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Something is happening but you don't know what it is (the Australian media)

12 June 1996

Published in the Byron Echo


It's all a bit of a paradox. Our newspapers provide us with abundant information - science, lifestyle, art and literature, the workings of the Liberal and Labor parties - yet we never really get educated in what's happening in the world. We miss half the detail, and nearly all the patterns.


Up to a point, we are extremely  well-informed. But there are clear limits to the information - at least they're clear when you know about them. Virtually every one of these limits is dictated by the need to preserve money and power.


Roughly speaking, when money or influence would be lost through item A being broadcast, you are unlikely to hear about item A. Conversely, if telling you about item B is likely to increase power or wealth among those who hold it, you will almost certainly hear about it.


Thus The Australian publishes a weekly computer and internet section which is world class. But you could have been reading our national daily for twenty years, and never learned that Australia's closest neighbour is an expansionist totalitarian state, where millions have been tortured and murdered, the landscape raped, and indigenous culture obliterated, to enrich the ruling family - which is now worth about $US32 billion, making it one of the wealthiest families on Earth.


The Nazi era is one of the best-covered topics of the 1990s in Australian newspapers - thanks to war crimes trials, archive releases and new books and films. The ignored Indonesian atrocities, and the endlessly recycled Nazi ones, are easily comparable - though Suharto has admittedly liquidated more of his own countrymen than did Hitler.


One regime existed on the far side of the globe, and disappeared fifty-one years ago. (The one we hear about.) The other is bulldozing mass graves and opening new gulags as I write. At least two of its senior military commanders carry maps with Australia marked as "South Irian" or "Greater Indonesia". And its southern-most citizens are so close that they can almost see the lights of Darwin by night. (The one we don't hear about. Presumably it fails the test of relevance.)


Many stories - and often enough whole slices of history - are similarly deemed irrelevant. No-one actively represses these stories, let alone fabricates news to replace them: such tactics hardly exist in the First World. It is just generally conveyed (often quite subtly from editor to journalist) that they are "unsuitable" or "irrelevant" - and thus they are never commissioned.


Fifty years from now Australian journalists will surely be writing, with unconcealed horror, of the holocaust inside Indonesia in the second half of the twentieth century. Their readers will marvel that the leaders of the era - Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard - ingratiated themselves with the oppressors, while our newspapers failed to report the forced marches, tribal genocides and mass starvation occurring just across such a narrow strip of water. Just as we now marvel at the moral failure of the British press and political establishment in the 1930s, when similar things were afoot, across another narrow strip of water.


I'm using Indonesia as an example, for reasons of space, and relevance to us Australians. But this is a global pattern. How many readers of The Times or the Washington Post were told that slums were bombed, and hundreds of civilians murdered, by the US during the invasion of Panama? Or that (excluding soldiers) 55,000 men, women and children - that's twice the population of Byron Shire - died in the bombing of Iraq?


Is there anything good about our media? Yes. Within the prescribed agenda - lifestyle, art/literature, Lib/Lab politics, et al - there have been some excellent developments. What we are discouraged from knowing are facts which would lead us to put together the overall picture.


Another so-called "healthy development" is that Australia's media has lost its anti-Labor bias. Indeed this "development" has led Bob Hawke, Graham Richardson and others to state that they themselves converted the media proprietors to a more balanced political outlook - leading to better journalism for all of us.


This reminds me of the story - supposedly historical - that the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity by the Church fathers, leading to a new era for the civilised world. In reality, Constantine converted the Church to his own views: organisation over spontaneity, power over principle, violence over persuasion. Constantine was utterly unchanged by his "conversion": he kept worshipping the sun god, kept waging war and, when his wife annoyed him, had her boiled to death in her bath.


By the same token Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer, et al did not noticeably become more broad-minded or compassionate during the 1980s. Rather, it was Labor which began to embrace their principles, as the Church had done with Constantine in the fourth century.


There is little that's conspiratorial about all this. It's mostly quite organic, flowing naturally out of a confluence of interests. The process is more often passive than active, more often unconscious than conscious, more often implied than said out loud, and more often involves omission than commission.


