One of the unintended consequences of Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt is that it has exposed the murky recesses of attitudes to racism at The Australian.

Those of us with a background in daily journalism were startled at the way the newspaper “For The Informed Australian” handled the story. You could almost see the senior editorial staff shifting their weight from foot to foot in embarrassment as they watched the coverage take shape on their computer screens last night.

By any measure this was a front-page screamer. Within minutes of Hanson’s provocation and Brandis’ inspired response, radio, TV and the internet were featuring little else. The scheduling of question time in the Senate allows at least eight hours for a morning newspaper to assemble comprehensive news coverage, analysis and comment. But the primary obligation is always to nail the hard news task, and to present those accounts in an appropriate way.

So what did The Australian feature on their front page? Opinion, not that it was labeled as such.

Where we should have been reading a factual report of the incident we got Chris Kenny instead, favouring us with repeated expressions of personal bias. He opines that Brandis “overreacted,” and goes on to say what the Attorney-General “should have” said. This was followed by a series of rhetorical questions, all based on Kenny’s assertion that the burqa is an “instrument of female oppression”.

This extended anti-Muslim dog-whistle of questions spilled onto page 4, where Kenny — the paper’s associate editor — resorted to the oldest trick of the demagogue: pretending that the masses share his prejudice. “But rest assured,” he writes, “these are questions many Australians will ponder.” That is uncomfortably close to the regular chant of Hanson supporters that “she’s only saying what we’re all thinking”.

Kenny is, of course, entitled to his opinions, but the ethics of his profession demand that they should have been tagged as “Comment” or “Opinion” beside his byline. And to position this sludge prominently on the front page, where any responsible newspaper would have run straight news coverage, was an offence to basic journalistic standards.

Elsewhere, today’s Australian is uncharacteristically silent on the Hanson stunt. Despite plenty of preparation time there is no editorial on the subject. Nothing on the Commentary page. Not one of the 22 letters to the editor deals with the incident. It is as if yesterday’s burqa confrontation had shocked the editors into the realisation that the paper’s latent anti-Muslim position is no longer tenable. Better to say nothing — and wait until the next phone call from Rupert lets them know what to think.

Peter Fray

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