Janine Little. 'Be It On Your Head: Discontinuiti
Two events relating to Australia's relationship with the rest of the world coincided quite close to my home, just before the 'Coalition of the Willing' started bombing Iraq. The first came in the wake of a series of television advertisements featuring a TV news program host, dressed in weekend garb, explaining why a brochure and fridge magnet on terrorism would soon be dropped into every household mailbox in the country. If I lived on the Australian mainland, and had a mail contractor who had not embraced the Mad Max approach to postal delivery, 'Let's Look Out For Australia: Protecting our way of Life From a Possible Terrorist Threat' might have arrived before occurrence of the second event. Looking out for Australia might have borne some relationship to the decision by Prime Minister John Howard to participate in war against Iraq.
Yet I live on a smaller island and look at Australia from another angle. I wonder about 'our way of life', read through a cloud of dust and belched exhaust reminiscent of what Howard left behind, for the dissenting thousands, from his rush back into the arms of US imperialism.
My delayed receipt of the Federal Government's lifestyle manual for 'people like us' meant I also read it through a week of monitoring media representations of Australia's complicity with US determination to invade Iraq, and just a day before occurrence of the second event. 'They killed 88 Australians (in Bali) so you've got to be angry…' it was suggested on one commercial TV 'current affairs' program interviewing survivors of the Sari Club bombing. Then an interview with US Presidential adviser Condoleeza Rice told me: ' …the President always listens to advice from his friends, and he considers John a friend.' These are but two of numerous TV examples.
Across the course of the week leading up to submission deadline for the UN weapons inspectors' report from Iraq, Australians were constructed within mainstream journalism as the justifiably indignant, anxious and loyal buddies of Americans, as if the relationship needed no other explanation than 'the President and John'. While the couple held hands for TV cameras at the White House, people living in Australia received the 'Let's Look Out for Australia' propaganda pack, and perhaps watched the news. Were it not for the second event (the one that turned out to be the biggest expression of contrary public opinion ever held in Australia – gigantic antiwar demonstrations), the media's generally uncritical reporting of the Howard Government line may have itself turned out to be more terrifying than the terrorist threat it confected just in time for the troops to be deployed.
More than a million people took to the streets across Australian capital cities to march in what was but the first of several mass protests against Australia's involvement in a war that was none of its business. Bush, Cheney, Rice, and the other neoconservative Republicans behind two chilling, yet readily available, White House documents1 outlining US foreign policy (read empire-building) had, at least, been upfront about their conviction that they were chosen by God to spread 'democracy' across the planet. In Australia, Howard's terrorism mailout and fridge magnet, and the lack of journalistic scrutiny of Howard's ambiguous reasoning in support of the US campaign, indicate an agenda not so brazen. What it indicates is not so easily digested by anyone trying to pick, intellectually, through Howard's rubbish and read aloud what is going on here with civil liberties, surveillance, and other grander plans for the nation. The effigies of Howard on a leash, kissing the US President's behind, put an anti-war public mood plain enough. Yet there was something about what occurred after the 'No War' and 'Peace' banners came down that has sent those who still admit to standing on the Left in Australia into lingering despair.
Various media commentators, at the time of the Iraq invasion by the US-led coalition, suggested that no one could ignore so much popular opposition to Australia's involvement. Coverage of the demonstrations shifted feet with the weight of dissent so that, for example, the metropolitan daily newspaper nearest me splashed its front page with the Brisbane demonstration. In the wash, however, it seems an almost cynical recuperation of an image of the Sixties – devoid of the passion, political courage, and unswerving determination to find the tools to resist – that made news. Some of the despair coming to rest over here these days might also come from a realisation that maybe those demonstrating are confined to that boxed, commodified notion of resistance that owes more to fashion than fury. Just like being able to eat an ice cream called 'Cherry Guevara' and throw Che's picture in the bin afterwards, protestors can use the demonstration like any other consumable good. Nice while it lasts, then back to accepting an absence of sustained analysis by journalists, and their superficial intellectual response to the insidious forms of surveillance used by the Howard Government to kneecap any possible source of other worldview.
