Deciding what outfit to wear as a Muslim writer setting off to report on a far-right event is at least as complicated as getting ready for an important job interview. This isn’t because I want to impress the local neo-Nazis with my high-level grooming skills, but because when I’m keeping that kind of company I’m torn between the desire to pass unnoticed and the desire to set myself apart. On the one hand I don’t want to be mistaken for a supporter of the self-styled patriots’ movement. On the other hand, I don’t want to get beaten up.
In the end, I always settle for a hybrid ethnic-lite ensemble — jeans and a long tunic with a scarf draped across my shoulders, ready to be pulled up over my hair should I suddenly feel the need to signal my ethno-religious identity. My brown skin already sets me apart from most of the patriots, so I’m not really putting myself at further risk by indulging in this small gesture of defiance. And it seems important to clearly signal that my physical proximity to white supremacists and neo-Nazis does not make me their fellow-traveler.
Prior to 2016 when we experienced in short order the “yes” vote for Brexit just days after the assassination of pro-Remain Labor MP Jo Cox, the return of One Nation to the Australian Senate, and finally the Trumpocalyse in the United States, I asked myself at regular intervals whether I should write about what were at that stage widely regarded as obscure fringe movements at all. Perhaps it was better to let them wither on the vine rather than providing them with what Margaret Thatcher had termed “the oxygen of publicity”.
If just ignore them and they’ll go away was ever a viable strategy for dealing with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, that moment has long passed. In the months since the election of Donald Trump and even more in the days since the terrorist attack in Christchurch, media outlets around the world have wrestled with the question of how — and even more importantly, how not — to report on the far-right.
Australian media outlets and practitioners have provided the world with prime examples of how not. From the Sky News interview with United Patriots thug Blair Cottrell to A Current Affair’s inflammatory report on the “race war” supposedly underway in Melbourne to the coverage of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, Australian media has steadily chiseled its way right through the bottom of the barrel. In recent days, we’ve seen Australian media outlets post links to the murderer’s so-called manifesto, run clips from the GoPro footage of his crime that stop just short of the moment when it becomes an actual snuff movie, and provide Fraser “final solution” Anning with airtime on The Kyle and Jackie O Show so that he could “explain” his victim-blaming response to the carnage in Christchurch. (No need to explain, Fraser. We understand.)
None of this indicates a sector that has given serious thought to providing the far-right with what Evan Osnos in The New Yorker describes as “more sunlight, less oxygen’.
The current focus on role of the far-right and social media in last Friday’s horrific events serves to deflect us from addressing the role of the establishment right and the mainstream media. Pauline Hanson’s established role in Australian politics is to make the racebaiting from the Liberal-National party seem respectable by comparison — and now Fraser Anning performs the same function for her. News Corp may have driven a former Young Queenslander of the Year out of her job and eventually out of the country for the crime of thinking that a Muslim was entitled to express an opinion that had been safely aired by many non-Muslims before her, but at least it isn’t as bad as 8Chan.
If we want better coverage of the far-right, then media outlets need to prioritise reporting by writers from those communities that are in its crosshairs. Acclaimed author and academic Randa Abdel-Fattah was forced to published her response to the Christchurch massacre in The New Arab after the editor of a major Australian newspaper declined to provide space to what, as she explained in a tweet, they described as a “pretty incendiary” article. The publication of such voices shouldn’t just be seen as a pro-diversity measure. It would also lead to better reporting because our lived experience has provided us with the necessary expertise. As many, many Muslims have stated in the aftermath of the Christchurch slaughter, we knew this was coming.
At the same time, it should be recognised that journalists and writers from racialised communities face a higher level of risk than do their “mainstream” colleagues when reporting on particular topics. We should be given every opportunity to decline to place our physical and emotional health at risk by returning to the front line over and over again. (I note that the Crikey editors have at various points expressed an appropriate level of concern and support for my safety). Nor should we be restricted to writing about the Muslim/African/Aboriginal “problem”.
But when it comes to writing about the far-right and white supremacy, editors and publishers need to provide far more space to those of us who quite literally have “skin in the game”.