Is Christine Wallace’s review of the new Gillard biography an ‘absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest’?
Wallace has her own Gillard biography coming out next year, a fact she discloses in the Monthly review. This is the usual let-the-readers-decide solution to apparent conflicts of interest.
While [Monthly editor Ben] Naparstek said Wallace had clearly identified herself as the author of a rival biography, Mr Ball [the Penguin publisher] said that was “like a mugger declaring his profession when you first meet”.
“It doesn’t explain away the absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest in getting one biographer to review another. What kind of intellectual contortion must he have gone through to come up with that?”
While this kind of reaction is to be expected – and perhaps planned as a Monthly publicity stunt – Wallace is an attractive choice from an editor’s perspective. Editors often find that the people most competent to review books from a knowledge-of-subject perspective have something that could be described as an interest: some connection positive or negative with the author, a book on the same or related subject, a known intellectual or ideological position on the issues raised in the book, etc – lots of things that mean that possibly they are not ‘objective’ or ‘impartial’ reviewers.
So there is often a trade-off between expertise and impartiality. In this case, the Monthly could have gone for another political biographer or a political journalist, but neither would have been as competent to discuss Gillard’s life as Wallace.
In this case it seems to be the fact that Wallace has a rival commercial interest that has stirred a strong reaction. Previous biographers writing reviews of subsequent biographies of the same person don’t seem to get much reaction because their commercial interest is seen to be in the past. But they could easily have much stronger motives than money, such as not wanting their critical standing to be eclipsed.
While editors do need to exercise judgment about what impact apparent conflicts of interest will have on a review, avoiding them entirely is very difficult.