Brisbane's greatest living son is not footballer Gordon Tallis but an Arabic Australian. He's David Malouf, Australia's greatest living novelist. A year ago he did something unusual. He wrote in the Australian Quarterly about the importance of our British heritage, and in particular the nuances, structures and opportunities of language. It's a fascinating essay because one of our multicultural success stories, a national icon, is delineating how Australia inherited a particular English that shunned abuse, passion and rhetoric (the kind that inhabits American English) and instead opted for gentleness, argument and practicality. He's in high praise of the moderateness of our language, institutions and society.
This son of an English mother and an Arabic father, writes that, “For us the end of colonialism can never be ‘declared’ as it was for the Indians at a single stroke, because we were never a colony as India was. Made in England and exported like so much else, we are a bit of the motherland set down in a new place ... it is not only Britain we have to deal with, it is our own “Britishness" - a very different thing, and much more difficult to track down and confront”.
I have spent the last two years tracing complex cases to do with asylum seekers and Arabs in Australia's press and, in particular, in more than 12,000 articles in Sydney's two major newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph, a year before and year after September 11. The evidence shows some interesting patterns.
The sense of threat to our shores, to our identity and to our control of our own lives from the Tampa asylum seekers was used as an election tactic to frighten an electorate traditionally paranoid about the dreaded “threat from the north”. The echo of Howard's election line “we will decide” who enters this country rings to this day. Less clear is how closely the press in a major city like Sydney played along with the folk fears Howard was invoking. For all of 2001, long before Tampa, newspapers were targeting asylum seekers not as sorry victims from dictatorial regimes like Iraq and Iran, but as a faceless mass of undeserving poor.
As the year proceeded, and press releases from then Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock raised the ante, the word “wave” became “tide” and finally, by election time, a “flood”. They were “illegal” refugees - although international law recognises no such category - and possible “terrorists”, the description used by then Defence Minister Peter Reith - although ASIO later admitted never finding such a case amongst them. My analysis shows these fear words were the common staple of reportage. In 37 per cent of articles surveyed, the word “terror” was used when reporting asylum seekers. When the Tampa asylum seekers were told they might be denied entry to Australia and began a hunger strike, headlines worried about their “violence”.
Finally came the element of disgust. It came first with the Prime Minister's assertions about asylum seekers throwing their children overboard. Then with reporting of how the Tampa asylum seekers, on the HMAS Manoora bound for Nauru, rioted aboard the ship. For days, the theme of the undeserving poor filled the Daily Telegraph. Howard would be proven wrong about children overboard and an excellent investigation of the Tampa crisis, by journalists Marian Wilkinson and David Marr in their book Dark Victory, would nail the lies about “riots” on the Manoora. But both were too late. Howard had ridden to victory on the back of a media happy to go along with the government mantra.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has been unremitting since Jewish troops took over 80 per cent of historic Palestine in 1948, drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and called it Israel. Since 1967 Israeli forces have also occupied the remaining 20 per cent, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In UN documents, these remaining Palestinian territories are routinely referred to as “occupied Palestine”. Most of the European press does the same. Not so in Australia's press. In reporting which removes history, law and context, the more standard phrase is simply “the territories”. Or take what are referred to as Jewish “settlements”. UN Resolution 465 of 1980 states that, “... All measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure, or status of the Palestinian or other Arab territories occupied since 1967... have no legal validity”. This makes Jewish apartment blocks on the West Bank and Gaza Strip illegal. But rarely is the phrase “illegal settlements” used.
There is constant use of the words “terrorist” and “militant” to describe Palestinians resisting the illegal occupation of their remaining land. There is no gain saying the fact that suicide bombers are terrorists. In September 2004, a 10 year-old Palestinian girl was shot in the head and killed in the classroom of a United Nations school. A UN spokesperson said it was the third time a Palestinian child had been shot at school by Israeli bullets. Who is the terrorist? In the year following September 11 there was a trebling of the use of the word “terrorist” in relation to Palestinians in the two newspapers studied. It was a reflection of the increased use of the word by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As a result, the Palestinians' lack of press oxygen paints them as uniformly violent, evil, irrational and inhuman.
