The media and the Intervention

... there has really been no progress in the major print media. The coverage of the issues in the Murdoch and Fairfax press remains roughly as impressive as it ever was. That is, the Murdoch press occasionally features useful information but usually with a right-wing gloss – and the Fairfax press tends to ignore the issue altogether.

Michael Brull Overland 23 October 2012

For years, I have been a bit of a broken record about the Intervention in the Northern Territory. I have written time and again that it has achieved no gains in Indigenous communities, it has caused harms, it is degrading and widely hated. When I first started writing about the Intervention, I considered my voice a rather isolated one. Years after the Intervention was launched, it was hard to find critiques of the Intervention in the corporate media. No major journalist or commentator in either the Fairfax or Murdoch press was opposed to the Intervention, and neither were ALP and Coalition representatives.

Years later, perhaps naively, I got the impression that the many critiques of the Intervention – made not just by me, but by people like Jon Altman, Eva Cox, Larissa Behrendt, Nicole Watson, Chris Graham, Paddy Gibson and so on – have made some impact on the Australian public. Its hard to tell. They have not had any impact on federal policy of the major parties.

At one stage, it seemed that both parties were making noises distancing themselves in some way from the Intervention. The ALP criticised the initial roll-out of the Intervention, and said it would build a new relationship with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Coalition spokesman on Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion made comments critical of the Intervention too. Perhaps somewhere, opposition to the Intervention in public consciousness was sinking in, and its opponents had made some gains.

Yet what seems plain to me is that there has really been no progress in the major print media. The coverage of the issues in the Murdoch and Fairfax press remains roughly as impressive as it ever was. That is, the Murdoch press occasionally features useful information but usually with a right-wing gloss – and the Fairfax press tends to ignore the issue altogether.

Ill make this point with reference to two recent articles, not because theyre the worst articles ever, but because theyre illustrative of the general tenor of relevant media coverage. Furthermore that others didnt notice the obvious points that I make illustrates the pass that the print media (in my view, inappropriately) gets for its inadequate coverage of the Intervention.

The first article is from the Australian. It chronicles Nova Peris, at the time an ALP senate candidate almost certain to win a seat in the Northern Territory, slamming the Intervention and Noel Pearson.

Peris attacked Pearson for supporting the Intervention. She said his views did not fit with the people of the Northern Territory – that was made clear when he supported the intervention… the way the whole intervention was done, it was just demeaning, and it ripped the heart out of all Australia and out of the Territory … I have no doubt that the intervention has certainly hurt Aboriginal people in the NT.

These comments are to her credit. But the ALP supported extending the Intervention, essentially unchanged, and expanded nationally, with additional punitive measures, for ten more years. Well, Peris ‘denied Labors Stronger Futures legislation including cornerstones of the NTER was the same. That was it.

It seems to me a serious journalist would examine how significant the differences are between the two policies, and if Peris was just expressing opposition to the Coalitions Intervention to cynically win cheap and undeserved votes on the basis of imaginary opposition to policies her party continues to support.

The article, however, continues.

Senator Nigel Scullion, at that time the Coalitions spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs, is quoted as accusing ‘Ms Peris of being out of touch with “strong women” in remote communities, who had spoken out in favour of the Intervention, and of trying to rewrite history. The article noted that Scullion ‘suggested Ms Peris was out of touch with community views.

Reading this piece, one would get the impression Senator Scullion was of the view that the community, particularly women, favoured the Intervention, and so Ms Peris was out of touch by suggesting instead that communities opposed the Intervention. But it so happens that Senator Scullion is on record in February 2012 saying:

There is a fundamental thread through most of the feedback we get when we talk about consultation. When we get to most communities any observer would say that Aboriginal people more generally hate the intervention. They do not like it, it invades their rights and they feel discriminated against.

When a politician can so cynically express diametrically opposed views on the same issue, one is hesitant to say which view is the sincerely held one. Regardless, I would suggest that the fact he said this is at least a little relevant to the article that faithfully reported Senator Scullion upholding the party line – women love the Intervention and so on. Assuming, of course, that the job of journalists is not simply to recite the talking points of politicians. If journalists are supposed to serve politicians faithfully, then I guess Senator Scullion can be happy for a job well done.

