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Kieran Pender

Books of the Year 2023

Kerryn Goldsworthy et al.
Monday, 27 November 2023

What the authors of these three wildly different books share is a gift for creating through language a kind of intimacy of presence, as though they were in the room with you. Emily Wilson’s much-awaited translation of The Iliad (W.W. Norton & Company) is a gorgeous, hefty hardback with substantial authorial commentary that manages to be both scholarly and engaging. The poem is translated into effortless-looking blank verse that reads like music. The Running Grave (Sphere) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), the seventh novel in the Cormoran Strike crime series and one of the best so far, features Rowling’s gift for the creation of memorable characters and a cracking plot about a toxic religious cult. Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional (Allen & Unwin, reviewed in this issue of ABR) lingers in the reader’s mind, with the haunting grammar of its title, the restrained artistry of its structure, and the elusive way that it explores modes of memory, grief, and regret.

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Published in December 2023, no. 460

There is a paradox in the title of this book, The Power of One, by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. It is an accurate description on one level, because the powerful whistleblowing that led to demands for stronger regulation and accountability in Big Tech was indeed the courageous choice of a lone individual, the author, an American engineer and data scientist. But as the book underscores, Haugen’s whistleblowing was successful – in that it achieved impact and she has walked away relatively unscathed – because of the ecosystem that surrounded her. Lawyers, media advisers, journalists, politicians, and civil society helped her to speak up and then amplified her calls for change. The whistleblowing that Haugen documents might more accurately be described as the power of a community dedicated to ensuring that one voice reaches the minds of many. 

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This book will at times quite literally take your breath away. A deeply reported account of the fall of Afghanistan’s capital, August in Kabul tells the harrowing stories of those who escaped and those who were left behind in the maelstrom of those two weeks between the arrival of the Taliban on 15 August 2021 and the final US flight to depart – at one minute to midnight on 30 August. Compelling, vivid, and distressing all at once, it is a damning indictment of the Taliban’s wanton cruelty and of the domestic and foreign policy failures that allowed them to return. It is an impressive book-length début by one of Australia’s pre-eminent photojournalists.

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The ongoing war in Ukraine is not mentioned in Oliver Bullough’s new book, Butler to the World. That is not unexpected: it went to press before Russia invaded Ukraine. But Vladimir Putin’s illegal and reprehensible invasion looms large over this excellent new book about Britain’s role in enabling financial crime. The invasion is an acute example of the real-world consequences of this industry.

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Published in August 2022, no. 445

Kieran Pender on the Collaery case | The ABR Podcast #100

The ABR Podcast
Thursday, 07 April 2022

In an age of disinformation, whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have been accorded the status of folk heroes. And yet, as their respective cases show, no other act of public service is harried as ruthlessly and vindictively by governments whose secrets have been aired. In this episode of The ABR Podcast, listen to Kieran Pender read his cover feature for the April issue, in which he argues for stronger whistleblower protections by examining the case of Bernard Collaery.

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Published in The ABR Podcast

On the first day of March this year, Scott Morrison declared his commitment to democratic principles. ‘My government will never be backward when it comes to standing up for Australia’s national interests and standing up for liberal democracy in today’s world,’ the prime minister told reporters. ‘We can’t be absent when it comes to standing up for those important principles.’ It was a deeply hypocritical statement from a leader who has overseen raids on journalists, the prosecution of whistleblowers, and the degradation of transparency mechanisms at the heart of our democracy. Standing up for important democratic principles is just about the opposite of what the Morrison government has done, domestically at least, in recent years. The secrecy-shrouded prosecution of Bernard Collaery makes that abundantly clear.

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Published in April 2022, no. 441

When World War II began, a defence regulation was issued in Great Britain that enabled the home secretary to imprison anyone who they reasonably believed had hostile associations. One such interned individual, Robert Liversidge, objected to his detention and challenged the validity of the home secretary’s decision. In the subsequent case, Liversidge v Anderson, the House of Lords adopted a deferential approach, holding that in a time of war it was inappropriate for the courts to subject the home secretary’s decision making to much scrutiny. But in a thundering dissent, Brisbane-born Lord James ‘Dick’ Atkin disagreed. ‘In England, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent,’ he wrote. ‘They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace.’

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Across the Anglosphere, academic freedom is in crisis. That, at least, is the conclusion one draws from reading conservative newspapers and listening to right-wing politicians. Boris Johnson’s government, concerned about ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses’, recently announced plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ for British universities. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech on campus, describing it as a ‘historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege’. In February 2021, the Australian government amended higher education legislation to redefine academic freedom, amid shrill calls from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) about the ‘free speech crisis at Australia’s universities’.

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Published in April 2021, no. 430

At the time of writing, Julian Assange – an Australian citizen – is detained at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in Thamesmead on the outskirts of London. Belmarsh is a high-security facility; Assange’s fellow inmates are terrorists, murderers, and rapists. The WikiLeaks founder is being held in solitary confinement, permitted out of his cell for just one hour each day. His crime? Assange is awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings, in relation to charges brought against him by the US government. In 2019, he was indicted on one count of computer hacking and seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act (1917) for his role in obtaining and publishing military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

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The timing was apt. In September, Fake Law: The truth about justice in an age of lies – written by pseudonymous British writer ‘The Secret Barrister’ – was published in Australia. The same month, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States following the untimely death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From two legal systems that have historically influenced ours came salutary warnings about the ill effects of law’s politicisation.

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Published in December 2020, no. 427
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