The Saturday Paper

Who is making money out of racism?

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In a final interview as race discrimina­tion commission­er, Tim Soutphomma­sane condemns politician­s and media organisati­ons for profiting from racism, and warns it will get worse. Mike Seccombe reports.

In a famous 2010 episode of the animated satire The Simpsons, a Fox News helicopter swoops down over New York City and hovers beside the Statue of Liberty so a besuited network executive can step off, literally into the statue’s head.

The chopper is emblazoned with the slogan: “Not racist, but #1 with racists”.

At the time, the episode made big news, not only for the brilliance of its juxtaposit­ion of Fox’s race-baiting with the prime symbol of American multicultu­ralism, but also for its daring – given that The Simpsons is part of the same Murdoch media empire as Fox.

The show took multiple other shots at

Fox News, too, for its fostering of the worst aspects of right-wing politics in the United States.

As The Simpsons executive producer, Al Jean, subsequent­ly explained, the network anticipate­d the controvers­y as something positive, both for his show and for Fox News.

“Both ends of it benefit the ultimate News Corp agenda,” he said.

More even than the “racists” gag, Jean’s frank admission spoke to the cynical intent of Fox – to profit from prejudice.

Fox News, establishe­d in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch, with Republican Party media adviser – and inveterate sexual harasser – Roger Ailes at the helm, was not the first media organisati­on to exploit

bigotry and ignorance for financial and political advantage, but it is surely the most successful. It is consistent­ly the mostwatche­d of the big US cable networks and is now the key reference point for a president just as chauvinist­ic, as eager to court controvers­y and as cavalier with the truth as it is. Both seek to gain by dividing society.

Success breeds imitation, in this country as in the US. Here, too, those who would be “#1 with racists” are increasing­ly noticeable, although they are not often called out on it. But this week they were, by a person with a uniquely close-up view.

On Monday, in a final address entitled “Confrontin­g the Return of Race Politics”, and again on Tuesday when he sat down with The Saturday Paper, Tim Soutphomma­sane, Australia’s outgoing race discrimina­tion commission­er, condemned what he calls “the monetisati­on of racism”.

“Sections of a fracturing media industry, under the strain of technologi­cal disruption, seem to be using racism as part of their business model,” he told his audience at the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University.

“Faced with competitio­n from a proliferat­ion of news and entertainm­ent sources, some media outlets are using racial controvers­ies to grab attention …”

Discussing that Simpsons episode in particular, he elaborated to The Saturday Paper: “Publicity is the currency of media organisati­ons and the more controvers­y that is generated, the better it is for many of the media outlets involved in the airing of bigoted views.”

As coincidenc­e would have it, a perfect example presented itself this week in the form of the controvers­y over the appearance by Blair Cottrell – a selfacknow­ledged racist with a nasty past – on a program hosted by the former Coalition politician, Adam Giles, on Murdoch’s Australian pay TV outlet, Sky News.

Lost among all the fuss about Cottrell’s background was the detail of what he said in that interview. He spoke about a lack of Australian national pride. He advocated a migration program focused on people “not too culturally dissimilar from us”, bringing white South Africans to Australia and stopping the import of black Africans. He condemned African crime gangs in Melbourne.

In sum, he didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before by senior members of the current government, including Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, former prime minister Tony Abbott, Minister for Citizenshi­p and Multicultu­ral Affairs Alan Tudge and even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Cottrell even singled Dutton out for praise. His tone was actually more moderate than that of many other commentato­rs featured on Sky and in other Murdoch media.

Yet Sky apologised for having Cottrell on, and put Giles’s show “in recess”.

Why?

Consider the consequenc­es. Sky canned – at least for the time being – a show watched by a tiny number on a Sunday night. In return it garnered vast free publicity in virtually every media outlet in the country, as commentato­rs with vastly bigger audiences lined up to bag what one called the “human centipede of jabbering trolls” on Sky News’s evening programmin­g.

Even Sky’s political editor, David Speers, delivered an on-air condemnati­on of his network’s decision to feature Cottrell, whom he described as a “neo-Nazi”.

To Soutphomma­sane, the ginnedup controvers­y over an otherwise unremarkab­le interview on a dull and little-watched program, is but one of many examples of how media outlets – Murdoch outlets foremost among them – seek to monetise racism.

“Just because Sky is watched by a small audience doesn’t mean we should downplay the potential it has to do damage,” he says.

Of course, not all the race-baiters have small audiences. In his speech, Soutphomma­sane cited another very recent example.

“Just last week,” he said, “News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt argued that we are seeing a ‘tidal wave of immigratio­n’ overwhelmi­ng Australia – that Jews, Indians and Chinese were forming ethnic ‘colonies’ across the country. Clearly, we are seeing a challenge to the nondiscrim­inatory immigratio­n program that Australia has conducted since the end of the White Australia policy.”

