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.