Another week, another issue of substance lost to political bickering. Australian media has a problem, and last week’s narrow focus on the political machinations behind the call for Indigenous recognition showed just how bad that problem has become.
It started when Minister of Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt made a historic pledge for a referendum on Indigenous recognition. This followed the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s plea “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. But within hours fringe conservative backbenchers — whose political business model relies on provocations that lay just on the politically-acceptable side of the appalling — were given grabs on the evening news and lengthy interviews on “Sky After Dark” as they attempted to block that walk before it could build momentum.
The news then became about the response, rather than the issue.
The Nine papers rewarded these backbenchers the next morning with a front-page splash: “Coalition split on Indigenous voice” (The Sydney Morning Herald), although its op-eds pages featured pieces from Ken Wyatt and Wiradjuri/Wailwan lawyer Teela Reid.
The Australian — which has built a strong reputation for its reporting on Indigenous news — initially played it straight, taking Wyatt’s statements at face value, bannering “Road map for recognition” across the top of its front page. Although this came with the obligatory hostile op-ed from the Institute of Public Affairs.
Demonstrating the surprising influence the SMH/Age front pages still have over the news cycle, the narrow political perspective dominated reporting through that day in the increasingly important morning email newsletters (including Crikey Worm) and on radio.
By the next morning The Australian had fallen into line, after an apparent briefing from the PM’s office. Friday’s paper carried the headline, “PM to veto ‘voice’ in the Constitution”. With typical Morrisonian blah-blah, he duly did as heralded later that day. And with that, a socially substantial matter ended up as a question of intra- and inter-party tactics.
No huge surprises. That formal and informal mix of politicians, staffers, bureaucrats and journalists we think of as “Canberra” has struggled to come to terms with the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its recommendations since 2017. It’s not from there. It gets its life and energy from outside the political parties, from outside the media, from outside Canberra. On the same day as Wyatt’s speech, for example, the National Rugby League used the spotlight of the State of Origin to restate its commitment to the statement. As The Australian reported in its business section on Thursday, much of Australian business has signed up.
But media resources are optimised for precisely this: lots of people with deep expertise in writing about “politics” (that is, the gallery) and just about no one having (or developing) an expertise in issues. Coupled with this, journalism’s caste system gives higher status to writers on politics than writers on policy.
It’s also a practical demonstration of the lack of diversity — and lack of real interest in diversity — both in Canberra and in journalism. Indigenous voices are hiding in plain sight, outside traditional media, in places like IndigenousX and NITV where anyone can find a substantial nuanced discussion about the Uluru statement and how the “torment of … powerlessness” it identifies affects Indigenous life.
As US writer James Fallows tweeted in a different context last week, there’s a “near-irresistible pressure to shift from coverage of issues, to coverage of the *politics* of the issue”. This is partly because it’s fun and easier and partly because, as Jay Rosen has said, it makes you look “savvy”, in-the-know, with a practiced cynicism about the possibility of change. That’s what journalism rewards — with front-pages among other things.
As always in Australia, the scale of News Corp acts to set the parameters of the politically achievable. Although The Australian brings nuance to its news reporting in Indigenous affairs, most of the company’s fire-hose of outrage sprayed through “Sky After Dark” or by its tabloid columnists is unremittingly hostile to the Indigenous sovereignty on which the Uluru statement is based.
We saw how this works last week with the space given by Sky to right-wing voices, with footage kindly shared with (and accepted by) other outlets to become the visual backdrop of reports.
Morrison’s “veto” comes almost two years after Turnbull’s similar “veto”, also through a News Corp drop. But Essential’s poll last week showing 66% support for a constitutionally-mandated voice suggests that outside Canberra those vetoes slow, not stop, the idea’s long walk through Australian society.