Feminist success in The Age… or not.

I just about choked on my dinner last night when I finally got around to reading The Sunday Age and saw a picture of a couple waiting outside Mamasita in Collins Street – the woman on the left, the man on the right. And underneath, the following caption:

Nic Stewart and his wife, Alanna, join the queue waiting for a table at Mamasita restaurant, which has a no-bookings policy.

Is it just me that sees something wrong with that caption? Neither Alanna nor Nic are quoted in the article, so neither deserves preference in naming in the photo. Alanna is on the left, so therefore I would expect convention to dictate that she would be mentioned first. But no, Nic is mentioned first, followed by Alanna, who is not even described by her full name but rather described in relation to him. I don’t know whether or not she would be bothered by this, but if it was me, I would be incredibly offended. I’m offended anyway, not necessarily on her behalf but because I fail to see why the man in this photo deserves naming preference over the woman.

I know that both ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ are still in use with no such distinction required for men, but the widespread use of ‘Ms’ gave me the impression that Australian society had largely moved beyond identifying women in relation to the men around them. I try not to pay too much attention to numerous newspaper articles that mention a couple and quote only the male partner, hoping that there is some reason behind the journalist’s choice. But in this case, the complete lack of justification for naming the couple in the order shown proves that we are not as progressive as I had hoped.

Perhaps the caption is a mistake and nothing was meant by it, or perhaps this happens all the time and I haven’t noticed. Either way, it’s innappropriate, and the meaning is there whether the subeditor intended it or not. If language really is power, then we women have an awfully long way to go.

Media fragmentation: a threat to democracy?

For many people who grow up in Australia, democracy is taken for granted. Turning 18 is a milestone for most teenagers not because of the right to vote, but because of the right to drink.

The first time I went to the polling booth at the age of 19, the decisions I made there were influenced by a variety of factors, not least my family and my studies. At that point, the role of the media in politics and in the decisions that I made as a member of the voting public was not something that I had thought about at any nuanced level.

Now, however, as an aspiring journalist and a student of Global Communications, the relationship between the media and politics is one that I find increasingly fascinating and important. Earlier this month I attended a public lecture held at RMIT as part of the Media, Communication and Democracy: Global and National Environments conference. The keynote speaker was Professor Paulo Mancini, from the University of Perugia, and a key focus of his research is the relationship between the media and democracy.

His argument was that while media fragmentation is not new, it is having more and more dramatic consequences that extend beyond the media, into politics and democracy. He associates the fragmentation of media with a ‘crisis in journalism’. Neither the notion of a crisis in journalism or media fragmentation are new ideas, but Mancini’s lecture clearly outlined the consequences of fragmentation, as he sees it, for democratic politics.

A key effect of fragmentation lies in the shift from mass audiences to niche audiences. No longer do people watch the same news at the same time on the prime television station of the nation; no longer is TV a ‘central space’, as sociologist Elihu Katz argued in 1996.

Australia may be unusual in having only one national general interest broadsheet. In theory perhaps The Australian could function as a ‘central space’, but the paper’s strident ideological views and relatively minor weekday sales of around 130,000 negate this idea.

While 70% of Australia’s print media is owned by News Limited, suggesting a possible argument against the idea of media fragmentation, newspapers are now just one ‘fragment’ of the media environment. The fragmentation of which Mancini speaks is a fragmentation of media systems and forms – so that journalism is spread across a variety of mediums, from newspapers and TV to blogs and YouTube.

According to the MEAA’s 2010 Life in the Clickstream report, 26% of people said that the internet was their main source of news. With online journalism offering opportunities for niche markets like never before, fragmentation of the media audience is also occurring. The audience is fragmented because the forms are.

As Mancini outlined in his lecture, niche audiences create a problem of polarisation whereby ‘people talk to other people already sharing the same opinion’. The idea of a universal public sphere comes to an end, and with it comes severe consequences for a functioning democracy that is able to negotiate between different perspectives and points of view.

This idea dovetails with aspects of Lindsay Tanner’s argument in Sideshow. Tanner argues that media outlets desperate to hang onto audiences (thanks to fragmentation and increased competition) tend not to challenge their audience’s views, but rather to reinforce them with increasingly strident rhetoric and sensationalism. Sideshow attracted the ire of a number of journalists and commentators who resent the blame that Tanner levels at the media, but he does argue persuasively that the relationship between the media and politics in Australia is increasingly destructive, with negative consequences for democracy.

