A report published last week by the anti-racism group All Together Now sought to analyse race-related reporting in the Australian media. Far from shedding light on the relationship between racism and the media, the report provides an insight into the way academics and white-led community groups understand racism.
Examining a sample of 124 reports published in high circulation newspapers and on television in a six-month period in 2017, the report found that 62 of the items considered expressed racist views “through their title, content, a picture and/or tone of voice”. This was determined by categorising each piece as “positive”, “negative” or “neutral” in its portrayal of race. A further case study of 43 items identified as containing negative portrayals of Muslims found that Muslims are often conflated with terrorism. Negative portrayals of Muslims were associated with the use of dichotomous us/them language, claims of Western superiority, fear inducing narratives, paranoid nationalism, and the denial of the existence of Islamophobia. The recommendations that followed include extending timelines for making complaints about media content and training journalists in racial awareness.
Contrary to what the title implies, the report did not look at news reporting, but rather opinion pieces. In an odd move, the report writers removed the names of the authors of these items, citing “ethical considerations”. An examination of the footnotes, however, reveals the authors to include Andrew Bolt, Peta Credlin, Tim Blair, Piers Akerman, Miranda Devine, Chris Kenny, Caroline Overington and Douglas Murray. The report is thus for the most part an examination of Australian conservative commentary about Muslims.
So what do we learn about what Australian conservatives say about Muslims? Not very much, it turns out. While the content is reasonably well described, there is no consideration of the work that the Islamophobic commentary of conservatives performs. The authors say they were guided by Ian Haney Lopez’s political analysis of dog whistle politics in the US, however they deliberately shy away from a political reading of the discourse, stating that the report “does not delve into the political implications of its findings”.
The report also follows the all-too-common practice of restricting its understanding of racism to prejudice, explicitly defining racism as “unjust covert or overt behaviour towards a person or a group on the basis of their racial background. This might be perpetrated by a person, a group, an organisation, or a system.”
This apolitical, behaviourist approach closes off any serious analysis of Islamophobia. We are told that racism in the media is a problem because “when television viewers observe scenes depicting racism, their blood pressure remains elevated long after the scenes are over. That means it’s reasonable to believe that every time we see a TV news segment […] our bodies pay the price.” (I can’t help wondering: if that’s really all it is, why don’t we simply advocate for the prescription of anti-hypertensive medication to anyone upset by the opinions of Bolt and company?) No further consideration is offered because “much of the available literature is not recent and more studies are needed to explain the interaction between race and the media.”
There is, in fact, no shortage of relevant old and new literature on race and the media, and Islamophobia in particular, from seminal texts such as Stuart Hall and colleagues’ (1978) Policing the Crisis and Edward Said’s (1981) Covering Islam, to more recent analyses of the role media representations of Islam and Muslims play in reproducing white hegemony long after the formal end of colonialism (see here for a useful reading list). Even without this material, a community group that claims to exist for the purposes of fighting racism should understand that the media’s role in maintaining racial power structures ultimately has far more serious consequences for racialized bodies than simply raised blood pressure.
Even as a supposedly value-neutral scientific endeavour this report is significantly flawed. It fails the basic positivist principle that research should be replicable: the criteria governing how items were determined to be “positive”, “negative” or “neutral” is nowhere stated. But more significant than this, there is no consideration of the role “positive” and “neutral” portrayals of race in the media play in racism. Lopez, who the authors cite as their guiding influence, does not analyse US conservative commentary in isolation. He is arguably at his most interesting when describing how liberal political elites, including Barack Obama, buttress the dog whistling of conservatives by positioning themselves as beyond race, and how the politics of colourblindness they espouse is equally racialising.
The problems in this report might easily be dismissed as the shortcomings of a single anti-racism community group. However, this theory-resistant, apolitical brand of positivism has widespread appeal among Australian liberals and academics working on racism. It informs endless attitudinal studies that present the history of race relations in Australia as one that coheres around a post-war commitment to racial tolerance that is currently under threat from conservatives. All Together Now’s claim that, beyond its own anti-racism campaign, public discussions on racism are “defensive” and “very rarely solutions-based” is a variant of a familiar stick that is used to beat down any critically-informed challenge to this account. It is the mechanism by which academics and white-led community groups manage to shrink away from the uncomfortable truth that Australian society is built upon a white supremacist social contract, that lines of continuity can be traced from the earliest frontier wars to today’s Aboriginal deaths in custody, that domestic political violence cannot be abstracted from imperialist foreign policy, or even that the exalted post-war multicultural moment owed far more to labour shortages than evolving individual attitudes.
As for the so-called solutions, as tempting as it may be to imagine the likes of Bolt, Credlin and Devine being subjected to racial sensitivity training in the Newscorp newsroom, conservative media commentary is not simply the outcome of faulty understandings of diversity that can be remedied through education. Racism is always political: it has a historical and material basis that must be recognised if anything meaningful is to be said about it. All Together Now’s illusion that this is not the case is a means by which it continues to exist.