair enough (or at least not appropriate to be punished as lying outside the realm of permissible free speech).

Indeed the occasion of a public figure’s death may well be the first and only time the truth can be told in a situation where it will be heard by the general public.  That is simply because of the nature of the news cycle: after the immediate flurry of publicity surrounding the person’s death, the event rapidly becomes stale news that simply won’t be published.  Had Paul Keating pumped out the same media release about Paddy McGuinness today it would probably have hit most editorial waste paper bins within seconds. 

Subsequent scholarly biographies might serve a corrective purpose to a limited extent but rarely come to the notice of the general public.  If we allow a social convention in favour of only praising the newly dead, in however carefully qualified, mealy-mouthed terms, Australians’ perceptions of our history and culture run a distinct risk of acquiring a misty, rose-coloured hue that won’t assist our collective ability to make sound judgments about all sorts of questions affecting the nation’s future.

That such a social convention has already taken hold to a surprising extent is demonstrated by the seemingly almost universal condemnation that greeted The Chaser’s brilliant Eulogy Song when it went to air last year.  What better way to end this post than by republishing it?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Niall
13 years ago

Why hold back? If someone deserves a good shellacking, then give it to them, in life or in death. Makes no difference to the person they are or were. Personally, I thought the Eulogy Song was a pointed and accurate statement on societal mores. Similar to the recent out-pouring of sympathetic bleatings when it was made known that Timmy Blair had cancer. Let’s be clear…..it was he who made the announcement.

Shit happens in life. If you throw enough of it, often enough, sooner or later you’re bound to misjudge the wind direction and wind up wearing what you’ve hurled.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

Was the Chaser skit met with “almost universal condemnation?” I recall Howard and the Ozcommentariat having a go but the general feeling seemed to be that it was funny, satirical and no big deal and needed to be seen in that sense. In fact the skit is quite clever in that, in ostentatiously placing Belinda Emmett off limits for the purposes of denigrating the practice of over post-mortem hypereulogy, it reveals that we’re all participatory in contextualised blurring of this particular practice boundary and that there is no clear line of demarcation. He who rants about undue sanctification of the departed is as likely to be brought up as short as he who attempts to settle old personal scores with the deceased in the liberating precincts of the funeral parlour.

And on the “personal scores” note, I think there’s a difference between PJK’s piece and the McGuinness and Carr examples you’ve offered. On Cairns, McGuinness uses his demise (conveniently, no doubt) to examine the phenomenon of post – mortem deification. He doesn’t get into a dissection of Cairns himself except to allude (in a surprisingly veiled way ) to Cairns lying about his relationship with Junie Morosi. On McClelland he is more personal but I doubt that it differs greatly from what he said about McClelland when Diamond Jim was with us – and it’s positively flattering compared with the hatchet job that Roddy Meagher did on him in Quadrant in 2005

http://www.quadrant.org.au/php/article_view.php?article_id=1118

Bob Carr is entertaining on McGuinness (he’s a great – and under-utilised – sketch writer) and unlike PJK’s piece, it doesn’t ooze meanness of spirit nor is it personally vengeful. Characteristically, PJK’s piece is actually all about him – “how Paddy done me wrong” – and I suspect it’s that highly personalised aspect that jars.

Do we actually have some sort of national problem with post-mortem deification or, as the Chaser skit suggests, are we simply selective in identifying it?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“Similar to the recent out-pouring of sympathetic bleatings when it was made known that Timmy Blair had cancer. Lets be clear..it was he who made the announcement.”

Why is it “bleating” to express sympathy to someone who has copped a cancer diagnosis? I can’t speak for anyone else but in my case sympathy was heartfelt and sincerely meant and I’m glad he’s come out of it with a good prognosis. If there’s a point about Tim himself announcing his diagnosis, it’s eluding me…….

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“I suspect that this is one of those widely-spread taboos which has a background in early tribal / social life.”

Yes, Jacques and as Miss Manners will tell you, it’s also a distinguishing mark of the civil discourse that this blog admirably strives to uphold. The entirely sensible and civilised injunction to “not speak ill of the dead” has always attached specifically to the immediate aftermath of a death when those who loved the departed are assumed to be grieving. It has never been intended as a permanent injunction against offering a balanced biographical commentary and of course, in relation to public figures, it never has – strawman arguments, about a supposed mania for deifying the dead, notwithstanding.

Thus, if a celebrity death occurs via stingray barb, it is boorish and crass to insist a day or so later, in the Guardian, that the deceased thoroughly deserved his death at the barb of “Dasyatidae.” Not only will you sound crass and boorish, youll also sound like a know it all tool for choosing to use the Latin genus, instead of stingray. If you, shortly afterwards, consent to appear on Celebrity Big Brother attired as a 68 year old milk maid, youll remove any doubt about the self-seeking motivation that lies behind this and your every critique – in the unlikely event that there was any doubt about it to begin with.

Interestingly, Paddy McGuinness offered qualified support for his old Sydney Push pals curmudgeonly take, but in more congenial terms:
The real story of Irwin and the stingray is that he got careless. It is a great pity that he came to grief – he was a harmless entertainer – but, except for his family, hardly a tragedy. He knew (or should have known) the risks and he took them knowingly. In the process he made a great deal of money – and good luck to him.

I doubt that PJK will turn up dressed as a milk maid any time soon but its a cautionary tale for societal convention breakers everywhere.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
13 years ago

The problem with taking the stick to someone once they died is that it implies you wanted them to die.

