Climate activist Greta Thunberg. Image: European Parliament/Flickr

Kids have long been deployed by mainstream media as neutral, innocent and good. Now, they’re fair game in the News Corp culture wars. Take for example, the string of attacks against 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg last month, much of which focused on her Asperger’s diagnosis. How does that pass muster?

News Corp isn’t a monolith, and there may be many answers to this question. In the case of #KidsOffNauru, for instance, the media giant can create genuine change. But the way News Corp views and writes about children is now a moving target.

Crikey spoke to the experts on how the politics of youth can be twisted for a number of different purposes.

Kids are delusional (when they disagree with us)

Back in July, in a week where the Arctic quite literally caught fire, Andrew Bolt (and the editors who publish him) saw fit to link Greta Thunberg’s climate activism at least in part to her autism. Bolt marvelled at the fact that “so many adults — including elected politicians, top business leaders, the Pope and journalists — treat a young and strange girl with such awe and even rapture”.

Lest we think Bolt — who has only doubled down on criticism of Thunberg, then Media Watch — is alone, the anonymous columnist behind The Australian’s “The Mocker” also served Thunberg with a very timely Monty Python comparison.

This is not the first time Thunberg has drawn ire from the mainstream right.

As Crikey covered at the December 2018 global strike, kids were accused of ignorance and indoctrination. Tim Blair suggested they should be subject to “ridicule and public humiliation”.

Political scientist Dr Sana Nakata, whose current research focuses on representations of children in Australian political controversies, argues that while the innocence of childhood is most often romanticised for soft news stories, it is also used to lock kids out by creating a “form of irrationality around that child that precludes them from participating in proper political debate”.

“An effort to silence children in politics, an effort to delegitimise their claims in politics [and] minimise the transformative effect they might have on the world, is to gatekeep,” she says. “Basically: ‘you don’t belong here, you’re just a kid, you’re easily influenced by adults, you don’t know what you’re talking about’ …”

Kids are alright (when they agree with us)

Interestingly, News Corp did lend a microphone to students who were against the climate strikes. Year 12 student Joanne Tran, who refused to take part in climate protests, got coverage in multiple reports, her own Daily Telegraph column, and appearances on Sky programs. Then there was the Courier-Mail situation — where kids were seen happily driving mining trucks in stories claiming “Class war: Bush kids fear for jobs as city students protest coal mines”.

Climate change, however, is generally an anomaly; News Corp doesn’t often allow children their own political voice. But cast your mind back and Bolt has form in this field for another topical issue — the Adam Goodes saga.

In 2013, Bolt claimed that a 13-year-old girl who called Adam Goodes an ape “should have been protected, not absolutely trashed on national television by people dancing all over her as they played their race politics”.

Kids must be protected (when they confuse or confront us)

Perhaps the most famous example of News Corp’s representation of children is the debate around Safe Schools, an LGBTIQ resource for teachers The Australian once called “a disastrous social engineering project”.

In his thorough analysis of News Corp’s ultimately successful war against the resource, journalist Benjamin Law found that despite 90,000 words of reporting the paper didn’t speak to a single LGBTIQ kid.

While there can be challenges to interviewing children, this ratio demonstrates an undeniable bias towards a regulated message — namely, that kids, including LGBTIQ kids, were being brainwashed — over genuine reporting. Since winning that 2017 culture war, News Corp last week launched a remix with a new gender section that, with some notable exceptions, largely foregrounds anti-trans opinions — including the Prime Minister’s — covering sports, justice and legal policies.

“The affected class of this debate, young people in schools navigating sexuality, are the ones that are most strongly regulated or kept out of the conversation at a public level,” Nakata says. She argues there’s a political anxiety over “the ideals and values that we want transferred to the next generation, because the next generation will be the ones that control political life; they’ll normalise it”.

This comes to a crux when children commit crimes, which, when combined with a paper’s racist preoccupation, can create cartoons like those seen during News Corp’s manufactured “African gangs crisis”:

A comic appearing in The Herald Sun.

Nakata argues that “innocence and sinfulness” are two sides of the same coin, in that “both perspectives are predicated on this idea that children are not fully formed”. Again, anxiety over the susceptibility of children to particular political ideologies cuts both ways: picture at a kid in a MAGA hat, and try not to feel a little frightened of the future.

“When kids commit crime, moral panics occur, because society cannot reconcile a romantic innocent vision of children with the aberrant actions of the few,” she says. “But the panic attaches to the few in ways because these kids are new in the world, and they’re their own people, they’ve never existed before and ‘what if they’re all going to be like this?'”

How do you see kids being portrayed in the News Corp media? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Peter Fray

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