The timing of Craig Kelly’s departure is not just a political problem. It’s part of a wider growing concern about the danger of the anti-vaccination movement, particularly within media circles.
It’s a threat for all sides of the media, from the obvious right-wing extremists to the loony left and now even the moderates in the middle.
Already we are seeing uncharacteristically swift action to shut down debate, as witnessed on Ten’s The Project last night. Host and leftie darling Waleed Aly was in the midst of a heated debate with panellist Rachel Corbett over the handling of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout when he was cut off by producers in the middle of the discussion.
Make no mistake. As someone who has worked in broadcast media for decades, such a decision is not taken lightly.
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And it’s not as though Aly was spouting rabid anti-vaxxer drivel. Rather he was discussing the “no jab no play” concept and pushing back against the idea of employers having too much power over the decision.
But it was obviously enough to raise warning bells — and those same alarms are going off in media rooms around the country. Last month Sky News’ Paul Murray had regular guest Pauline Hanson muted in the middle of an anti-vaccine rant.
The fact that two programs on opposite ends of the political spectrum sense the danger and are willing to act so quickly highlights how seriously it is being taken by all sides. (By way of mitigation, Sky News last night ran an hour-long anti-vax special by reporter Jane Hansen.)
Their concerns were confirmed this morning with the release of an Australian National University poll showing COVID-19 vaccine scepticism has jumped from 12.7% last August to 21.7% in January. Incredibly, 32% of Australians were “less willing” early this year to get the vaccine than they were last year.
No amount of taxpayer-funded advertising can arrest this trend if the media does not address this swiftly and not have a repeat of the silly handling of the failed COVIDSafe app.
Many in the industry have been concerned for some time at a looming danger that the traditional extreme left — which is anti-vaccination ostensibly for health reasons — is now converging with the extreme right which is anti for ideological purposes.
The anomalies have been there before. No one was surprised that hippies in the Byron Bay hinterland were wary of vaccines they perceived as some kind of authoritarian threat.
But it was a shock that the next lowest vaccination rate area was Sydney’s elite eastern suburbs where a cohort of ill-informed “yummy mummies” were just as vulnerable to wellness cults and conspiracy theories — all while taking illegal substances themselves. They’ve even moved on to an anti-vaxxing push against poor dogs.
It’s interesting to note that the biggest group of sceptics in the ANU poll were young women.
The fact certain sections of the mainstream media are so attuned to the nuances of the debate even over free speech concerns is a reflection of the widespread community support for the government’s program.
However, the very success of Australia in keeping the virus under control means everyone has to be even more vigilant against complacency. It should not be left to individual presenters to police the problem. A good test will be if Sky resists the temptation to give Kelly his own show.