Did anyone at the Herald Sun stop and think last night before putting a golliwog doll next to Oprah Winfrey on the front page of today’s paper?

Or were the tabloid folk so driven by the need to confect controversy that they forgot about their social responsibility?

It’s difficult to pick the right adjective for the cover story “G’day Oprah, Goodbye Golli”, although words such as infantile, reckless and a beat-up come to mind.

The story is introduced like this: “Oprah Winfrey got her first taste of Australia yesterday, hugging a baby koala but sparking controversy over golliwogs ahead of her arrival in Melbourne.”

How disingenuous. The only people who have sparked controversy are the reporters, Nick Leys and Jessica Craven, and whoever commissioned this story.

The story hangs on a suggestion that Winfrey’s production company Harpo asked a Melbourne doll shop to remove its “Mamee” washer woman doll from display for the duration of Winfrey’s visit to Australia. This is actually not completely clear because all we know from the story is that a meeting occurred and that the doll will disappear for a few days. Whether Harpo asked — or the doll shop offered — to remove the doll is not explained because apparently Harpo insisted on silence from the doll shop and the owners acquiesced.

If the people at Harpo did ask, then surely they were doing so to avoid offence and to avoid controversy. It seems they were going out of their way to make sure no one was offended. Given the offensiveness of golliwog dolls to millions of African Americans you can at least see there’s logic in their efforts at avoiding controversy.

It would also be reasonable to discuss the pros and cons of all of this in a reasoned and reflective piece of journalism. But that’s not the Herald Sun’s style. Instead it goes for shock and tries to generate heat out of an issue that deserves much more sensitivity.

This story is about getting everyone talking — well, preferably shouting at each other. It’s about getting the punters riled, either for the cause of removing golliwogs or against those who would have them removed. It doesn’t matter really as long as everyone gets angry and ideally makes a call to the conveniently established vote line, which today is asking: “Are you offended by golliwog dolls?”

What is the subtext of this story? Are they trying to argue that Harpo is too powerful? Are they trying to say that golliwogs are not offensive and that their detractors are too politically correct?

I don’t think the paper is trying to compare Winfrey with the Mamee doll. But the juxtaposition of the photos on the front page is certainly risky, particularly considering that this issue is likely to hit the international media. I can envisage CNN plastering this page on screen and reprising last year’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday minstrel sketch and some of the likely talkback reactionary fodder you’d expect to surface after a story such as this. It all runs the risk of making us look like we’re stuck in a 1950s time warp, hung up about outdated — but mostly non-existent — vestiges  of the White Australia Policy. If we’re tagged in that way by the overseas media, the Herald Sun has only itself to blame.

I reckon the Herald Sun should ask itself whether it has properly exercised its social responsibility in its coverage of this so-called story.

Peter Fray

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