Attack dog journalism, with rabies


Note to Chris Mitchell: It’s the red pills in the morning, and the green ones at night.

Note to Chris Mitchell: It’s the red pills in the morning, and the green ones at night.

THE AUSTRALIAN newspaper’s obsession with a ‘tweet’ tells us more about our national broadsheet than it does about the tweeter, writes CHRIS GRAHAM.

I’VE SEEN some smear campaigns in my time, but The Australian newspaper’s attempt to publicly execute Professor Larissa Behrendt is in a class all its own.

The ‘scandal’ that has filled its pages for the last fortnight was built on claims that Professor Behrendt – finalist for Australian of the Year, one of the nation’s most prominent young Aboriginal thinkers, and a columnist for this publication – used her Twitter account on April 14 to attack a political opponent.

Behrendt tweeted that the views expressed by Alice Springs resident Bess Price, during her appearance on ABC’s Q&A program that night, was more offensive than someone having sex with a horse. The Oz’s outrage the following morning included a front page splash, with a spill inside, plus a commentary from the ubiquitous Gary Johns, a former Labor minister currently trying to flog a new book on Aboriginal affairs.

Was this really the biggest news story of the day? It all seemed a little, well, over the top. But throw a little context into the mix and it looks plain silly. For a start, Behrendt was having a shot at what Bess Price had to say (in support of the Northern Territory intervention), not at Bess Price herself. Secondly, the tweet was a reply to a friend, and was a reference to the fact that what was on ABC1 (Q&A) was even more offensive than what was on ABC2 (Behrendt was watching the notoriously risque series Deadwood when she tweeted).

Even so, Behrendt’s comments were far from her most eloquent. Indeed, they were inappropriate, which is why the following day she issued an unreserved public apology.

There endeth the storm in a teacup. Unfortunately, no-one told The Oz because we awoke on Friday to another front pager…about the same story. There were more spills inside, an editorial and a comment piece from Behrendt’s old sparring partner, Professor Marcia Langton.

The weekend should have brought some relief, but instead Saturday brought more front page news. Behrendt’s appointment to a federal government Higher Education review was under attack. Pressure was mounting, The Oz claimed, to dump her. Except, of course, pressure wasn’t mounting at all. No-one cared but The Oz. Other media had, by and large, not picked up the story.

Undeterred, The Oz was out again on the Monday. The ‘scandal’ got even more tenuous. Someone from the University of Technology, Sydney (where Behrendt works) had leaked The Oz a review into Indigenous research.

Some of the review was negative. Some of it was positive. None of it, however, actually mentioned Behrendt, a fact grudgingly conceded in the article: “The review doesn’t make any specific reference to Professor Behrendt or any other academic.” And yet what was the headline on the beat-up? “Uni report adds to scrutiny on Behrendt”. interesting logic. Larissa Behrendt is black. She works at UTS. The report is about black stuff. And it’s from UTS. The prosecution rests!

And on it went. Behrendt tried to stop another Aboriginal woman from working at the National Indigenous Times. (Never happened). Student support services at universities were harming black kids (No they weren’t). Keith Windschuttle was dusted off for a personal assault which questioned Behrendt’s family history. But there was so much detail and research in the piece that it was blatantly obvious Windschuttle had completed it some time ago, found no dirt, and so had no reason to run it. Until, apparently, now.

Noel Pearson used his column in the weekend Oz to weigh into the debate, although it was the most measured of all the coverage. The flow of the smear was rudely interrupted by the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus – I’m surprised Behrendt wasn’t implicated – but The Oz found its rhythm again by the end of the holidays, with another piece on which purported to be a review of the new National Congress (which Behrendt is not involved with), but then inexplicably became a rehashing of the entire tweet saga. By this stage, the Oz wasn’t even pretending to create segues.

Into our third Thursday now, we got a ridiculous piece headlined, ‘Petition against Behrendt proposed’. NT parliamentarian Alison Anderson – a politician who supported the intervention, then opposed it, and now apparently supports it again – had collected, wait for it, 121 signatures of Warlpiri people who supported Bess Price, plus hundreds more (we’re promised) from other folk.

