18 November 2015

Commercial media, Pauline Hanson, and radical Islam

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).


  1. It's all very quiet on the Western Front at the moment.
    I wonder when the real squealing and screaming from the Right will start in earnest.

  2. Thanks for switching from the white on black text and orange headers. That was so noughties powerpoint that I was having disturbing flashbacks. BTW I agree with your premise regarding Hanson's disease.

  3. It's been a long time since I read Anne Summers' Damned Whores and God's Police but I wonder whether - obviously with huge assistance from the msm - Ms Hanson has morphed into a God's Police figurehead. So obviously "one of us" - pale-skinned, blue-eyed, red-haired (Celtic or Scandinavian?) and so clearly agin everything the dinosaur RWNJs are agin that she just has to be the pinup gal.

    Despite everything abbott tried.

    It would be interesting to discover his opinion of the unflushable Hanson. I suspect he's all admiration of her ability to rort the electoral system.

    1. Lachlan Ridge19/11/15 6:43 pm

      That's irony, right?

      Abbott's organising of, wait for it, "Australians for Honest Politics" was the key factor in Hanson going to jail.

      A nuanced view of politics in this (and any) country posits that there are no large homogeneous movements any more (if there ever were). Rather, there are alliances of electoral convenience and machiavellian trysts to achieve political outcomes. It's why sections of the CFMEU flirt with the Greens, why Joe de Bruyn is influential in the party of Penny Wong, why Dominic Perrotett appears on a ballot paper with Don Harwin, why Turnbull's cabinet includes Barnaby Joyce, why Phillip Ruddock wears an Amnesty badge, why Hunter Valley vignerons bankroll actions by anti-CSG blockaders, and so on and so forth, etc. etc. etc.

      The Right are no more a unitary monolith of thought than, say, the suburb of Maroubra.

      I remember One Nation, and I remember that much of its economic program could have been written by Whitlam's minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor. It supported price fixing and other ideas anathema to anyone who has swallowed the TINA of market liberalism, just as the National Party of today would be unrecognisable to 'Blackjack" McKewen. Yup, things can change, even if the names stay similar, just ask George Crawford.

      That said, Summer's book is a good (or at least better than average) Australian history.

      And thanks for tweaking the layout Andrew, it took me back to the wild west days of HTML pre Dreamweaver (I'm looking at YOU! Takver!).

      Such, such were the joys.

    2. I once thought that taking down Hanson was the only good thing Abbott ever did, but it became clear in hindsight that he did it because he was moving into that same political ground and was just knifing a competitor.

  4. Just one small quibble Andrew, your final paragraph would be more accurate as,
    (10 minutes of adds, cut to shot of Australian flag rippling in the breeze, 10 minutes of adds, then to shot of a southern-cross tattoo on a comely white female buttock, 10 minutes of adds).
    Sorry to be picky

    1. I do love that final paragraph, though.

  5. Spot On......

    Then along comes Waleed Aly and he's s game changer

    So proud that Melbourne can produce a show and a man like him in our media

    It's reflective of the city and it's people perfectly

    They have an outdated business model and sadly many older celebrities I've met are a little racist in their outlook

    Listening to 3aw its quite sad how Tom Elliott gets a gig because of his Dad

    Same with Sharri Markson and her p.r Dad

    There's a network of people who engage in greedy hypocrisy especially the m.s.m and allbof it's bells and whistles