This was, he said, all part of a resurgent appeal to racism, directed to political ends, which has unfortunat­ely coincided with his five years as race discrimina­tion commission­er.

Soutphomma­sane was appointed to the role in August 2013, just before the fall of the Rudd Labor government.

“Shortly after I started, the Abbott government was elected, and it had promised in the election campaign to change the Racial Discrimina­tion Act,” he tells me.

“That was the first challenge I had: to defend this legislatio­n.”

Twice the government tried to water down section 18C of the act, first under the leadership of Tony Abbott in 2014 and then under Malcolm Turnbull in 2017. And twice it failed, opposed in the Senate and by an extraordin­ary coalition of ethnic groups, as well as the large majority of Australian­s – 78 to 88 per cent, according to polls.

“We had absolute solidarity,” Soutphomma­sane says. “Between Aboriginal communitie­s and ethnic and multicultu­ral communitie­s. This has been a fight that has galvanised disparate groups who otherwise would not be working together. When do Jews and Arabs work together? But they have been in lockstep the whole way through the five years I’ve been in this job.”

But past failure has not, he says, deterred the political right and its media surrogates from flogging this particular horse.

As he said in his Whitlam Institute speech, the race debate has not been shut down. Not when “The Australian has devoted hundreds of thousands of words to attacking the Racial Discrimina­tion

Act; when there are regular beat-ups on race in the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph; when nocturnal panels on

Sky News endlessly berate multicultu­ral political correctnes­s; when Pauline Hanson makes regular appearance­s on Sunrise and Today…

“From broadsheet to tabloid newspapers, from breakfast to nighttime viewing on television, and from backbenche­rs to the most senior members of government, there’s plenty of race-baiting happening.”

As he leaves his position, Soutphomma­sane fears worse to come.

“I’ve spoken about race politics and sections of the media trying to cash in on racism, but I believe there will be further attempts to weaken the institutio­nal architectu­re we have establishe­d against discrimina­tion,” says Soutphomma­sane.

“There’s a significan­t section of the parliament extremely annoyed that it did not manage to get a change to 18C. I noticed just this [Tuesday] morning that Cory Bernardi was out soliciting signatures for a petition to change 18C. There are many people chomping at the bit for another crack at the legislatio­n.

“Christian Porter, the attorneyge­neral, has said he has a desire to rename or refocus this statutory office. That can only be done if you change the terms of the act. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, but I do find Porter’s statements troubling. What he has said about racism suggests he is not a friend of racial equality and not a friend of the RDA.”

But why? Why continue to attack a policy that has, by measures both objective and subjective – such as the overwhelmi­ng support of the populace – been of such benefit to the nation?

“Red meat to the base,” Soutphomma­sane says.

“This appears to reflect the ascendency of a particular brand of identity politics, practised by the conservati­ve side in Australia right now. It’s an identity politics defined by cultural anger, racial resentment and a desire to put minorities in their place. You see that in the 18C debate, through debates about multicultu­ralism – you’re seeing an attempt to assert a more muscular, AngloCelti­c form of national identity.

“I would imagine many of those who have been most enthusiast­ic about repealing section 18C would also feel very strongly about punishing any university that does not agree to host the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisati­on. This is the ideologica­l universe in which some people live. They genuinely believe that 18C, the Ramsay Centre, privatisat­ion of the ABC, represent the most pressing political issues of the day.

“This should worry mainstream citizens in our society because it shows there is a section of the political class that is significan­tly removed from reality.”

He notes, also, that the appeals to racism made by the media and politician­s in this country have intensifie­d since Donald Trump was elected in America.

And that suggests something else: that the elevation of race as an issue also serves as a valuable distractio­n for conservati­ve forces whose real agenda is economic.

While Trump’s electoral base – disproport­ionately older, white, illeducate­d, underpaid and male – was diverted by Muslim travel bans, walls to keep out Mexican “rapists”, outrage at black footballer­s “taking a knee” and sundry other race-oriented distractio­ns, Trump and his party made like bandits, pushing through tax cuts that gave 80 per cent of the benefit to 1 per cent of the population.

Perhaps the true agenda here is more akin to class warfare: the manipulati­on of the base instincts of the mob to the benefit of one racial group, in particular, rich white folks.

That’s how you monetise racism,

• big time.

“CLEARLY, WE ARE SEEING A CHALLENGE TO THE NONDISCRIM­INATORY IMMIGRATIO­N PROGRAM THAT AUSTRALIA HAS CONDUCTED SINCE

THE END OF THE WHITE AUSTRALIA POLICY.”

 ??  ?? MIKE SECCOMBE is The Saturday Paper’s national correspond­ent.
MIKE SECCOMBE is The Saturday Paper’s national correspond­ent.

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