What rot. By that logic, being not so nice when they’re alive should be even more off limits, as you’re obviously wishing them dead.

(PJK excluded, as he did write that journalism got smarter just by PP dying.)

Richard Phillipps
Richard Phillipps
13 years ago

I don’t get the “don’t speak ill of the dead” routine. And I think that McGuinness on a very rare occasion got it right in his thing on Jim Cairns where he said to the effect that, at least where a dead person is wrongly eulogised or used as a icon for a particular position then it is quite appropriate to give them a bit of a nudge.

And McGuinness was being used in precisely that way. Howard said something or other that resurrcted the hopefully fading shibboleth of political correctness, and many others used him as a hero of a particular set of conservative
political views. Doesn’t this deserve, for all our sakes, a bit of deflation?

The Chaser thing was, I thought, terrific. And quite brave.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

It’s about timing and motivation. As is good Marmalade.

hc
hc
13 years ago

I expressed my sympathy for Tim Blair both on my blog and his and it was sincere. I am quite sure he was pretty shell-shocked by the discovery of the illness and cannot see anything strange about his decision to announce it himself.

I think Keating’s attack on Paddy was a dimension more severe than Paddy’s criticism of McClelland and Jim Cairns but even if Paddy’s actions were unwise I think the value of being sympathetic to those who have just passed away is sensible.

A death is accommpanied by a lot of raw feelings among those who survive. It is a reasonable idea to give these survivors a break and to let things settle a little.

Keating’s attack was published the day before Paddy’s funeral – it was obscene – but consistent with everything I understand about this forgettable man.

Wait a while then have a go. Everyone understands that historical truths do not necessarily come while a death is being mourned.

Niall
13 years ago

Death is inevitable. It comes to us all. Why should there be a moratorium on calling a spade a spade?

The Worst of Perth
13 years ago

Jeez, what’s the fuss? Me, I’m hoping against hope I get to hear Keating do Gerard Henderson.
The Worst of Perth

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

The chaser song was really great except for the inane line about David Hicks – it undermines the rest of the song, because history is not going to write anything good about that d**khead anytime ever, and if it does I will indulge in some post-death vitriol.

In general I think it is better to wait a little while just out of respect for the feelings of the living, except in extreme cases. After all, Niall, your mother might be any number of horrid things but I’ll bet you would rather not hear about them the week after her demise. On the other hand when (for example) Hicks dies one can just write what a tosser he was and be done. But McGuiness was certainly not so revolting as that.

Mark U
Mark U
13 years ago

What inane line about David Hicks, Patrick?

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[…] Ken Parish wants to talk again about talking about the dead. […]

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

Whoops, my bad!!

When he dies, Martin Bryant will look a saint.

It was Martin Bryant. Essentially the same sentiments apply.

Mark U
Mark U
13 years ago

I don’t think Hicks deserves the same sentiments as Bryant. As far as I know Hicks has not killed anyone; he was just a silly deluded young man who got tangled up with terrorists. It is also not clear whether he ever fired a shot in anger against US or allied forces. As opposed to Bryant who killed 35 innocent people and injured 37 others.

Niall
13 years ago

Bryant is a convicted mass murderer. David Hicks hasn’t been proven to have fired a shot at anyone in anger, let alone killed anyone. I fail to understand how “the same sentiments apply” unless you’re simply a devout Hicks hater.

Chade
13 years ago

A convicted mass murdered with serious mental problems, too.

To have the same sentiments between two very different cases seems… silly? :p

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Hitchens on Falwell was surely in a class of its own as an obituary.

This is a situation where the writer feels that the deceased has gotten off far too lightly” a ferocious attack is justified not just to set the record straight, but to maximise the shock value and get people’s attention.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

The stray quotation marks were meant to be a colon.

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

This is a situation where the writer feels that the deceased has gotten off far too lightly a ferocious attack is justified not just to set the record straight, but to maximise the shock value and get peoples attention.

A day before the guy’s funeral with the “ferocious attack” splattered in the daily to make the family feel better?

Hitchens waited for the body to start the decomposition process before he ran that piece.

Caroline
13 years ago

“Not speaking ill of the dead” a custom possibly with its origins in Ireland? No, no no, you musn’t musn’t mustn’t, because dey may come back ta haunt ye.

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

No I didn’t make it up, I made an error in reading the year to the left of the page on Slate which said 08.

The point still holds and therefore includes Hitchens.

You don’t think it’s a nice gesture to a family to leave a hit job until the person is either dust or in the ground?

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

this is the comment you’re defending that I personally found offensive, Ken.

a ferocious attack is justified not just to set the record straight, but to maximise the shock value and get peoples attention.

Yep, it sure has shock value on the grieving family knowing they have to confront people who have read such an obit.

Jage
Jage
13 years ago

The big difference here is that Keating is a former Prime Minister of this country, and has had decades of opportunities and power to get revenge on a journalist for not thinking he was working for Pravda. Keating’s performance made me once more want to hurl my cookies.

While other political leaders retire to lead organisations like the OECD, CARE and ICG, Keating slithers about pimping business deals for dodgy SE Asian plutocrats and former dictators.

What a grub and shameful pox on our polity he is.

Jage
Jage
13 years ago

One wonders if the ABC will now warn viewers before Keating is interviewed “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viwers should ne advised that the following segment will probably involve gratuitous naming and slagging of persons who are still warm in the morgue.” ;)

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

On the bright side, better Keating than Schroeder or Carter :)