Higher education and lower-end journalism: human rights in the media in August

By Sam Ryan | 03 Sep 14
Haldon Street, Lakemba

Pyne’s education reforms: a breach of international law?

Education was the August theme at Right Now, and in the final days of the winter months we saw Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, introduce his higher education reform package to Parliament

The reforms, and deals required with the crossbench and minor parties to get them through Parliament, were the subject of much political reporting in recent weeks.

By the end of the month, Pyne was refusing to rule out cuts to university research – ironically, as pointed out on news.com.au, at the same time as dumping a bucket of ice on his head to promote research into Motor Neurone Disease – as a “worst case scenario” if the reforms fail to pass the Senate.

The Covenant requires higher education to be made equally accessible to all, a requirement that “clearly isn’t met in that a deregulated fee system privileges those who can afford to pay.”

With the package now in Parliament, the Coalition have stepped up their campaign to get Senate cross-benchers onside. While much of the mainstream coverage addressed similar counter-points, student protesters who burned an effigy of the Minister seemed to do little more than provide a distraction from the real discussion.

Yet there were some interesting discussions to be found on the fringes.

Australian National University research student and ALP member, Luke Mansillo, did the maths in The Guardian, determining that “At the age of 21, under his own plans, Pyne would have 43 years ahead of himself to pay off $202,734 of debt, $89,134 of which is just interest.”

But what of the question of rights to education?

Well, back in June Deakin University’s Jane O’Callaghan Kotzmann and Kay Souter published a piece in The Conversation contending that Pyne’s higher education plans “constitute a clear breach of international legal obligations to which Australia is a signatory,” referring to Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Covenant requires higher education to be made equally accessible to all, a requirement that “clearly isn’t met in that a deregulated fee system privileges those who can afford to pay.”

However, while it is important to highlight and promote this obligation, it is unlikely to concern Pyne as much as public opinion, the authors noting that “While international law is legally binding in theory, the lack of international enforcement mechanisms mean that there is unlikely to be any real consequence for breaching Article 13.”

The discussion about education rights may have not taken hold, but there is significant disquiet about the reforms, and much politics left to be played, for better and/or worse.

Tim Blair’s sensational dash through Lakemba

Last month, the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair ventured to Lakemba, holing up in The Lakemba Hotel – “one of the last Anglo holdouts in Sydney’s otherwise Middle-Eastern south-western suburb … [which] isn’t putting up much resistance” – and making some swift assessments of the town’s “monocultural” main thoroughfare, Haldon Street.

Interrupting Blair’s article a few paragraphs in, and giving broader editorial context to the story, were four unsubtle links to ‘related’ articles – on “angry young Muslim men”, Australian couples converting to Islam, the “growing terrorist threat on our doorstep”, and the “submission” required for “peace under Islam”.

The hotel, where “there isn’t even a Gideon’s bible”, seemed little more than a base from which to punch out a fear-inducing tirade against Islam and the supposed threat it poses to white Australia.

Carleton succinctly noted that “Tim Blair thinks, it would appear, that there are two cultures – white and non-white … “

Condemnation of his sensationalist, shamelessly provocative article came not only from social media (including Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane) but from across the news media.

On Daily Life, Zeynab Gamieldien responded with “a local’s perspective” and called Blair’s article “a new bar of awfulness in the already awful climate of representations of Muslims in mainstream media.”

On SBS online, Richard Parkin called it “an emotive piece, instructive for its glaring factual omissions, which misrepresented a vibrant, multifaith and multicultural community.”

In Crikey, Jeff Sparrow suggested it was part of the Daily Telegraph’s attempts to drum up a campaign for Tony Abbott’s new security legislation … in the safest country in the world”; and Kavita Bedford quoted the now media-wary Lakemba Hotel bar manager as saying that, had Blair “told us his true intentions … we would have asked him to leave,” and a staffer (one of only two people – both non-Muslim – quoted in the piece) who said the journalist hardly left his room during his 24-hour visit.

On Radio National, James Carleton noted that Blair’s description of a monoculture was “way off the mark”, citing Census data:

“Lakemba is 10 per cent Lebanese – some of whom are Christians – 10 per cent Bangladeshi, seven per cent from China, six per cent from England – more if you take the United Kingdom as a whole, 33 per cent Australian born, there is a significant Vietnames and Indian population, and the majority – yes, the majority – of people in Lakemba are not Muslim”.

Carleton succinctly noted that “Tim Blair thinks, it would appear, that there are two cultures – white and non-white – and by that measure Haldon Street is monocultural, but even on that score it’s not true because there are English-speaking whites”.

Blair did have a defender, in fellow News Corp writer Andrew Bolt, who wrote a short blog piece claiming that the abhorrent messages Blair found in three books in an Islamic bookstore that “this hatred is the true message of Islam.”

The bulk of the content in Bolt’s blog post, however, was lifted directly from Blair’s own follow-up blog post, a sarcastic, cynical apology in response to the shower of criticism:

“Although converting to Islam is extremely easy, converting from Islam – particularly in the Middle East – may cause beatings, head loss and death by stoning.

Looks like you’re stuck with it. Sorry about that.”

On the lighter side, the Guardian’s First Dog on the Moon gave the article and it’s author as much respect as they deserved in his satirical account of “intrepid explorer” Dirk Blowhard’s journey to “Islamington”.

Articles such as Blair’s might help sell a few papers and generate clicks, including from those of us disturbed by the ‘reporting’, but it’s surely a strategy with a limited life, as Australia slowly embraces it’s true geographic location, far from England.

In Jeff Sparrow’s words:

“The problem for conservative populists is that the racial and ethnic divisions on which they depend are fading in comparison to the yawning gulf between political insiders and everyone else.”

Sam Ryan is Reviews Editor for Right Now.