The media's soft treatment of Howard's dare to Australians to vote him out of office if they did not agree with his war policy raises doubts about just how far journalists have the capacity to critique the ideological implications of such rhetoric. How does the Prime Ministerial response to such obvious dissent reflect what is supposed to be a social democracy? A challenge that personalises Howard's determination to follow the US into war appears, in itself, to suggest that the decision is his alone to make. The body politic expressed opposition, finally, in its grand marches against war, but then the bombs stopped. Nothing. Journalists could have the capacity to make the protests connect to something much larger than mere consumption of a mood, like so much weekend newspaper lifestyle pap. If democracy is going to mean anything more than what Bush tells Howard, what Howard tells the media, and what the media tells its journalists about news values, the connection needs to be made quickly.
For me, this begins a speculation about journalism's character in what may be experienced by some as terrifying, despairing times. I want to ask what country I am in, why a relatively beautiful landscape bred such fierce creatures, and where journalism goes when it refuses to analyse a bigger picture. That's the picture that brings the existential funk of knowing someone is pushing down on your head, but they will not let you look them in the eye. Because the war, like any other, at least enabled me to reaffirm the part of grander narratives of 'nation' in this willingness of many journalists to just live the picture, 'nation' forms a central theme in this essay. Despite postmodernism's best claims, 'nation' is reaffirmed both politically and culturally for what are turning out to be more longstanding purposes than participation in a war. If these purposes are about anything, they are about cultural relations, complexities, and abuses of particular kinds of power to name those included and excluded in new regimes of truth. This is why my consideration of Australian journalism occurs through broader questions of identity and culture, seeking to show how longstanding practices of domination and exclusion shape Australia's domestic and international attitude to 'others'.
Howard's 'Heimat' and the Charting of Terror
The turn of personalised rhetoric applied by Prime Minister Howard in response to public opposition to war against Iraq, and the corresponding relationship he maintains with the US President, suggest aspirations to front-row seating in a world theatre of power. Australia has not held such international importance, except when it was not Australia at all, but a vision of terra nullius captured through the telescope of British colonialism. Now, it forms as a reflection of American cultural hegemony where American news needs no translation, and American interests are assumed to describe domestic aspirations to happiness.
Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, no one outside of Australia took that much notice of it, except perhaps as a better, easier place to live than war-torn Afghanistan, or repressive Iraq under Saddam Hussein. That was before Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock moved the northern fence line closer in so that certain islands were not considered to be Australian any more, and locked anyone arriving unexpectedly on boats (airline passengers have at least got money) in 'detention centres'. It also was before Prime Minister Howard followed the suit of American journalists who, professional ethics aside, lined up behind President Bush in patriotic fervour toward retaliatory war. How retaliation against Al Quaeda terrorists came to be directed against Iraq was never clear. It remained unclear after several weeks of mainstream media saturation with the War Show, although web 'blogging' provided some opportunity for accessing alternative views. Now, several months on, there has been still no evidence of any 'weapons of mass destruction' found in Iraq and its surrounds, though British Prime Minister Tony Blair has assured the world 'they will be found'.
The link between journalists' assumption of patriotism and Howard's sycophantic posturing to Bush is more than fanciful, given journalism's intended role as the 'fourth estate' custodian of the public's right to know. Howard's reflexive and unconditional support of a 'war against terror' complemented what Silvio Waisbord calls the 'chauvinistic nationalism'2 of US journalism after September 11. It raises issues, therefore, about which public was conceived within US journalism's response, and how Australian journalism was largely complicit in a replication of the interests served (at least up until the peace demonstrations of February 2003 and beyond). The Federal Government's choice of a high-profile TV news programme host as spokesperson for its 'Let's Look Out For Australia' mass terrorist guidebook is almost hyperbolic in its illustration of how Australian journalism added its image to reflections of deeper and broader patterns of cultural complicity. There are, however, more sustainable critical approaches to working out how Australia came to be involved in so much 'hawkish patriotism'.3
Ghassan Hage's 'Nation-Buidling/Dwelling/Being'4, identifies the early 20th Century German concept of Heimat or 'homeland' as a constituent aspect of contemporary nationalist discourse through which a community is imagined and figured in the world.