Mancini indicated several times in his talk that it is emerging and fragile democracies that are most at risk of the effects of media fragmentation, including polarisation and a diminished ability of the media to play the role of watchdog over government. Yet even in Australia, in a strong and stable democracy, there is a persuasive argument for the case that our sphere of public debate is increasingly fraught.

O’Neill’s confusions

On Saturday, The Australian ran a comment piece by Brendan O’Neill in which he argues that ‘greens’ are anti-free speech by supposedly attempting to censor any hint of climate change scepticism. Some of the examples he uses include journalist Margo Kingston’s comment about climate change denialism being a crime against humanity. The comment was made in 2005 in the context of David Irving’s arrest for Holocaust denialism, and has already been used by plenty of commentators who think that ‘the green movement’ is trying to shut down free speech; including by O’Neill himself back in 2006.

O’Neill’s comment peice conveniently neglects to mention that while the occasional ‘green’ may have accused climate change sceptics of denialism akin to Holocaust denialism, one such sceptic has already gone several steps further in misappropriating the legacy of the Holocaust. I’m speaking, of course, of Lord Christopher Monkton. Perhaps O’Neill, as a recent arrival in Australian public debate, is not aware of Monkton’s comparison between Professor Ross Garnaut and Adolf Hitler. At a conference in Los Angeles in June this year, Monkton displayed a picture of a swastika beside a quote from Garnaut, and directly referred to Hitler (in relation to Garnaut) in his speech. Monkton’s act constituted misappropriation of Nazism on a much grander scale than anything that O’Neill has to complain about.

O’Neill is also guilty of a fallacy in his article. He assumes that because Al Gore and Margo Kingston are part of what he describes as ‘the green movement’, and that because they see climate change denial as an offence, that therefore the ‘green movement’ as a whole would like to censor the speech of climate skeptics. The ‘green movement’, or ‘greens’, in O’Neill’s usage, appears to be a generalisation applied to those who support the science of human-driven climate change, and therefore must include people from both sides of the political spectrum and from all walks of life who hold this view. The individuals that O’Neill mentions, however, do not speak on behalf of this diverse group of people, so quite apart from the tenuous nature of his argument, it is hardly accurate to attribute the views of non-representative individuals to an entire movement.

Frankly, the ‘green movement’ has bigger things to worry about than climate change deniers – namely, getting on with the business of mitigating the effects and slowing the process of climate change.

Whose ABC? My ABC.

The front page of the Inquirer in Saturday’s Australian was devoted to ‘Whose ABC?’, an article by journalist and former political staffer Chris Kenny. Attacks on the ABC re-emerge with such regularity that it is almost tiring, and most such articles exhibit a stubborn willingness to admit that the ABC might actually be of immense value to sectors of society. Kenny’s piece is no different.

The article questions the appeal of the ABC to the ‘mainstream’, or to ‘middle Australia’. If the ABC were to adapt accordingly, in order to appeal to Kenny’s conception of these groups, one assumes that ABC 1 would end up looking like the commercial television stations. If so, then people like me would have nowhere to turn except to SBS for media content that interests them.

Commercial television has nothing for me. News and current affairs programs on the commercial stations are sensationalised, insular and often downright offensive in the assumptions they make about their viewer’s values. I have little interest in the AFL, and few of the ‘mainstream’ movies that screen on Channels 7, 9 and 10 appeal to me. I have no interest in ‘reality’ TV, Dancing with the Stars, or MasterChef. Nor would I waste my time watching American crime drama. The commercial channels represent few of my interests (even in their advertising), don’t examine issues that I consider important in any depth, and frankly bore me.

So I watch the ABC and SBS. Admittedly the ABC is not for everyone, which always prompts questions about the use of taxpayers’ money. However, a core part of the ABC’s aim is to fill a gap in the market. Kenny suggests that the ABC isn’t fulfilling this aim, drawing on comments about The Drum website, but in my view, programs such as Q&A, Four Corners and Media Watch certainly do fill a gap in the market.

