For an election campaign dominated by racist rhetoric and dog-whistling by mainstream politicians, the ABC barely mentioned the word “race” in its Victorian election-night coverage on Saturday.

The overwhelmingly white panel and correspondents from various parties (and a train) made occasional references to “law and order” issues, and reporter Ben Knight’s package mentioned, almost in passing, “highly publicised crimes, particularly by young men of African descent”. But otherwise, commentary focused on other issues of the campaign — bread and butter electoral results, leadership speculation about Matthew Guy, the impact of federal Liberal Party chaos, and a hell of a lot about level crossings.

Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger mentioned his party’s focus on crime during the campaign, but wasn’t pressed on the racist line pushed by his party both locally and federally and picked up by the Herald Sun, 3AW and, nationally, on Seven’s Sunday Night and even the ABC’s Four Corners.

The divisive campaign tactic wasn’t spoken about in any detail until well after the election was called, when Greens leader Richard Di Natale was interviewed, saying Victorians had rejected “a campaign based on fear and division”.

Throughout the broadcast, Antony Green struggled to pronounce the name of Labor candidate Manoj Kumar, at one point saying, “I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing his name correctly, he’d be just pleased I’m calling this as a victory.” For what it’s worth, Manoj Kumar is a name with four syllables and Kumar is one of the most popular names in India, the country of birth for 1.9% of Australia’s population in 2016.

Four Corners’ report covered the “skewed” reporting of the so-called “African gang” crisis, speaking to people from South Sudanese communities about their experiences of being racially profiled. Similarly The Drum had discussed the issue regularly in the lead-up to the election, with advocates from community groups and lawyer/advocate Nyadol Nyuon. Local radio host Jon Faine also discussed the issue at length in the lead-up to the election on his programs.

So the ABC is capable of nuance on the issue of race, even if none found its way into the election-night coverage, which dominated ratings compared to the free-to-air commercial networks and Sky News. How to cover racism is an ongoing question for journalists — one that news outlets both locally and overseas have not always made great decisions with. Neo-Nazi Blair Cottrell’s various appearances on Australian TV are just one example. American anti-racism educator Robin DiAngelo told the ABC last year, though, that to move past racial prejudices, we need to engage with them. “People don’t want to feel bad and they don’t want to engage with questions as to whether they need to give up some of their privilege,” she said. 

Crikey asked the ABC whether it had intentionally ignored the issue of race during its coverage, whether it had a policy on how to cover race and racism, and why its cast of presenters and journalists for the program hadn’t been more diverse, but we didn’t receive a response by deadline. 

It’s a curious choice for an outlet that recently sacked its first culturally diverse managing director and has had two sit-down interviews with white nationalist Steve Bannon in the space of two months. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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