The “Collapse” of the traditional political media in Australia is a timely and, to many, depressingly timely topic. In our day and age, print media is experiencing its worst ever collapse, with many Australian newspapers dramatically in decline. Many online news outlets have been bought and closed, but still operate at a financial loss. The web is a venue of many content producers, many of whom have gone bust on the way, and some of whom have been bought up by a familiar white-male-Crazy-4-Life contingent of internet billionaires.
Australia, the big island between Asia and New Zealand, is an ethnically distinct country with a much older cultural heritage that parallels that of its Asian neighbors. As such, it is still home to many European settler communities. Of course, many in the latter group migrated across the great South Pacific to a whole world that existed in their own minds at the same time as Australia. And even today, a sizeable proportion of the country’s population do still live in semi-closed communities. But the mainstream media, including the mainstream (read: white male) media, does not reflect this, according to a new report released by the University of Canberra. The researchers examined 650 Australian newspapers and 150 major weekly magazines, and found that of this sample, 68 percent of the articles featured Australia’s indigenous population, while only 14 percent discussed the lives of a broader populace of Australians of all backgrounds.
There were a few very notable exceptions; indigenous leader Noel Pearson’s biographies were widely read, but hardly any of his life was discussed. Indigenous photographers and photographers were rarely published, and, were reported about, rarely told of in a positive light. And what passes for reporting on the lives of most Australian women had little to do with the wider issues of inequality and social injustice that characterizes society in Australia today. The pages of the Fairfax papers were filled with sports and politics, and very few of their contributors looked to the wider world for ideas or perspectives.
Sociologists call this a “news blackout” on stories relevant to non-whites. In Australia, the mainstream media proved no different. But even worse, the news blackout exposed a severely deficient social history. The severe underrepresentation of non-white Australians in Australian society suggests an ongoing and dangerous contempt for and fascination with other identities and peoples.
This month has seen an assault on a number of stories that have been used to depict non-whites, often damagingly and inaccurately, in black and white. The assault has come from white settlers in Australia themselves. Many in the mainstream press used the Brett Whiteley murder as an example of “state supported” and “police state” racism, whereas the murder involved the “white mafia” who killed Whiteley to protect their business dealings. Since, the spectacle of white conservatives berating a black artist is becoming more and more common. White supremacists are marching in the Australian parliament and claiming that non-whites can’t write, can’t sing, can’t look pretty, can’t live up to what they put on a wall in white European culture. The Australian people seem to be agitating for white Australia to be given the right to determine when and how other people of color can live.
It may sound like rhetoric and anger, but, to a broader and growing number of Australian citizens and immigrants, it sounds like just the kind of thing that is deeply traumatic to endure. An increasing number of Australians, especially underprivileged groups, are turning to online and social media to look for perspectives on non-white society, and finding them. But, while the growth of this new content is welcome, to flourish, these online formats must be able to engage with diverse ideas of race and culture, without a racist or ethnically exclusive bias. When language used by conservative elites and the mainstream press engages in such a blatant mischaracterization of other people’s beliefs and experiences, it condemns all perspectives to marginalization and some, really, nothing but oblivion.
The op-ed writers and journalists interviewed by me on the topic seem reluctant to stop using the term “white Australia” — a phrase that has been used by white conservative elites for the last 150 years and that perpetuates the idea that non-whites are a Third World problem. The mainstream media, while almost certainly unaware of the negative consequences of its words, continues to use the phrase in stories. The times, they are a-changing.
Gareth Evans is a former Australian foreign minister.
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