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Commercial media, Pauline Hanson, and radical Islam

November 18, 2015 - 16:25 -- Admin

In the 1990s Laurie Oakes claimed that the "national broadcaster" was not the ABC but the commercial media outlet he worked for, Channel 9. Since then, commercial television and radio have declined in Australia. Oakes wouldn't make that claim now, or he'd be ridiculed if he did. People have other options for spending their time than watching TV or listening to the radio:

  • Well-educated people spend less time on commercial TV/radio than less well-educated people.
  • Younger people spend less time on commercial TV/radio than older people, who had grown up in an era where there were fewer alternatives.
  • People from non-English-speaking backgrounds spend less time on commercial TV/radio than people from English-speaking backgrounds.

The people now running commercial TV/radio find it more rewarding to hang onto the audiences they have rather than take the risk on a broader, more representative audience that may never embrace those media so ardently as its ageing, Anglo-Celtic, politically inflexible existing audience. If Muslim Australians were big consumers of Australian commercial TV/radio there would be more Muslim Australians appearing on commercial TV/radio, and running it. Populist presenters making ignorant and hurtful comments about them would be disciplined, and talkback callers offering such content would rarely be put to air. New migrants tend to work hard and try to fit in, and don't need to be harangued about working hard and fitting in. Rhetoric about 'fitting in' rings hollow from people who regard being both Muslim and Australian as a contradiction in terms, or an exercise in malicious deception. The small numbers of new migrants who don't fit in, who lash out at people and property of a society they don't feel part of, confirm commercial media in their biases.Those now running commercial TV/radio remember when larger numbers of Australians paid attention to them, back in the 1990s, and one of the personalities who got people to tune in was Pauline Hanson. The assumptions of politics at the time suggested that being disendorsed by the Liberals when they held a strong majority in the House of Representatives should have rendered her irrelevant. Instead, she got millions of dollars worth of free publicity from commercial TV/radio. Political parties have small armies of people raising money in order to buy the sort of exposure Hanson got - and gets - gratis. In 1998 Hanson's party won a million votes. She lost election after election, she went to prison, and in some cases she paid dearly for free publicity. No longer holding public office, she shunned publicity. Eventually she accepted interview requests from those who promised her an easy time. Pauline Pantsdown's satire of her was as gentle as Billy Birmingham's affectionate, unthreatening impersonations of Richie Benaud. As Jason Wilson points out, her exclusionary immigration attitudes had become mainstream, bipartisan policy (and the broadcast media loves bipartisan policy). Compare the trajectory of her career to other politicians from the late 1990s: Cheryl Kernot, or Peter Reith, or even David Ettridge. Note how Hanson has survived while Clive Palmer, a smarter operator with more money and votes than Hanson could ever muster, has faded. Many voters in the next federal election will have no clear memory of her as an elected official. Those who have negative memories of her may be outweighed by those who look on her more kindly. The only interviews on Australian commercial TV/radio with Hanson in recent years have been puff-pieces. Many of her opinions echo lines run by talkback radio, and they have her on to run those lines and reinforce them to a receptive audience. She stayed in the limelight through Dancing With The Stars, an odd definition of stardom. Age had softened some of her rhetoric. A tough interview would arouse sympathy and "controversy" that would go on and on, and work to her benefit. The idea that she is a menace to the unity of Australian society, a belief expressed often in the late '90s, has become harder to maintain. When there are racist outbursts on content that commercial TV/radio really cares about, such as sport or entertainment, they are slow to act. They are quick to play up a "controversy" that is never resolved, but it isn't in their interest to shut down what they consider a genuine expression from their audience.Samantha Armytage spent her career in Australian commercial TV, and occupies one of its plum roles as co-host of Sunrise. When she made a "racist gaffe", the resulting conflict arose from a powerful institution being held to standards that it does not set. See also, the treatment of Adam Goodes being Aboriginal in a public place. Commercial broadcast media is run to certain formulas that make racist assumptions and don't challenge them; this helps embed them among those who are watching/listening, and repels those who aren't. If you can accept that Daesh and al Qaeda aren't representative of Islam, then you can accept that Pauline Hanson's resurgence on Australian commercial television is not a genuine expression of Australia today. She represents a recurrence of some national infection, nasty and untreatable, public but embarrassing. Scott Atran points out a clear disadvantage for those who would harness the power of commercial TV/radio to promote trust and goodwill:

We have “counter-narratives”, unappealing and unsuccessful. Mostly negative, they rely on mass messaging at youth rather than intimate dialogue. As one former Isis imam told us: “The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.” Again, there is discernible method in the Isis approach.Eager to recruit, the group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims.Current counter-radicalisation approaches lack the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of Isis’s story of the world; and the personalised and intimate approach to individuals across the world.

So much for harnessing the power of mass-media to counter the Daesh narrative, as we might discourage people from smoking.It was always a laudable goal to have commercial television reach out to a broader audience, beyond Anglo-Celtic Australia, to include Muslims and other relatively recent migrants. Indeed, there were sound business reasons for them doing so. Now our society needs cohesion and dialogue to maintain safety and security, and it would be nice if the commercial broadcasters could get on board as a community service. It’s too late for that now. If Hanson and those who run commercial TV/radio could choose to define us/them for who’s with “us” and who’s against, they'd choose the one that resonated with their audience: demonising Muslims and other new arrivals, who were never part of their audience anyway. There will be politicians who align their interests with those of commercial media. If you thought the Murdoch papers were a bit supportive of the Coalition in 2013, then this country’s commercial media are going to treat Tony Abbott like the king in exile in 2016 (similar to the way they treated Rudd under the Gillard government). He has spent his life aligning with the interests of commercial media. Not only Hanson, but other minor parties who want to crack down on immigration and civil liberties will get much more earned media free airtime than, say, the Greens or other established non-government political entities. Nick Xenophon will have to flirt with anti-Muslims, or walk on his hands down Rundle Mall, to get the free coverage that got him this far.In their mutually weakened state they'll help one another before they'll help those who ignore them. And what could be more Aussie (pause) than friends helping friends when they're struggling (cut to shot of Australian flag rippling in the breeze, then to shot of a southern-cross tattoo on a comely white female buttock, then to an ad).