In the period of this study, George Bush and John Howard approved several Israeli policies. Sharon is undoubtedly the most extreme leader ever to occupy the Israeli Prime Ministership. Most recently, Australia, alone among six nations, voted with the US to reject the verdict of the International Court of Justice that found the building of the wall imprisoning Palestinians in their own land was illegal. John Howard has been presented with an Israeli award for his services to Israel.
The Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence on Iraq found in December last year that 97 per cent of our pre-war intelligence came from the US and Britain, while only 3 per cent originated in Australia. The interesting part is not about the failure of the Australian agencies to do their own work and come to fair conclusions based on raw evidence. Rather, it is about how our media handled these failures. Where were they when we most needed them - in the months preceding the war? I looked at several Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane newspapers in the six months prior to and following the start of war. The finding is clear. There was silence around the "Coalition of the Willing's" drive to war.
Two newspapers mentioned the speech to the UN by Mohammed el Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He reported in January 2003 that after combing Iraq for nuclear capable materials he'd found nothing. The IAEA head's statement got a mention at the bottom of a foreign report on page 8 of The Australian and on page 59 in international news in Sydney's Sunday Sun-Herald. The third exception is more significant. It's David Costello's commentary in The Courier-Mail. Despite the editorial stance of Murdoch papers around the world in support of the pre-emptive strike on Iraq, Costello's commentary was consistently sceptical, measured and realistic about the benefits of Western engagement in Iraq. He asked the right questions and underlined Bush's motives. His courageous stand looks good in retrospect.
What does all this mean? What is happening here? Why is it that on several key issues, particularly since September 11, our Press appears to have given up the role of reporting fair down the middle, keeping a distance from Government spin and resisting with scepticism the overblown rhetoric of war? Is the Press afraid of being accused of being un-Australian, traitors, “pinkos” or extremists? I do not believe boatloads of asylum seekers threatened Australia, I do not believe the Palestinian narrative gets a fair go in our media and I did not believe we should have gone to war in Iraq. I am more concerned with a trend that seems to threaten our democracy; the trend towards a compliant press.
- Explanation one. The massive growth of public relations and cutbacks in journalism jobs over the last ten years has done a great disservice to information flow. These days there are more jobs - and better paying ones - in PR than there are slogging it out at the newspaper coalface. The result is many journalists are getting handouts, tips, ideas and suggested “lines” from Government PR apparatchiks at a far greater rate than ever before and often from former work mates. Is it any wonder government-speak is working?
- Explanation two. All three case studies are about Arabs. The refugee boats were full of Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians and Afghanis. I believe the narrative of fear and loathing running through our media coverage is related to the fact that Arabs have become our new, feared “other”. Add to the mix the traditional rivalry between Islam and Christianity and you have the traditional clash of civilizations scenario.
- Explanation three. I began with colonialism. David Malouf made the point that we cannot walk so easily away from our colonial heritage. It's “inside” us. Unlike India, unlike Egypt, unlike Indonesia, we have not had decades of trauma disconnecting us from our colonisation. But the fact of the subtlety of our colonisation does not mean it has not happened. In my view, one of the results of our “Britishness”, as Malouf calls it, is our fear of the Arab and of the Muslim. We need to confront this racism and bring it to the surface. Certainly we should not allow it to dictate our media agenda. We need to start talking about our own colonialist legacy and what it means.
Part of the difficulty has to do with the fact that our colonialist subservience includes Eurocentrism. For much of the 20th century, as Donald Horne noted, nothing in Australia was good enough unless it came from “overseas” and that usually meant Europe. We have inherited the traditions of the bloodless English Revolution of 1688, as Malouf says, in the way we conduct our national discourse. We cannot ignore the roots of “Britishness” and Eurocentrism in our own culture because that is how colonialism happens. But some passion about thinking, feeling, seeing, and imagining our own country, without reference to “overseas”, is entirely appropriate.
I find it embarrassing when it's revealed that only 3 per cent of our intelligence on Iraq was our own work. I cringe when little kids in detention camps on Australian soil look through barbed wire in a land that is normally so big and generous. To quote American documentary maker Michael Moore, “Would the man who stole my country please give it back?”