In a land of the despairing, the chipper man is king, and so morning television’s most radiant head has risen to be crowned. Karl Stefanovic, a man hitherto distinguished as runner-up in Torvill and Dean’s Dancing on Ice, in recent weeks has been elevated and applauded as brave, heroic and progressive.

What Stefanovic, a co-presenter on the sincerely dreadful Today program on the Nine Network, has done to earn these regal descriptions is publicly identify the existence of racism and sexism within his industry and to call for their end.

This is nice. But, it’s not brave, heroic or even particularly progressive. Well, unless by “progressive” we mean upholding entertainment television as a real locus for social change. More of that presently. For the moment, let’s assess Stefanovic’s acts of bravely heroic progressivism.

When Stefanovic revealed that he had worn the same suit, with just a few necessary lapses for hygiene, onscreen for a year, news and social media went potty. Inspired by his co-host Lisa Wilkinson’s 2013 Andrew Olle Lecture, in which she identified the burden of visible beauty to which her female colleagues were yoked, Stefanovic decided to appear in the same moderately priced outfit just to see if anyone noticed, just as they routinely notice his co-host’s every costly flounce. When they didn’t, Stefanovic revealed the ruse, made a speech about the oppression of female news media staff by overwhelming wardrobe choice, and won the hearts of his subjects.

Let’s set aside the suspicion that Nine had engineered this act of pop-progressivism to appeal to the largely female available audience — one it has been desperately chasing since nearly a third of its time slot share was claimed by Seven — and suppose that Stefanovic has had a relatively late-life conversion to publicly progressive politics. It happens. Like journalist Tracey Spicer, who used a recent TEDx talk to announce she was “starting a movement” to strip women of their frippery, starting with herself — presumably the 13-minute time limit imposed by TEDx did not allow Spicer to acknowledge that this “movement” to free the female body from discipline is at least as old as the Enlightenment — Stefanovic waited for his 40s to take up the causes of liberalism.

It is likely that Stefanovic, like Spicer, is sincere in his efforts to promote justice. Especially given his largely decent comments to NITV anchor Natalie Ahmat last week on the participation of indigenous Australians in professional media. It’s easy to champion women and the tyranny of lipstick, but it’s a darn sight more difficult to speak about the unspeakable racism to which Aboriginal Australians are institutionally subject.

Stefanovic has afforded some thought to the matter of self-determination. In his interview, now widely shared on social media, he offers the very sensible opinion that white Australia has long managed Aboriginal Australia and made such a balls-up of it that he, as a white person, did not intend to offer further advice.

It’s bonza to watch. True juridical and material empowerment of Aboriginal Australia is just and right and, for heaven’s sake, it’s time for white Australia to pay the rent past-due and begin acting like responsible tenants so that self-determination can begin. It’s certainly heartening to watch this understanding unfold — or, at least, begin to. But there are a few chinks in the kingly Karl armour.

First, Stefanovic seems to be saying that he is unable to report with accuracy on Aboriginal issues because he is not Aboriginal. Such reporting would be a violation of self-determination. Pish. Any employed journalist who sees great injustice and fails to report it with the rationale the oppressed are not immediately available for interview is copping out. Today does not have an exceptional record when it comes to the ongoing crisis in the Northern Territory and frankly, you don’t have to be black to report the separation of children from their families on spurious grounds, the extension by Stronger Futures policy of the woefully undemocratic and racist conditions of the Intervention and the failure inbuilt into government and extraction industry attempts to “close the gap”. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to report on clear and systematised government delinquency any more than you have to be a Pakistani kid to report on death by drones. You just have to be a capable journalist. If you are a “white person without expertise”, as Stefanovic claims to be, get some expertise and report. To say, as Stefanovic does to Ahmat, “I don’t want to get involved or offer an opinion,” is not a support of Aboriginal self-determination. It’s advocacy for lazy journalism.

“Even if it displays diversity, it’s still offering stuff for sale. You can’t buy social equality or have it represented to you on breakfast TV. You gotta get it wholesale.”

With no scintilla of doubt, it would be preferable to have a range of indigenous faces reporting and producing not only on indigenous issues but a range of news stories. Stefanovic is charming and right when he says the countenance of Australian TV is bland and beige. I frigging loathe most of what passes for news analysis in this nation, and both as a consumer and participant I am with Stefanovic in his urging to employ outside the usual range of white idiots. The plain fact is, if you do have a newsroom staffed by people with a range of social experiences, your news output stands a better chance of not being crap. Karl is right. But he is fundamentally wrong when he says, as he does throughout the interview, that he believes that diverse representation on Australian TV will result — either immediately or in the distant future, we can’t be sure which — in social justice.

This belief in the power of television as a socially remediating force has become so naturalised that any attempt to counter it is met with accusations of conservatism and prejudice. “Well, what’s your solution, then?” is a question aimed at anyone who critiques the idea that media can change societies for the better. The answer is: I don’t have an answer. But neither do professional media, which are yet to solve any significant social problem. Ever. So perhaps it’s wiser to suppose, unlike Spicer and Stefanovic, that media powers are limited. And that to pretend that we have working answers to social questions, delivered at 100Hz, is dangerously deluded.

