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The Racial Hatred Act: reporting race issues

reporting race issues

Robert Pullan

Ernestine Hill said of news, "the worse
it is, the better it is". She meant that the reporter "prefers
a murder to a suicide, and both to a wedding". In The Great Australian
Loneliness, Hill said a journalist "knows no partialities, no class-distinction,
no creed-distinction, nor colour-line, nor bias, nor loyalty, save to the

Such was one legendary journalist's idea of the doctrine of objectivity
in 1940. Journalism should be colour blind.

But what happens when the colour-blind principle conflicts with the
quest for 'worse is better' news? Hill's report of what happened when she
met Daisy Bates, another legendary journalist, on the Nullarbor Plain,
is still contentious.

Hill found Bates' Aboriginal friends "repulsive in their degeneration"
and regretted that "God and Daisy Bates" had robbed her of "a
thundering front-page story". How so? Hill believed she had just missed
the spectacle of an Aboriginal mother eating her newborn baby; the Aborigines,
she said, practised a "frightful and incorrigible cannibalism".

When Hill left Bates' camp, the happy mother was sitting in her wurley
with her baby in her arms, her "grisly hunger for human meat staved
off for the time".

When is race relevant? All journalists recognise that a profile piece
on NSW magistrate Pat O'Shane which did not mention that she's Koori would
be incompetent. When biography is the story, race is part of it.

Don Smith, managing editor of The Sunday Times in Perth, uses
the phrase commonly invoked by editors, producers and reporters, "we
treat every story (involving race) on a case-by-case basis".

Case-by-case means journalistic discretion. Journalists resist attempts
to reduce news judgements to a set of rules partly because rules covering
all the myriad complexities of news would themselves be too complex to
be workable.

So how do they apply their discretion? Says Peter Manning, executive
producer of Channel 7's Witness, and a former head of ABC Radio
National, "on an issue like police corruption you might go for broke
regardless of feelings. On race issues I think we have to consider people's
sensibilities. Race is undoubtedly a very sensitive, touchy issue for Australians".

Predicting readers' response to stories is guesswork. When The Sunday
ran a story sympathetic to Aborigines being evicted from public
housing in Perth, it provoked readers' letters complaining 'why can't these
people behave themselves?' And the letter-writers comprised less than one
hundredth of one per cent of the Times readership.

A Sydney Morning Herald editor, fuming at a letter complaining
that the Herald has used 'Paddy' as a synonym for Irishman, sighs, "this
is ludicrous".

Some people point to the journalistic tradition of fairness, which many
think more appropriate than objectivity. Says Smith, 'we make sure to put
the other side. (Case-by-case) adjudication is a pretty fine line to draw.
We are very conscious that there is anti-Aboriginal feeling in the community.
We get letters, not a flood, but two or three, when we report Aborigines'

Would he kill a story if he thought it might inflame racial hatred?
"Oh that's a hard one, it's a hard one. If somebody said 'those bloody
black bastards are ripping us all off', I'd tone that down. And I'd report
the other side."

Says ABC broadcaster Quentin Dempster, "my experience in Queensland
and New South Wales is that whenever you are into the Aboriginal issue
it's always been very distressing, you can feel the audience switching

"On the 7.30 Report in Queensland, when I started the intro to
a report on, say, health conditions on the missions,

(I) felt the shutters going down. We got abusive phone calls, I don't
mean considered letters, abusive phonecalls: you find anonymous resentment."

ABC guidelines require reporters to avoid stereotyping and coverage
likely to cause vilification or discrimination, with the qualification
that the guidelines are not intended to stop publication of news.

Says Peter Manning, "my experience is that reporting of race issues
brings the biggest response and sometimes the lowest ratings.

"People don't want to face the issues, and when they are forced
to face them they react, some-times with great force and passion.

"I think all journalists are aware that reporting race is not something
you can hurry: it is like reporting another culture.

"When (a white reporter) goes to Arnhem Land he/she is reporting
on a culture that is so different he/she could be in a foreign country.
It's like being a foreign correspondent in Australia."

Ray Martin, Channel 9's A Current Affair presenter, uses a different
analogy. Male reporters of the baby-boomer generation got used to the idea
that reporting women executives meant reporting an entirely different context
to male managers. "You can't not be aware that a woman business executive
is in a different context to a white Aussie bloke. We could, and should,
make another cultural adjustment."

Martin says that when an Aboriginal artist died in Utopia in Arnhem
Land, he spoke to the artist's family who explained that publishing the
artist's name and paintings immediately after her death would be a violation
of the Utopia Aborigines' beliefs.

"But The Australian ran the name and the paintings.

"When are we (journalists) going to wake up to the fact that this
is like pissing in the font in a Catholic Cathedral? There is no way in
the world you would do something like that involving the white community.

"(Where there's issue of race) I would be searching for the extra
paragraph (to give the context). It's a question of context. In reporting
crime, if a caucasian kid accused of violent crime has been beaten from
pillar to post, we would include that, as we would for an Aboriginal."

Martin says he would go out of his way "not to make a point about
a person being Aboriginal, or Vietnamese, or Albanian" particularly
if it was disparaging or typecasting.

The Sydney Morning Herald assistant editor Ian Hicks says he
happily accepts the Australian Press Council guidelines that newspapers
should not gratuitously emphasise colour, race or religion, but where these
are relevant, news-papers may report and express opinions in those areas.

And when is race relevant? Says one editor, "obviously reporting
a race riot without identifying the races would be deficient.

"Obviously if a man is taken to hospital after a brawl in George
Street (Sydney) and it was a white beaten by a gang of Aboriginal muggers,
that would be relevant."

Don Smith: "we will identify a suspect as a one-legged Aboriginal
if it helps the police".

In reporting Pauline Hanson's maiden-speech remarks that multiculturalism
should be abolished, that Australia was in danger of being 'swamped by
Asians' and that 'Aborigines enjoyed privileges not available to others',
Smith argues the media did not have the choice to report her or not to
report her. To journalists, the idea of not reporting Hanson is unintelligible.
Most think her views ignorant, many think her bigoted, but all think her
views are news.

"She was talking about some of the key social issues facing Australia"
and reports of her speech provoked "some of the most strident letters"
to The Sunday Times.

Was the speech given too much play? The Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer,
thought the degree of coverage in Asian newspapers unhelpful and suggested
it might have damaged Australia's trade with Asia.

No-one decides how much play will be accorded any news: hundreds of
individual editors, producers, journalists and talk-back broadcasters make
that decision.

Says Peter Manning, "when Witness reported Pauline Hanson,
we thought it important to give her views as well as Aboriginal views".

"It's a very delicate line. You want to give people a chance to
put their views (in Witness' letters segment), but you don't want
to inflame racial hatred.

"And you must be aware that what is offensive in one community,
white or black, might not be offensive in another."

Quentin Dempster thinks, "we in the media have skewed our coverage"
of some issues. The tragic death through ecstasy of a white Sydney teenage
girl received saturation coverage. "We tried to raise the issue on Stateline that, tragic though her death was, there are also Vietnamese
kids dropping dead of heroin in Cabramatta. We in the ABC need to go a
bit beyond that (skewed) coverage and get a bit deeper".

Robert Pullan, journalist and author,
is writing The Dynasties, a history of the press in Australia. He
has been a freelance journalist and author for 20 years. His books include Guilty Secrets: Free Speech in Australia.