Its saliency in discussions of journalism and its relationship to Australia's current nationalistic stance is borne out by three critical observations. First, journalism's tendency (like other institutions of ideological control) is to fall back on set patterns of reporting to handle 'big' stories.5 Second, 'therapy news' and emotional indulgence journalism has intensified at the expense of factual reporting and close analysis after September 11.6 Third, while September 11 might have brought some hopes of a return to a 'serious journalism' of on-the-ground reporting fundamentals, it has instead demonstrated 'the role of journalism in reaffirming nationalism as 'a quintessential modernist narrative'.7
Heimat's idealising of home, and home-land as a safe, secure and enduring presence operates always in nationalist discourse with a simultaneous construction of nation as an international subject (85). Heimat is the gendered, discursive construction of the 'motherland' where the 'nation is imagined passively as a container, but also a provider', ever-dependent upon that of the 'fatherland' as 'a unified international subject, an active entity … fighting wars' (82). Hage emphasises both the unceasing, dialogic nature of these twin elements of a single nationalistic discourse, and the fact that the discourse itself is driven by yearning for, but never reaching, the impossible: a fully achieved, settled and completed 'home', and nation. Generally unaware even of their part in nationalist projects, journalists as reproducers of nationalist discourse cannot, therefore, acquire the analytical tools necessary to read historic terrors. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany, or 'ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia or Rwanda, become discontinuous narratives, even as they have helped determine Australian historical responses to both 'threat' or 'promise' in its international guise. Threats to Heimat – home's imagined safety, certainty and security – steer Heimat's discursive antecedents onto the familiar, yet geographically contrasted, tracks of patriotic engine-revving, and international hell-raising. And yet, democracy still gets analysed as though it is somehow borne out of that American drag race.
For some, perhaps, the fact that 'we' were allowed to go onto the front line with the Coalition troops pointed to a promising kind of transparency in military and government relationships with the media. It recounted the Second World War photography of photojournalist Damien Parer at Papua New Guinea's Kokoda Trail in its guise of recognition of reporters as eyewitnesses, rather than mere storytellers. Like Parer, about a dozen reporters were killed trying to do their jobs. For those of us in the industry trying to reconcile the death count with accompanying discomfort about journalists 'embedded' with Coalition troops, there was a gut feeling that factors determining which journalists made it home from work had something to do with situating truth in the stories they told. The 'well-duh' element of this notwithstanding it is worth stating since, with the killings and spurious reasons given, especially for Australia's part in the aggression, enclosed the Iraq war within the representation-violence paradigm par excellance. It showed spin doctors alongside Bush, Blair, and Howard chortling at hopes arising out of September 11 of journalists recovering some kind of functional agency in/against a terrifying ignorance of cultural complexity. That ignorance, indeed the ignorance of that ignorance, still means most editors (since reporters learn very quickly to shape their practices to suit editorial culture) not only get it so wrong, but seem not to care much about it either.
