The Guardian November 15, 2000


The Murdoch hate machine

by Marcus Browning

From the moment you are born they climb on your head.
Their lie-mills grind endlessly throughout your life.
                                        Nazim Hikmet

Character assassination is a form of gutter journalism honed to a fine 
edge by the Murdoch News Ltd newspapers. Harassment of "personalities", 
sensationalist reportage and preying on the victims of tragic accidents, 
small-time swindlers or criminal violence to exploit the "human angle" 
helps increase paper sales. But political character assassination is a 
speciality cut-throat task, and the Chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres 
Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Geoff Clark, has been the focus of a 
particularly vicious vendetta by the Murdoch press.

This is part of a concerted campaign by the mega-media hate machine to 
poison public thinking on Indigenous rights.

Geoff Clark is the first ATSIC Chairman elected by Indigenous Australians 
in the first poll conducted for ATSIC positions, held in December 1999. 
Since then he and ATSIC have been the objects of innuendo and derision by 
the Murdoch machine.

Piers Akerman, in The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, is the tabloid hack 
who has been given instructions by his boss to do a job on ATSIC. He has 
run especially hard on the level of voter participation in the ATSIC 
elections. At 30 per cent, says Akerman, it's unrepresentative, and so, 
presumably, invalid.

Convincing people to vote is at any time a difficult task, be it in trade 
unions, council elections, or sporting clubs.

Having to get information into people's hands around Australia, in many 
cases to isolated and rural areas, with limited funds, and when voting is 
not compulsory, is quite a task

In this context ATSIC's first nationwide ballot was extremely successful.

After all, the Howard Government at the last federal election received less 
than 40 percent of the primary vote, and they had tens of millions of 
dollars and access to the mass media to convince people to vote for them, 
with the added bonus of compulsory voting.

What Akerman has done is to unintentionally expose the hypocrisy and the 
class nature of the Howard Government and its supporters in their attempt 
to hold Indigenous Australians under the heel: praise the "democratic 
process" to the skies, unless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 
put it into practice, then it must be damned to hell.

Reportage in Murdoch's The Australian on the court case involving 
Geoff Clark has been no less virulent. Here is the opening paragraph of a 
feature article on November 2, headlined "Clark has his day in court", 
which carried at its centre a huge head-and-shoulders photo of Clark:

"As he realised he would not stand trial for rape, Geoff Clark started to 
rock like a prize fighter  which he once was  who has been sitting in 
his corner and has heard the bell ring for the next round."

If you missed the allusion to punch-drunkenness, it is raised again in the 
second-last paragraph: "Clark, whose eyes had twitched nervously for much 
of the day, sat stock still, then shook hands with Richter [his QC], whose 
argument had been masterful."

In between these two allusions the article detailed every personal 
conflict, unfounded accusation and gory claim, and even took a guess at the 
cost of Clark's defence.

The gist of the story, bylined Stuart Rintoul and Alison Crosweller, was to 
imply that Clark was exonerated because he is Aboriginal, and as a result 
of the "masterful" arguments of his QC.

We are informed that the police are investigating two other allegations 
"involving the nation's most senior Aboriginal representative" which are 
"yet to be proven false".

The article also conveyed the impression of a community divided, festering 
with hatred and potentially capable of barbarous acts. By contrast, 
coverage in the Fairfax media was pretty much straight court reporting.

The Australian also has an aversion to the use of the words 
"Aboriginal" and "Indigenous" in its headlines. This is clearly a policy 
decision by its editors (and owner?).

Instead the word "black" is inserted. This runs along the lines of "Blacks 
given `false hope' on payouts" (September 11, 2000), "Black welfare woes 
tackled" (October 16, 2000) and "Black work for the dole a `failure'" 
(November 9, 2000).

And if someone's statement contains a juicy, sensational morsel, just lift 
it out and put it in the headline.

When the Northern Territory Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth accused the 
NT Labor Party of favouring what he called "pet niggers", The 
Australian picked it up and ran  "We're ALP's pet niggers: Tracker" 
(November 8, 2000).

The next day it got a double-barrel header  "`Pet nigger' label 
reinforces calls for black seats" (November 9, 2000).

Welfare

As may be deduced from the above headlines the Murdoch hate machine is 
right behind the Federal Government push to eliminate funding aimed at 
specific Indigenous needs.

Much was made in the press of Noel Pearson's statements about the effect of 
welfare on Indigenous people. A corrective to this hyped-up coverage came 
from ATSIC's South Australian Commissioner, Brian Butler.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have led the way in mutual 
obligation since 1976 by foregoing individual social security entitlements 
and working for their communities through the Community Development 
Employment Project (CDEP) scheme.

Brian Butler told a conference on CDEP last week that Indigenous peoples 
are just as keen as governments to face up to the welfare issues but that 
these need to be understood in the context of the social destruction 
inflicted by early European settlement.

"They were exposed to the welfare support system as a necessity, not by 
desire. From that they encountered many social problems, such as alcohol 
and substance abuse, health, housing, brushes with the law and racism and 
discrimination. 

"These factors consequently impacted on their ability to attain relevant 
and appropriate levels of education and labour market skills to enhance 
their employment and social skills."

(It is of more than passing importance that the Government wants to disband 
CDEP, the head of the Department of Employment, Peter Shergold, calling the 
scheme a "weak link" in the Government's plans for Indigenous unemployed. 
With a jobless rate almost five times that of other Australians, Indigenous 
people, already at a disadvantage, would be dumped into the failed dog's 
breakfast of Christian welfare groups that are supposed to pass for a 
welfare system.)

Brian Butler pointed out that one factor which has not received the same 
degree of attention is racism, quoting Noel Pearson's observation that 
welfare dependency "makes people even more vulnerable to the degradation of 
racism."

He said ATSIC's response to proposals for welfare reform was based on 
principles that emphasise consultation and negotiations (not two of the 
Government's favourite pastimes). These should focus on the underlying 
causes of Indigenous disadvantage and ensure Indigenous welfare recipients 
do not suffer financial loss.

"There is a potential that wrong decisions on welfare reform will 
exacerbate the circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
peoples.

"Welfare reform can be transformative. Structures that empower communities 
and individuals will emerge as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
peoples are accorded their right to take control of their lives and 
destinies."

He stressed that the two key aspects of the Government's plan that are of 
concern are the safety net and participation issues. "It is important to 
understand that for a large number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
peoples the safety net is not yet in place.

"Make no mistake, no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person would 
choose or want to continue to live in the circumstances that many currently 
do  living in cars, not being able to afford basics like shoes and 
clothing, parents going without in order that their children might eat.

"It is very difficult to conceive how a person in such circumstances might 
realistically front up for a job interview.

"The safety net is access to payment because your life circumstances do 
not enable you to participate in employment. Access to such payments is 
non-negotiable and should not be subject to mutual obligation requirements 
in itself."

Commissioner Butler said that while the CDEP is not the solution, it is a 
useful tool in building communities. He stressed also that welfare reform 
cannot be isolated from other issues.

"There is little point in reforming welfare assistance to Aboriginal and 
Torres Strait Islander peoples unless efforts are made to address the 
underlying issues that force Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples 
onto welfare, and to address the basic issues of health, housing and 
employment."

These arguments are founded on the solid ground of historical developments. 
But the Howard Government and the Murdoch machine are headed in another 
direction.

They are for denying history and want to convince people to turn their face 
away from the past and pretend the things at its core never happened.

As a living thing history remains with us daily. So that a poll by The 
Age newspaper last week reveals that public support for reconciliation 
has reached a new high of 78 per cent and that the majority of Australians 
support a treaty.

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