The headline could equally have read, ‘5,900 Warlpiri stay home, eat roo tails, endure grinding poverty, and ignore Behrendt petition’. Or, had we seen the petition prior to publication, the headline might have read, ‘The Australian sucked in by dodgy petition’. Because, like the UTS review, nowhere does the document actually mention Larissa Behrendt’s name. It does, however, attack two local opponents of Price and Anderson – town camp resident Barbara Shaw, and well known activist Marlene Hodder.

The petition also happens to contain the names of numerous children – believe it or not their ages, such as 4, 5, 7, and 9, are actually listed on the document – and it’s obvious multiple names on multiple occasions have simply been added by the same person, in the same handwriting.

The Australian’s inclusion of this non-story proves a couple of things, not least of all the atrocious quality of the journalism practised by our national broadsheet. But it also proves this was nothing more than a cheap smear, and a pretty amateur one at that.

I suspect it leaves The Oz open to a rather uncomfortable appearance before the Press Council, should someone seek to make a complaint. We await with baited breath.

Wherever it ends up, it was the last (so far) desperate act of a desperate campaign from a desperate newspaper. And throughout it all, the rants of editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell became increasingly shrill. By the end of April – when it was clear other media were largely ignoring the story – he launched into one his textbook fuming, foaming rants.

Mitchell railed against Behrendt, against academics, against lefties, progressives, Aboriginal sophisticates, elite activists, and that “failed experiment” called Crikey. He lined up an unnamed disgruntled former News Limited employee, ABC presenter Deborah Cameron, and Guy Rundle (who has committed the heinous crime of living in London). Even the “moralising mumbo-jumbo spreading like a virus from university humanities departments” got attacked. If mumbo-jumbo is reading this column, get yourself some legal advice buddy, you’ve been seriously defamed!

It was classic Chris Mitchell, the editor-in-chief versus The Whole Wide World! My only disappointment was that Manning Clark escaped a kicking. Of course, Fairfax didn’t: “The Sydney Morning Herald…. and its sister, The Age, have failed their readers by disregarding this topic and the crucial issues it exposes,” whined Mitchell.

Except that’s not actually what happened. Since The Australian began the smear campaign, it’s filed 20 stories which mention the issue. Contrary to Mitchell’s claims, between them The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times have touched on the issue a total of five times. Granted, that’s not the blanket coverage Mitchell was hoping for, but as it turns out it’s a damn sight more than almost all of Mitchell’s colleagues at News Limited managed, combined!

The Sunday Herald Sun and Sunday Telegraph ignored the issue as a news story, but it got up with the obligatory rant from house crazy Miranda Devine in her weekly column. As you might expect, the Northern Territory News picked the story up a couple of times, but mostly as a brief. The Melbourne Mx also ran a brief.

From the major metros, that’s about it. A search through AAP’s MediaNet service reveals that the Daily Telegraph, Adelaide Advertiser, Courier-Mail, both Sunday Mails, the Sunday Times and the Hobart Mercury have not printed one syllable of the story. Surely Mitchell’s not suggesting all his stable-mates have failed their readers as well?

It’s true the story did make it onto the websites of most of the majors, but online is where things really go pear-shaped for The Oz. The Australian put its breaking tweet story up on the web at midnight on April 14. After 36 hours it had attracted a whopping nine comments (and after a week, a total of 10). And that’s the despite the phrase ‘sex with a horse’ appearing in a headline.

Not to be outdone, Gary Johns’ piece attracted zero comments. Over at news.com.au, the nation’s largest news site, after a 24-hour run the original story had, wait for it, 32 comments. The top three visible on the site were actually in favour of Behrendt. The UTS review story, 24 hours after it was posted? Three comments.

I’m a great believer in democracy. And I’m afraid to inform the boffins at The Oz that the people have spoken. All 45 of them. The fact is, the editors of the other News Limited publications knew what Mitchell apparently didn’t – that not only is the matter not ‘in the public interest’, but the public isn’t even interested in it. The story was, at best, a one day wonder, barely even that.

Numerous people have commented to me they believe the smear against Behrendt is payback for her participation in a class action being run against News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt. I don’t believe that’s the reason at all.

In 2007, Behrendt was lined up by The Oz while she was chair of National Indigenous Television. The piece was a similarly clumsy smear. It also happened to be factually baseless, and highly defamatory. Behrendt and former NITV CEO Pat Turner both successfully sued The Australian, which settled for an ‘undisclosed amount’.

Call me old fashioned but I would have thought any attack by The Oz on Larissa Behrendt today should, at the very least, declare that fact. I would also have expected that the history of those lining up to put the boot in was relevant as well. For example, there’s a lot of history between Behrendt and Langton. In her op ed piece attacking Behrendt, Langton claimed the tweet was the most offensive thing she’d ever heard a younger Aboriginal woman say about an older Aboriginal woman.

Marcia obviously hasn’t been in a room full of young black women when her name comes up. She also seems to have forgotten the disrespectful public statements she’s issued about Behrendt in the past.

There’s a very enlightening video on Youtube where Langton flips out at the mere mention of Behrendt’s name. And therein lies another of the central problems of this smear – the people who’ve been wheeled out to execute it.

The central theme of their argument – repeated ad nauseum over the past two weeks – is that highly-paid, city-dwelling ‘Aboriginal sophisticates’ (in the words of Langton) like Larissa Behrendt don’t know what it’s like for the ‘real Aborigines’ living out bush.

There’s one gaping hole in this line of thought. Every single person unleashed by The Australian without exception is guilty of exactly the same imagined offence now being levelled at Behrendt.

Marcia Langton, Sue Gordon, Warren Mundine, Noel Pearson, Gary Johns, Keith Windschuttle, Alison Anderson and Adam Giles all live well above the poverty line, and in large urban areas. Even Bess Price does. She lives in Alice Springs. I don’t know her income, but she claims to run a successful consulting business (and given her obvious intelligence, I don’t doubt it for one minute). But contrary to inferences throughout media reporting, Price is not subject to the provisions of the Northern Territory intervention, and never has been.

Indeed, the only person who has publicly weighed into this debate who is actually subject to the NT intervention is Mt Nancy town camp resident, Barb Shaw. She’s also the only one among them who is not well paid. And for the record, Shaw opposes the NT intervention. I’m not suggesting these people don’t have something to offer the debate about black well-being in the bush – they obviously do. But to suggest that Larissa Behrendt doesn’t because of where she lives and how she was educated is absolute nonsense.

Not only does Behrendt have very broad, very relevant experience, but she speaks for a significant percentage of the Aboriginal community, a fact acknowledged (I’ll concede with some class) by Noel Pearson in his column.

Which brings me to the second theme of the attacks – the claims that Aboriginal people by and large support the NT intervention. This particular chestnut has gained quite a bit of currency in mainstream media. The only problem is, it’s complete rubbish. Nick Calacouras from the NT News got sucked in more than most, with an opinion piece published in the Sunday edition on April 17.

“In the media, we find individuals we can call “spokespeople” or “leaders” to speak on behalf of all indigenous people. But it is a farce. The much publicised dispute between Alison Anderson and Marion Scrymgour over the past few years showed as much. There is no consensus or common voice within the indigenous community. But it has conveniently fitted into the popular narrative that the indigenous community opposes the intervention.”

So when two black politicians disagree, there is “no consensus in the indigenous community”. God only knows how Calacouras reports the perennial sh*t fight that is NT parliament on any given day. Ignorance aside, his comments about the intervention are just plain wrong. The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people subjected to it, hate it.

Aboriginal Territorians have twice been afforded the opportunity to vote on the policy – at the 2007 and 2010 elections. On both occasions, they’ve made their feelings crystal clear. In the 2007 election – at which the Liberals confidently declared the poll would be a ‘referendum’ on the intervention – the outcome in Aboriginal booths beggars belief. At Angkarripa in Central Australia, voters directed 99 percent of their first preferences away from the Liberals. In real figures, the conservatives got just five primary votes out of a potential 503. It represented a swing against the Liberals of almost 20 percent.
Up north in Wadeye, of 723 people who cast a ballot, just 26 of them directed their primary vote to the CLP, a swing to Labor of 15 percent. This sort of result was replicated in virtually every Aboriginal community across the Territory. Of the 20 identifiably Aboriginal booths surveyed, the CLP only managed to get their primary vote into double figures (ie. above 10 percent) on six occasions.