These programs contain content that does not ‘dumb down’ the audience. They contain content that encourages critical thinking and that seeks both to inform and to challenge viewers; content that, in my view, cannot reliably be found on the commercial channels.

While Kenny lampoons the supposed Left-wing bias of the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien, Channel 7 and 10 give Right-wing presenters such as David Koch and Andrew Bolt free rein to state their biased opinions on national television. Sunrise, one of Channel 7’s flagship programs, featured ‘Kochie’ beckoning to viewers in the wake of a news report on protests at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.

‘If you’re watching at Villawood,’ said Koch, ‘come in close: Australians have a great sense of fairness – when you do things like that, we say, on your bike fella, get back out again, don’t take advantage of us.’

It’s a prime example of a presenter telling the audience what they should think, and it completely lacks any in-depth analysis of the issue. Admittedly Sunrise is an entertainment show more than anything else, but that kind of overt bias exhibited immediately after a news item is definitely not quality TV.

I also disagree with Kenny’s argument that the ABC offers nothing for rural audiences. For my family in Victoria’s high country, the radio in the kitchen is permanently tuned to ABC, and it is a lifeline of support each summer when fire danger is high. ABC 1 also presents Landline, a long-running program that comprehensively examines a variety of rural issues. Landline was a regular part of my media diet as a child, and it made me aware of the incredible complexity and diversity of rural life in Australia, outside of the rural environment that I was already familiar with.

I am also worried by the use of terms such as ‘mainstream values’ and ‘suburban values’, with the ABC apparently being out of touch with the groups that represent these values. ‘Mainstream values’ is a term thrown around on a regular basis, but defining what it encompasses is impossible. Who gets to say what these values are? Who belongs to the category of the so-called ‘mainstream’? It is incredibly short-sighted if ‘mainstream’ is defined by images such as the nuclear family and a house in the suburbs – images that dominate the commercial media’s prime-time advertising.

Early in the article Kenny puts forward the assumption, supposedly ‘for argument’s sake’, that the critics are correct and that the ABC’s content and analysis is skewed to the Left. This point of view (analysed in more depth by Queensland journalist Derek Barry) persists throughout the article, with no attempt made to challenge it, nor to consider an opposing angle. Thus Kenny’s piece of writing, attacking the relevance of the ABC and accorded a prominent position in Australia’s only national broadsheet, operates on a mere ‘assumption’ throughout.

‘Mallee bulls’ tear up the turf at ADFA

at the Australian Defence Force Academy

On 6 April 2011 an 18-year old female cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) went to the media with a story that has shaken the military.

A couple of weeks earlier this cadet, Kate, had consensual sex with a male cadet, also 18 years old. What she didn’t realise at the time was that the other cadet had set the whole thing up to be filmed on a webcam. It was transmitted via Skype to a watching group of six male cadets in an adjoining room.

Kate may never have known about this if it wasn’t that one of the watching cadets reported it to superiors at ADFA.

The Skype sex scandal is the kind of incident with the potential to shake the establishment, not least because it occurred within an institution that has a responsibility to uphold some pretty firm values. It’s prompted questions about whether sexism in this form is embedded within our culture as a whole, or within subcultures in Australian society.

Ironically, the scandal has fallen out of the media and been superseded by weeks of coverage of one particular wedding, and of a woman named Kate who has found herself in a very different situation.

In the midst of the royal wedding coverage, the media on Friday 29 April did report that two of the young men involved in the ADFA Skype scandal had fronted the ACT Magistrates Court.

Back at the beginning of April, there was talk that the principle male player in the incident, Daniel McDonald, could be charged with rape, since the situation in which the female cadet consented to sex was misrepresented to her. Instead, the charges he faces are “using a carriage service to cause offence” and “committing an act of indecency”.

These are charges that don’t have much of a ring to their name, and that aren’t likely to stick to a young man’s reputation in the way that the single word “rape” would.

Instead, the men involved continue their studies at ADFA, where officer cadets essentially study a university degree while also taking on board the culture of the Defence Force, for better or worse.