Consider Stefanovic’s claim late in his NITV interview that media can effect change on public attitudes. Then rewind a little and see his recommendation for the policies of Noel Pearson and the Abbott government. “I see what Noel Pearson is doing. I see what the government is starting to do with certain programs and from my perspective, I like what I see.”

So the problem for Stefanovic is not a program of policy founded in the idea that Aboriginal people need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and behave like aspirational white people — and assimilation is the dominant ideology, according to many of the Aboriginal voices Stefanovic has failed to engage on Today — but people who have been under-served by their media class. The government is doing a fine job, apparently. We just need to see better stuff on telly.

To argue against better — or, frankly, some — representation by Aboriginal people on telly would be stupid, and to argue against comprehensive — or, frankly, some — engagement with indigenous current events should result in one being admitted to a hospital for stinking racists. Australian media would be a mildly less hateful place if filled with indigenous people and indigenous stories. But Australian life would probably not change that much.

We need to start thinking, especially when it comes to Aboriginal Australia, that it is not only our attitudes — which may or may not be changed by Karl Stefanovic — that matter, and perhaps media is not the only institution that guides racist policy. Juridical, Christian and government frameworks created this crap and it is not just “the media” that upholds them. The policies of the Abbott government, recommended by Stefanovic, certainly play their part. If we can say that media has played a role in maintaining the clearly institutional frameworks of racism toward Aboriginal people in this nation, it is in the poison ink of Quadrant much more than it can be read in Today.

I’m aware that to discourage appreciation of Stefanovic may make me seem at best like a spoilsport and at worst as a campaigner for a static media that protects my own white privilege. While it is true I am a spoilsport, I do not fear the end of my white privilege. Because if progressive people continue to believe that popular media are the way to upturn unjust power structures, my white privilege is safe.

Media just ain’t that powerful. Items for mass consumption exist inevitably to maintain the conditions that encourage mass consumption and substantial change within this cycle is rarely possible. What media has made possible, however, is a great belief in its own influence. And while it is true that it can make us buy things, including political parties, it is not at all true that there can be genuine political choice in the range of available products. Are you going to choose the party that has dismissed land rights and supports the Intervention or the party that has dismissed land rights and supports the Intervention?

We are most likely to choose the fiction that media can, or have, provoked great change.

Many media professionals and consumers believe absolutely in a trickle-down system of social capital that starts with celebrity and ends, at some ill-defined point, in the lives of everyday people. There are those who campaign for more diversity in Barbie dolls and applaud Apple CEO Tim Cook’s declaration of his sexuality for its supposed effectiveness in changing lives. And one can no longer argue with the unsteady ideas upholding the campaign to see “real” women on the catwalk. The presumption that “real” women in fashion is good for the health of the nation is so established that there was even a government action group founded to administer this social medicine.

And it is this presumption that informed Stefanovic’s internationally reported “feminist” act and shot Tracey Spicer into TED-level respectability.

In her brave and heroic and progressive talk, Spicer reminds us that feminine fashion is a waste of time and is therefore not good for productivity. We serve our bank balances and our employers better, she says, when we spend less time dressing up. You are a better servant to the company if you choose not to serve the beauty industry. Frankly, this is the best revolutionary rationale for getting my nails done I have ever heard. A manicure kills capitalism.

But really, a French polish will do no more harm to the grinding wheels of industry than an impassioned plea from Stefanovic to “include” more indigenous faces on TV. While the latter would be great (and the former even better), it’s just not going to happen meaningfully unless it happens from the bottom up.

Equality, like wealth, just doesn’t trickle down. When half of all Aboriginal men and one-third of all Aboriginal women have died by my age, how will we find our distinguished greying indigenous journalists? When shithouse short-sighted education policy results in enormous literacy disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, who will read the autocue? When mental illness disproportionately afflicts indigenous Australians, where do we go to find the pep demanded by commercial breakfast television?

Unlike Stefanovic, I don’t like what I see in the policies of the current government. I don’t like what I see on television much, either. But this is a clear case of the egg appearing long before the media chicken. There can be no representation of a people subject to generations of policy that strive to kill them.

And there can be no liberation of women simply by removing the discipline of cosmetics. I do understand how people are led to passionately believe, like Spicer, that seeing “real women” on the catwalk or in the boardroom will change the world. But the problem is not the adherence to one particular visual ideal of womanhood. The problem is the boardroom. The problem is the catwalk. The problem is the idea of representation itself. Smash that fucker down.

And the problem, too, is a commercially driven media convinced of its own relevance in the things that it displays. Even if it displays diversity, it’s still offering stuff for sale. You can’t buy social equality or have it represented to you on breakfast TV. You gotta get it wholesale. I know a guy. His name is Tony.

The economic policies in his field of bullshit obscured by the empty signs of media are what you want. And if we get that sorted, then we can build a Black Power breakfast team. And this will be the sign of victory. It’s not its starting point.

Peter Fray

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