Human Rights in the Media: May 2013 – Mid-Week Review

By Sam Ryan

By Sam Ryan.

The two human rights issues dominated May, but how interested was the media in disability insurance, and were they really listening to what Adam Goodes had to say about racism? Meanwhile, there may be reason for (cautious) optimism when it comes to reporting on asylum seekers.

How much do the media really care about disability insurance?

3418_ndis-disability-indigenous-121122If there was a political theme for politics in May, it was disability. That ought to be a good thing, but how much did we really learn?

Although the Federal Government’s national disability insurance scheme, DisabilityCare, has been widely supported – former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett wrote that it “could be the most important social change in Australia in this century” – much of the reporting saw it as merely the latest event in the lead up to the election, with politicians and “the average voter” positioned as the main players.

On 1 May the government announced that funding for the scheme would be sourced partly through a 0.5 per cent increase to the Medicare levy. The Herald Sun’s leading story the next day featured two pull out boxes: 47 words under “The NDIS explained” and almost 200 under “What you will pay”. The piece ended with an editorial line acknowledging the Herald Sun’s unequivocal support for the scheme, but opinion that the funding announcement “is yet another example of a broken promise that can only be seen as a tax on middle Australia to plug a Budget black hole dug by an incompetent Government.”

The Age’s somewhat shorter story  a day earlier – ahead of the official announcement – avoided commentary on the “hip-pocket impact”, but also featured even less detail about the scheme itself. Meanwhile, The Australian was purely focused on political outcomes.

In reader polls just 45 per cent of Age readers and 22 per cent of Herald Sun readers supported an increase in the Medicare levy to help pay for it. Did public opinion reflect the reporting or did the articles reflect the concerns of the readership? No doubt, the answer lies somewhere between the two.

At the same time, the ABC did provide some detail, though toward the end of a lengthy article, and featured a piece by disability advocate, Stella Young, who discussed, from a mostly personal perspective, the scheme’s aims.

Coverage continued to be largely framed around conflict or controversy, be it Myer CEO Bernie Brookes’ comment that the levy would be bad for business, how the issue was (or wasn’t) affecting polls, or the income of DisabilityCare’s chairperson. In the political realm, the focus seemed to be far more on what the government hadn’t yet detailed than a critique of what it had.

The angle changed midway through the month after the Federal Opposition agreed to support the legislation and as states began to sign on.

Interestingly, this happened primarily through emotional, personal stories invoked by politicians – notably Julia Gillard and Victorian Premier, Denis Napthine. Media cynicism had finally eased, although this could well be because there was now little conflict to report.

Even the conflict between “ordinary taxpayer” and recipient was a false dichotomy. As Stella Young pointed out, disability insurance is not just about the two million Australians who currently live with a disability, but anyone who might in the future (i.e. all of us).

Who was really listening to Adam Goodes?

288170-tlsnewsportraitThe build up to this year’s AFL’s annual Indigenous Round was bigger than usual, with the 20-year anniversary of the “Winmar moment”, a marker for how far the game has come in stamping out racism.

Celebrations quickly subsided when, in the round’s first match, Adam Goodes made a stand against (at the very least, perceived to be) racist – a moment of its own that made international news.

When it was revealed the fan was just 13 years old the incident took a new turn, dividing fans and commentators. Were those who vocally condemned the comment hypocrites, and the real bullies, for harassing a child, as Andrew Bolt suggested?

In April, Matthew Klugman of Victoria University and Gary Osmond of the University of Queensland wrote of a pervasive “enlightened racism” within AFL whereby “racial abuse is not tolerated, but many racial assumptions continue to go unquestioned, while the lack of Indigenous coaches and administrators is striking.”

If Bolt had a valid point, it was that the condemnation of the individual in this case – particularly some ugly abuse on Twitter – was out of line. The very fact that she is 13 year old, which made many of us soften our pointed fingers, should have opened a discussion as to why someone of that age would make such comments, especially while surrounded by adults.

There was no need to choose the side of the young fan or Adam Goodes, and nobody summed that up better than Goodes himself, at a press conference the next day:

“She’s 13, she’s still so innocent, I don’t put any blame on her. Unfortunately it’s what she hears, the environment she’s grown up in that has made her think it’s ok to call people names. I can guarantee you right now she would have no idea, you know, how it makes anyone feel by calling them an ape.”

This was finally picked up in the third wave of commentary, defending Goodes’ response, via journalists such as Richard Hinds, who praised his strong but compassionate handling of the incident, and Greg Baum, who asked what the incident says about the culture of AFL and Australian society.

Then Eddie McGuire – who had rushed to apologise to Goodes on the night – himself made a lazy joke in extremely poor taste on his radio show. And the topic of discussion was again whether McGuire is, or his comment was, racist (one exception being the newly launched Guardian Australia, via The Global Mail).  Instead, we should question the social environment that allows someone of McGuire’s reputation to feel comfortable letting such a comment to slip past his lips on national radio.

Asylum seekers big on the Fairfax agenda

As far as human rights coverage in the media goes, reporting on the plight of asylum seekers is possibly the most consistently mishandled topic; one that causes great frustration to many of us.

In March we discussed coverage of a report detailing instances of children self-harming in detention, which was given little attention broadly and not even column space in News Limited’s printed forms. As with the NDIS, the stories that do make the news rarely shed much light on the real issue.

To finish on a relatively positive note, Fairfax seem to have increased their focus in recent months on the topic, via Immigration Correspondent, Bianca Hall, who has been regularly filing stories on asylum seekers since late 2012, including more than 20 in May. It is good to see, despite the organisation’s recent staff cuts, and hopefully the start of a trend.


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.