This notion of culture, and of a sexist culture particular to the Forces, is one of the biggest issues to come out of the whole scandal.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith initiated a series of reviews into various areas of the Defence Force as soon as the news of the Skype abuse came out. One of these is an enquiry into the treatment of women at ADFA, to be conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

Meanwhile, ABC News Online reported that ADFA graduates denied any culture of sexism, and Australia Defence Association director Neil James appeared to blame the incident on a kind of unavoidable need for sex on behalf of young men at ADFA.

As reported by news.com.au and AAP, James described ADFA cadets as “fit as mallee bulls”, and in need of a sexual outlet from the “high pressure environment” that they are apparently in.

While James was careful to say that he didn’t condone the behaviour of the male cadets involved, he did describe Kate as “a bit of a troubled lass” because of some unrelated issues at ADFA.

One gets the impression that his “fit as mallee bulls” description wasn’t designed to be applicable to the women at ADFA – he was specifically talking about “bulls”, after all.

This in itself positions females as the sex outlet that James says the men (and boys – some of those involved are not yet 18) need. Sure, sex can be an outlet for all sorts of people, but the positioning of it in this manner – such that the woman provides the outlet to the man – by the head of the Defence Association appears indicative of some underlying problems.

Aside of James’ perhaps thoughtless comments, there’s also questions about what actually initiated the incident. What prompts a few young people to decide to broadcast an intimate act to others without consent of one of the involved parties?

These cadets had only been at ADFA for two months. They brought attitudes and values with them from the outside world. Two months probably wasn’t long enough to shake these attitudes to the core and replace them with entirely new values – thus many have argued that their behaviour has nothing to do with a culture particular to ADFA.

But two months was undoubtedly long enough for the cadets to sort themselves into social groups based on some of the attitudes and values they brought with them – and on how these attitudes fitted into ADFA’s existing culture.

It was long enough for them to figure out that being “fit as mallee bulls”, in spite of rules surrounding fraternisation, was what was expected of them.

It was also long enough for loyalty to the male friendship group to rank above loyalty to a female sexual partner. The betrayal here is enormous. Regardless of the level of emotional attachment between the two cadets – whether they slept together that day purely for sexual enjoyment or with a deeper level of feeling involved – it was still an intimate act.

It was an act that required some level of trust between the involved parties and that expected a level of discretion in return.

That this discretion and trust was so openly violated is evidence of this sense of loyalty to the male friendship group over the female sexual partner. That only one of the six watching cadets stepped forward is another indication.

Some commentators have suggested that all of these cadets should be immediately expelled from ADFA, with the possible exception of the one who blew the whistle. How can these young men be trusted on a battlefield if they cannot be trusted in the relatively low pressure environment of ADFA?

The discretion between partners is frequently betrayed in the way that groups of both men and women tell each other about their sexual exploits. Often, it’s done in a way that would upset the other party if they knew about it. Sometimes, it leads to a development of a “reputation”.

The positive or negative nature of this reputation is largely dependent on the gender of the person involved – evidenced in the well-known double standard applied to women who are described as sluts for behaviour that might earn a man a few approving slaps on the back from his mates.

The capturing of the actual act of sex on a webcam was premeditated in a way that the sharing of exploits after the fact usually isn’t – making the betrayal ten times worse.

Whether or not Broderick’s enquiry finds evidence of a culture of sexism within ADFA, this incident is a pretty clear indication that there are some serious issues in the way that women are perceived and treated within the Forces.

This article originally appeared in the Women’s Edition of La Trobe University’s student newspaper, Rabelais, on 12 May 2011.

Letter to The Age

Vale Labor values

I worry about the values of Julia Gillard’s Labor government in the light of the ‘Malaysia solution’. Instead of striking nonsensical deals with countries that are not signatories to the 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees, the government should be working to make the arrival of asylum seekers by boat into a non-issue. I am sick of hearing about ‘boat people’ and ‘queue jumpers’, terms that are meaningless and misleading.

I am also disgusted that 10 years on from Tampa and under a new government, the same scare tactics are used to make asylum seekers into a political football. What happened to Labor’s values? What happened to Prime Minister Gillard’s concept of a fair go? Clearly, it is not extended to those who have arrived in Australia under the harshest of conditions, and who deserve our compassion and care.

Published in The Age on 11 May 2011. It’s the second letter on this page.