It has given us, in the end, a Clayton's public agenda. Individual people occasionally discover snippets of information which make their hair stand on end: Suharto's program, in the hospitals of Dili, to murder East Timorese babies as they were born; the US-sponsored overthrow of an elected government in South America or Africa; federal Cabinet privately dictating pro-war content to the ABC during the Gulf War. But the snippet is usually so much at variance with the tenor of the information people are getting from the mainstream media - so much against the tide - that they dismiss it. Thus, only the very sharp-brained and eagle-eyed become alert to the realities.


In Australia, this triumph of "forgetting" over "memory" (to borrow from Kundera) has led to is a rudderless intellectual class, an avant garde obsessed with trivia (seen any modern art lately?) - and so a whole new zeitgeist, or "spirit of the age".


The 1990s zeitgeist is indeed a doosie. Unlike twenty and thirty years ago, there is little interest in ethical issues which truly matter - those in which, for instance, millions of lives are at stake. Instead, our ethical debate has degenerated into the intellectual squalor of PC. (Repressed qualities - said Jung - will often pop up in "inferior" forms.)


At the time of writing, two major items in the national media are the Deputy Prime Minister, virtually unchallenged, describing President Suharto (responsible for some quite strenuous attempts at genocide) as "perhaps the man of the half-century". At the same time, a Government Minister has had strips torn off her by the ALP, and received critical front-page coverage, for daring to use the word "housewife".


The masters make the rules for the wise men and the fools (said Dylan), and indeed our public debate has been "evolved" in directions which suit those at the centres of power. Matters of consequence are still broached, but only if they do not embarrass the national fictions by which we live.


                     Shelter From the Storm


Which brings us to The Echo, which has never been so "evolved" - despite endless opportunities, and more than a few attempts. This makes it a pretty rare bird. Though only a sparrow in a sky in which birds of prey mearly blot out the sun, it does stand out.


Local newspapers are - generally speaking - the most unsatisfactory instruments of communication since the club. Their pictorials (wide-eyed debutantes; grinning local members) could all have been done by the same photographer since 1930. Their reportage (park litter; local boy comes fourth in piano competition) is bottomlessly dull. Their editorials can deprive you of the will to live.


My local rag here in the Adelaide foothills is The Messenger, from which I derive the above observations. Each week its readers thrill to headlines such as:


                             BUDGIE PRICES REMAIN FIRM


So Byron Shire is blessed. For The Echo is a homunculus : a small, local representation of how our national media might have turned out.


The Echo thrashes its feeble regional competition not merely because that competition is feeble. It attracts readers and advertisers alike because it is community-oriented, reader-friendly, principled and frank. The Echo opines, and crusades, but seldom gropes for the "consensus" sought by the dailies - a consensus founded on one-sided realities, and selective ethics, which addicts but does not satisfy.


The Echo has disinterred whimsy from journalism's boneyard. (Where else would one read a series like Shopping in the Nude With Geoff ?) Its production values are high, as evidenced by http://www.echo.net.au - one of the best-organised and most colorful websites in cyberspace.


But the Echo's hidden resources may be what set it apart: it has an egalitarian atmosphere, a work environment that combines long hours and fierce idealism with great fun, and its cartoonists are, allegedly, of great beauty.


Its jinks and its dudgeon are famously high. The Echo may not agree with your hairstyle, but it will fight to the death for your right to wear it.


And when a serious issue comes up, the Echo will generally grab the ball and run with it. I can't think of another paper in the country which would publish Fast Buck$. I'm sure that doing so has given the editors some uncomfortable moments. (Fast Buck$'s excesses make me uncomfortable even at 1,000 kilometres.) However they know that communities need their Jeremiahs, and that rains of toads can often be avoided by heeding them.


The major dailies no longer take on issues in this way. They have more columns, and wind, than the Parthenon, yet little real courage. The Echo, however, is filled with the larrikin spirit which once distinguished Australia from more conformist societies.


It may be the last newspaper in the country with a personality - which sounds excessive, until one tries to think of another one. Through its personality and its pluck, the Echo forcefully brings home everything that is wrong with the Australian media, and the daydreams it has caused to prevail.


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