Having won the election, Labor promised to review the intervention. It did so, then ignored its own commissioned findings, leaving the policy in place, virtually unchanged. Fast forward to 2010, and a fresh federal election where Aboriginal voters, particularly in Central Australia, delivered record swings again, this time against Labor.

Identifiably Aboriginal booths routinely saw swings to the Liberals of more than 50 percent. One booth – in Central Australia – recorded a swing of 69 percent. No single remote mobile polling station delivered a swing against Snowdon of less than 20 percent.

The swing was so big in Aboriginal booths, in fact, that for the first time in electoral history, the Greens candidate out-polled Labor on primary votes across Central Australian booths. The Greens candidate, by the way, was none other than Barb Shaw, the most identifiably anti-intervention voice in the Territory. And it wasn’t just a case of a black vote supporting a black woman. Aboriginal people supported her overwhelmingly, having ignored a pro-intervention Aboriginal candidate just three years earlier.

The party has since conceded that Snowdon’s vote collapsed in remote centres by one third. And Snowdon himself has conceded the NT intervention was the cause.

All up, it’s hard to imagine a stronger, clearer case that the NT intervention is hated by the people affected by it. And yet The Australian, the Northern Territory News, the ABC and the bulk of mainstream media continue to prop up claims the intervention has local support.

No other corner of Australian democracy is served so poorly by our media. And there’s one simple reason why it occurs. It’s the same reason why the smear against Behrendt has passed with barely a whimper from mainstream outlets.

Black stories don’t rate. An in-depth analysis of Aboriginal voting booths at a federal election delivers no pay off. It just creates hours of serious work. So instead, reporters walk down the hall from the Parliamentary Press Gallery to the Minister’s office and stick out their hands for an unofficial ministerial leak. Of course, all they’ve really got is a one-day head-start on a government press release.

For the better part of a decade, The Australian has relied on the fact that most people do not take an active interest in Aboriginal affairs. This affords The Oz one enormous advantage: It can leave out the history, without much fear of being exposed. It can also back whatever hare-brained government scheme suits its 1940s ideology, and then attack it later when the program inevitably fails.

Remember the Howard government’s Shared Responsibility Agreements. The Home Ownership on Indigenous Lands Program which an auditor last year found had expended $10 million to administer $3 million in loans? The disastrous COAG trials, dubbed by Amanda Vanstone as the ‘quiet revolution’ in government service delivery, but which strangled communities in red tape? And the NT intervention? All of them have been supported by The Oz.

This is the newspaper that campaigned against an apology to the Stolen Generations for eight years, only to editorialise on the eve of the national apology that it was a gesture long overdue.

On Aboriginal affairs, The Australian has more cheek than a sumo. There has been some good work done, of course: Tony Koch’s series on the Palm Island death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee is a good example. But on any other day the coverage is routinely poor. At best.

And throughout it all, Behrendt has been one of the loudest critics of the missionary zeal, and the embarrassing track record. Now it’s payback.

This is attack dog journalism, with rabies. Nothing else.

The fact is, there are gazillion important black stories out there. The day after The Oz declared its jihad on Behrendt, Aboriginal Australians marked the 20th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It comes at a time when this nation is jailing black males nationally at a rate more than five times greater than South Africa did in the ding days of Apartheid.

Yet not a syllable about the anniversary appeared in the Oz. Fortunately, over at the SMH they had a lengthy and thoughtful analysis of the issue. By Larissa Behrendt ironically enough. A nice way to underscore the difference between serious media, and The Australian.

And a great way to remind us that it’s time for our national broadsheet to dump the smear and gossip and get back to its well-worn recipe of blind ideology paraded as fact, and gross misreporting masquerading as quality journalism.

Otherwise, it’s just flogging a dead horse.

* Chris Graham is a Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist, the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and the former founder and editor of the National Indigenous Times. He’s now a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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