Commenting on Fairfax and the Intervention is generally more difficult, because Fairfax mostly does not regard Indigenous issues with much interest. But, occasionally, its commentators write on a related issue, and their underlying premises can be revealing.

On 15 October, Fairfax columnist at Daily Life, Clementine Ford wrote an ode to yet another ALP politician. This time the piece was devoted to Tanya Plibersek, who possesses ‘integrity, vision and intellect, is ‘warm and engaging, has a ‘mind like a steel trap, and regularly saves kittens from burning houses (ok, Ford didnt write that last bit).

Revisiting an earlier article in which Ford had previously complained about Tony Abbotts ‘sausage fest cabinet, this time Ford noted, to her credit, that ‘it isnt just women whose absence we should be concerned about. There have only ever been three Indigenous members of the Federal Parliament. Ford went on to complain about the lack of diversity in Australias parliament, hoping that it would improve to include, for example, Muslims and people with disabilities. She described as particularly shocking ‘that the role of Minister for Indigenous Affairs has never actually been filled by an Indigenous Australian.

Fords earlier column on Abbotts new cabinet was published on 17 September. Ford was one of the leading proponents of ‘Women for Gillard, receiving a ‘thank you from Gillard during its launch, for Fords ‘world-class introduction. In this article, Ford spruiked the second Rudd government, contrasting it favourably with Tony Abbotts gender representation problem in his cabinet.

Ford wrote that Rudds cabinet was ‘the most gender-equitable cabinet in Australian political history, with a balance of 14 men to six women. Ford went on to sing the praises of three women in this unusually gender-equitable cabinet:

For a brief time, we had talented women like Tanya Plibersek … Penny Wong, an openly gay Asian Australian whose sexual orientation and ethnicity were a welcome challenge to a political cast of characters whose bland sameness was about as representative of Australia’s diversity as a bag of soggy crisps; and Jenny Macklin, whose instrumental role in delivering a national disability insurance scheme will enable thousands of Australians living with disability to achieve a higher level of dignity and self-determination.

So Penny Wong is a great appointment, because racial equality is important to Clementine Ford, and the failure to represent the ethnically diverse makeup of Australia in its cabinet would otherwise be a problem. The other great appointment was Jenny Macklin: Macklin, who was been the Minister for Indigenous Affairs for the great majority of the six years of the Intervention so far; Macklin, who expanded the Intervention nationally, and extended it for ten more years. Thats the talent that the Abbott cabinet sadly lacks but that fortunately the second Rudd government included – even though Ford claims to be shocked at the terrible fact that weve never had an Indigenous minister of Indigenous affairs.

When it comes to Penny Wong, equitable ethnic representation in the fight against racism is important. When it comes to Macklin, the fight against racism is no consideration at all.

It is hard to think of this as something other than a form of doublethink. As Orwell wrote, doublethink means ‘to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.

In the case of Ford, her expressed view should not be particularly surprising. I would think it difficult to imagine a prominent advocate of ‘women for Gillard being particularly concerned about the Intervention. Gillard proudly embraced Macklins measures, announcing that Macklin is ‘is a great thinker – one of the greatest thinkers in this country on social policy questions – and a great leader of national reform agenda.

I still think there are positive signs of increased opposition to the Intervention. But the corporate media remains as bleak as ever. These are just a few articles, but they are symptomatic of a broader problem. Racially discriminatory legislation is not just uncontroversial in Australia: it is uninteresting. There is a vast literature of critique of the Intervention on the margins, in Tracker, in journals, and silence. Australia needs to be woken up, but those with platforms to do so before major audiences are uninterested in doing so.

Michael Brull is studying Juris Doctor at University of NSW and has written for ABC Drum, Indigenous Law Bulletin, National Times, Overland and elsewhere.

- More by Michael Brull

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