Last night on the ABC’s Q&A, Irani-born Labor Senator Sam Dastyari turned to Pauline Hanson and asked her if she’d have let him into the country. She turned to him, in apparent shock, and asked: “Are you Muslim? Really?”
The interaction, and Hanson’s baffled reaction, is typical of the Queensland senator-elect. It’s stuff like this that makes her media catnip. In the eight years she spent in the political wilderness after failing to hold her seat in 1998, she was never far from our screens.
Veteran TV executive Peter Meakin — who helped steer Seven and Nine to TV ratings success before being poached by Ten, where he remains in an advisory role — says the Hanson phenomenon lures producers in the same way as a car crash.
“She’s interesting, she’s a bit dangerous, and you never know what she’s going to say next,” he told Crikey yesterday. “She’s unpredictable, and that’s probably one of the reasons producers are attracted to her.”
Even if she weren’t such good talent, her personal story is enough to be engaging, says veteran producer Allan Hogan (a veteran 60 Minutes producer). “The fish and chip shop owner who got disendorsed by the Libs after racist comments was always going to make the headlines, and since then she’s been the gift that keeps on giving,” he told Crikey.
“She’s great talent — the hair, the face, the voice, for starters, and then there’s the sound bites — ‘please explain?’. Put a camera and microphone in front of her and you’ll almost certainly get something that will excite the chattering classes.”
Viewers like her, too. Or at least, they don’t change the channel. In the cut-throat world of commercial television, where minute-by-minute breakdowns of viewership are carefully analysed first thing every morning, Hanson would never have been given a platform if she was bad for ratings. Last night’s Q&A had a million viewers nationally — it’s highest rating this year.
Many of Hanson’s roles on television have been paid. She has, for much of the past year, been a weekly commentator on Sunrise — for which the program has admitted she was paid for her 20 or so appearances. “Pauline is one of a number of paid regular commentators on Sunrise,” executive producer Michael Pell told news.com.au.
This morning, Seven news and current affairs boss Craig McPherson told Crikey that Sunrise has around a dozen rotating weekly commentators with differing opinions. “It can make for insightful debate and interesting TV,” he said. “Pauline certainly contributes to that end at times. Her views are rarely universally accepted.”
In 2011, Hanson was a contestant on the premiere season of Seven’s Dancing with the Stars (she finished runner-up). The same year, she was on Nine’s Celebrity Apprentice. Her “please explain” comment came during a 1997 feature with 60 Minutes. She’s currently filming another — she arrived at the Cairns indigenous art fair with a 60 Minutes film crew in tow this weekend.
Politicians are not just media “talent” — appearing in the media to answer questions is part of their job, and they are very rarely paid to do so. But Hanson’s 1997 parliamentary register of interests shows how even when a politician, media companies didn’t skimp when it ensured Hanson appeared on their shows.
On November 12, 1996 mere months after she burst onto the national stage, she was given first-class return flights from Brisbane to Sydney by Foxtel, which featured her on an episode of Beauty and the Beast. A few weeks earlier she’d been flown business class across the country and given multiple nights of accommodation courtesy of 60 Minutes. When the Alan Jones Show interviewed her in October 1996, she was flown first class from Brisbane to Sydney, and given a chauffeur-driven limo to take her around town.
While Hanson for many years had a clear financial interest in media appearances, one would never say she courted or charmed the news media. Her relationship with journalists in the mainstream press has for over a decade been a difficult one — marked with suspicion and hostility. Even today, and even with the commercial media, she isn’t easy to get on, Meakin says. Ten has been trying to get her on The Project for ages — she’s refused every offer. But she keeps getting asked, and not just at Ten.
Hanson’s views are held by a sizeable minority of the Australian population. But if it were just about getting someone on who’s sceptical about immigration, there are others who fit the bill. A range of commentators and columnists appeal to the same demographic. Yesterday, Sonia Kruger courted controversy at Nine by suggesting on air that Muslim immigration to Australia be halted to limit the incidence of terrorism. But few such commentators have the star power of Hanson.
A year ago, Meakin says he thought Hanson was “overexposed” — “a spent force”, a “voice from the past”. Speaking to Crikey, he admits he was clearly wrong. Does this mean the media has to answer for inflicting her on the nation — keeping her relevant when her electoral success had, for several years, been non-existent?
Media heavyweights like Paul Kelly, editor-at large of The Australian, have slammed the media for giving Hanson easy coverage. He wrote:
“Hanson has become a quasi-celebrity and cult figure in our debased culture where she has featured for years on many TV shows. In this campaign she was the beneficiary of truckloads of soft free media time and interviews based on the fraudulent excuse that she says what many people think — and hence deserves uncritical publicity that helps her into the Senate and potential balance-of-power position in our parliament.”
Kelly is not alone. His concerns echo those in America about how the media played into the Donald Trump phenomenon.
But the producers Crikey spoke to said the idea of censoring political speech for the overall good of society made them very uncomfortable. And they weren’t sure slamming her whenever she appeared through highly critical interviews would do much good either.
“When she decided to run in this latest election, she became a totally legitimate subject of media attention, and I’m not sure the argument that the media got her elected stands up to close scrutiny,” Hogan said.
“In any event, it’s a slippery slope when you decide that her views are dangerous and the public needs to be protected from them. I’m always uncomfortable with any restriction on free speech, although I accept that words that encourage race hatred should invite prosecution. But we live in the age of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen and Sonia Kruger — there’s an increasingly ugly public discourse out there.”
Meakin says there’s no shortage of critical journalists happy to lay into Hanson. “I think the media have an obligation to interview people fairly, and analytically. I don’t think they’ve got a sacred duty to crucify anyone — and that’s the way some people do it [with Hanson]. And every time you do, you get her a sympathy vote,” he said.
With Hanson certain to be elected to the Senate in Queensland, and expected to bring two other senators with her, she’s going to be even more of a lure for producers.
“At least she’s not boring,” said Meakin.