In terms of Hage's Heimat analysis, this means Australian journalism and its products have settled the nation by accepting its apparent fate as a researched, controlled, and relatively placid congregation of customers. Those customers who may, in the marketing slogan of the only metropolitan daily in Brisbane 'expect more' have learned to keep those expectations to themselves. Worn down by voice-prompt phones, non-responsive complaints channels, a prohibitively expensive legal system, and a bombardment of social-shaping imagery on TV, in magazines, the internet, and newspapers, they do not even bother making disparaging remarks about journalists anymore. None of the images or marketing bullshit disguised as 'journalism' ever explains the contradiction between asprirations created by it and the incapacity of certain kinds of excluded individuals to realise those asprirations. In its not-so-subtle shift into discourses that create these social and intercultural tensions, Australian journalism has generally become a generator of aspirations rather than a seeker of truth, and an explainer of contradictions to the relatively powerless. It rests in its own settled identity as but another discourse of consumption, leaving the confounded and the various cruelties a nation can inflict on those it finds unsettling, to be negotiated quietly. Those cruelties perpetuate as a history stewing in such silence and, as Hage observes in relation to Heimat'-building, are made discontinuous with immediate instances of conflict or cultural hostility. The Iraq war works, therefore, with the Terrorism brochure and fridge magnet, to settle those included in an Australian nation into already structured expectations of security and home. As Hage suggests, similar expectations worked to desensitise Germans to what was going on in Nazi concentration camps during the second World War.
A recent study by two Australian journalists shows how human rights abuses such as the treatment of asylum-seekers rescued in waters north of Australia by the Tampa cargo ship involved popular desensitising made of the same historical stuff.8 Before Tampa, the Howard government appeared to be heading for electoral defeat in the wake of its attacks on education and health systems, and economic stress caused by the GST. But Australia's war footing enabled the government, at the height of an election campaign, to 'be mobilising its navy to repel a few hundred boat people' without criticism (Marr and Wilkinson 213). It did not seem strange, at least according to the absence of media comment on the issue, that 'the Howard machine brilliantly combined absolute opposites – the western world's stand against the Taliban and Australia's military blockade of refugees fleeing the same enemy…' (ibid. 214). This use of a perceived threat to national security not only reactivates the deeply ingrained ideology of Heimat in European social consciousness, but goes one step further. As Wilkinson and Marr observe, it allows Australians included in the government's nationalist agenda to forget about consciousness or, more importantly, conscience, altogether:
A key part of Howard's pledge involved, as Marr and Wilkinson show in (what should be shocking) account after account of how the government, military, and Federal Police kept much of what happened in relation to asylum-seekers away from media scrutiny, stopping journalists from doing their jobs properly. Such disallowing of information from the public's right to know thus provides another dimension to my earlier argument that Australian journalism had become a raiser of aspirations – party to nationalism's grand narrative – rather than an interpreter of all the national and international conflicts caused by those aspirations.
Journalists in Australia have fought tough battles against attempts by various governments to manipulate and control the flow of news and, unlike in the United States, there is no Bill of Rights here to make written principle at least of the right of a journalist to do their job. Journalists who are good at that job invariably see themselves as standing with the public, not the political power base. They are no less subject to that sense of the boot on the head, or of being deprived of the information that might help them mediate some of the contradictions between aspiration and exclusion, than anyone else. The difference is that journalists do have the capacity to be included in the discussions, and to select their own levels of ignorance and conscience.
1 'The National Security Strategy of the United States of America September 2002' and 'The Project For A New American Century' available online from the White House, Washington..
2 Silvio Waisbord, 'Journalism, Risk and Patriotism' Journalism After September 11. Barbie Zelizer and Stuart Allan, eds. London & NY: Routledge, 2002. 201-219.
3 Waisbord 214.
4 Ghassan Hage and Lesley Johnson, eds. Identity/Community/Change. Nepean, NSW: Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, U of Western Sydney, 1993. Communal/Plural 1 (1993): 47-61.
5 Tuchman 1978 qtd in Karim H. Karim, 'Making Sense of the 'Islamic Peril': Journalism as Cultural Practice' Zeizler and Allan 101.
6 Michael Bromley and Stephen Cushion, 'Media Fundamentalism: The Immdediate Response of the UK National Press to September 11' Zeizler and Allan 160-177, p169.
7 Waisbord 215. Cf. Bromley and Cushion p166-7
8 David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. Dark Victory. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2003.