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“We speak exclusively with the blokes who ambushed Senator Sam Dastyari in a busy pub. Join us tonight, 7.00pm.”

That was tabloid barrel-bottom scraper A Current Affair yesterday, advancing the cause of public interest journalism by giving a platform to racists to justify their harassment of a politician. Exclusively.

How did we end up in place where people perceive it’s OK to racially vilify a senator, or physically assault an MP and former prime minister, then get to justify their actions, and repeat their abuse, to an enthralled media that gives them access to far more people than coverage of their original actions did?

“These are people who feel incredibly empowered because of what Pauline Hanson has done for them,” Dastyari correctly observed in relation to the incident. “You dance so far to the right that it gives those a little bit further out a sense of entitlement.” Hanson promptly provided back-up for Dastyari by dismissing the incident, saying he was using it to garner publicity and insulting his appearance (her: “Mr Bean”; the racist: “monkey”, repeated on A Current Affair’s interview). But Hanson herself is an outlier: she holds views on immigration, minorities, women, vaccination, climate change, LGBTI people and a host of other issues that are far outside those of most ordinary Australians. Who “empowered” Hanson in the first place?

Never forget — Hanson’s pose as an outsider, as an authentic representative of some repressed working class Australia, is mere pretence. She’s a fake — a professional political candidate who, before her arrival in the Senate, made millions not from being in politics (where she would at least have to occasionally show up to work) but perennially running for politics. From her luxurious 147-acre Queensland property, Hanson was no more likely to have an insight into what “real Australians” were thinking than Malcolm Turnbull from Point Piper. 

But she was also a media insider. Television networks, which once condemned her in the 1990s, were happy to give her a position as an honorary celebrity in the 2000s, with spots on Dancing with the StarsWho Wants to Be a Millionaire and even as the subject of Nine’s honour-some-suburban-hero dross This is Your Life. More recently, in advance of the 2016 election, the Seven Network’s Sunrise program gave Hanson — astonishingly — a paid role as a regular commentator. Normally, politicians and candidates have to pay networks for airtime before elections. But Seven paid Hanson to advertise her wares on their breakfast program.

All of this television exposure mainstreamed and normalised Hanson as a legitimate part of the fabric of the Australian media. Naturally, the networks didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts, but because Hanson can be relied on to generate publicity, even if it’s negative publicity. And in doing so, it mainstreamed her hateful views as well, signalling that she had a legitimate place in public life despite vilifying minorities and peddling hate.

In time, it’s possible to envisage the racist who harassed Dastyari turning his moment on A Current Affair into a permanent media profile on commercial television, regularly donning an unnecessary hi-vis vest to signal his working class credentials in the same way politicians don protective clothing during election campaigns to signal that they know their way around a factory floor (said racist, indeed, still had his vest on when interviewed by Nine).

Not that all the blame rests with the commercial media, by any means. Television networks are under huge pressure from the internet, and on news and current affairs as much as, say, drama. What’s the point of the 6pm news bulletin, or the 7pm tabloid current affairs show, when breaking news and tailored content is available on demand online? Broadcasters, like newspaper websites, have to chase the internet downmarket, or sit by and watch the internet eat their breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bigots get audiences, and media coverage.

And social media has helped coarsen the tone of public debate; the egg avatar on Twitter threatening to rape a female commentator with whom he disagreed was one of the symbols of 2016; Facebook is a superb platform for lies and fake news even without Russians buying access to peddle propaganda. I confess I’m not exactly guilt-free on this score — on social media, I’m fairly forthright, or perhaps downright nasty, with people I believe are peddling nonsense, though I now try to avoid any comment on people’s appearance, gender or personal attributes and try to stick to people’s ideas. As someone who’s been dishing out, and receiving, abuse (if you do the former, you have to do the latter) online since the early 1990s, I’ve always considered it innocuous. But perhaps this, too, has played a role in creating a world in which abuse and harassment in real life are considered acceptable. Maybe all of us should engage in some reflection.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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