Why Australia needs a truly free press more than ever

Stock image.
Stock image.

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow


T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men


Pauline Hanson 1.0 was the prototype and perhaps the best of its kind: the first batch of fish and chips cooked unexpectedly to perfection.

Certainly, if the aim was to strike a primeval fear into migrants to this country, while fanning the flames of a latent Australian nationalism, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation delivered.

As a university student in the mid ’90s, I remember a growing panic as Hanson’s fame and influence grew.

When a current affairs show aired footage of gangs of youths with spotlights on the back of trucks, I was desperate for Prime Minister John Howard to denounce her policies.

I was born in South Africa but arrived here via Canada as a small child.

Nevertheless, the horrors of the apartheid system we had escaped were always lurking in the background; I had my own shadows to contend with.

My father had been politically active, incarcerated for his activities and the family had suffered house searches, interrogations and the like.

The stories formed a narrative of the indignity of separation on the basis of race and the warping effect it could have on the development of the individuals affected.

Race would never be some benign natural law for me; in the wrong hands, it was a vile but powerful weapon.

Fast forward to the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) National Media Section meeting on the day of the 2016 Walkley Awards in Brisbane last December, where I found myself in a strange, though perhaps not totally unusual situation.

Representatives from around Australia were considering a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act: what we should say, whether we should say anything.

The latter prospect had me concerned. I did not support the constant criticism of the RDA and the Human Rights Commission. But nor did I think an organisation like ours, affected by the workings of the Act, could simply opt out of making a statement when an issue of race arose.

I was uncertain of my own contribution to the discussion until I scanned the room. As a brown-skinned migrant to this country, I guess I was looking for someone who might similarly represent a ‘non-white’ perspective, for want of a better expression. There was none. Not one.

This isn’t an indictment of MEAA, but a broader statement about the Australian media industry, one played out in most major newsrooms. People who look different are relatively identifiable on our media landscape because there simply aren’t huge numbers of them.

So, the die was cast and I spoke. My message, in a sense, was simply that we must respond. Silence on race was not an option.

Nor could I forget that Hanson 1.0 model when I spoke, even as a contemporary version of the prototype was starting to gather momentum ahead of the WA State Election.

That red hair is no fluke. Pauline Hanson is the Keeper of the Flame of racial division in Australia, be it directed against Asians, Aboriginals, Muslims or whoever might be lined up next.

One Nation is the accelerant that seeks to fan the flame. Sometimes it produces bush fires, sometimes spot fires. Some are quelled quicker than others.

The party did not gain the traction that it appeared destined to at the State Election but three Upper House seats is surely a reasonable return; the excited crowds who turned out to see Hanson during her campaign visit attest to the truth that this flame won’t go out any time soon.

At that meeting of Australia’s media union, the National Media Section reiterated its opposition to hate speech of any kind but acknowledged that the words “insult” and “offend” had led to confusion over the intent of Part IIA of 18C. We recommended replacing “insult” and “offend” with “vilify”.

The organisation also said there was “many more significant threats to free speech” in Australia.

MEAA Media members are left to ponder the apparent limitations of the Parliament’s free speech “agenda”.”

This is a remarkable country and we are fortunate to be able to conduct civilised discourse based on shared values, on a topic as potentially sensitive as racial discrimination.

We are all, in the end, Keepers of the Flame of racial tolerance.

A truly civilised discourse is enhanced by a truly free press.

MEAA’s annual report on the state of press freedom in Australia was published on Wednesday May 3, UNESCO World Press Freedom Day.

The report, titled The Chilling Effect, can be read at www.pressfreedom.org.au.

Martin Turner is the WA Media Section President of the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance.