A shot on the news showed guns firing in a salute for the opening of the 41st Australian Parliament. What you didn’t see a few metres to one side were the hundreds of demonstrators who had gathered to support justice for refugees still held in Baxter detention centre and other camps fenced in by barbed wire.
The 7pm ABC News bulletin ran the opening of Parliament as one of its leads. Amid the pomp and ceremony we saw the Black Rod banged against the doors; the new speaker escorted to his chair. It was all there: the quiet neatness of tradition. But nowhere to be seen were the colourful, passionate and freewheeling groups of demonstrators. As they voiced support for the excluded, so too they were themselves excised.
Is this what people call bias? To some critics, the word ‘bias’ and the ABC fit like hand in glove. Former Communications Minister Alston appears almost unhinged in his pursuit of ‘bias’ in the ABC’s coverage of the Iraq war. To him it is at the level of semantics, or a sly tone of voice. But here in front of the 41st Parliament was something on a much grander scale. It was wholesale selection of the daily agenda, not only for airing that night but perhaps for John Howard’s entire fourth term. The word bias does not really convey the scale of this agenda setting. It is not so much a sin of distortion, of deliberate misrepresentation, or slanted commentary. No, it is more a crime of omission. If bias is to be wielded against some players, then here we saw many of them not even allowed onto the field. No manner of verbal bludgeoning could be construed as bias to one side or the other. The gates had been locked. Those outside were outside the field of bias.
Just who was outside? Here’s a clue. They included, at least in the eyes of the media, the disgraced and non-performing Andrew Bartlett and Bob Brown. Democrats and Greens so clearly ‘rejected’ by the electorate. A Labor senator or two. But they didn’t have catchy nicknames such as the Glimmer Twins. Young speakers from Chilout – why weren’t they at school? (Don’t want to re-ignite the ‘values’ debate!) There were students, refugees, women in black, senior citizens. True believers but are they true consumers? Not likely. No designer labels. Not much radical chic. Placards simply don’t have the power of legions of credit cards. Are they players on the national stage? Well, no. According to the same ABC news bulletin the next big agenda item is to be Industrial Relations. Think tank types are already queuing up to bash the unions. In their view, everyone is an aspirational voter free of the shackles of class warfare.
On 27 January The Australian ran an editorial saying that it would be “entirely welcome” if border protection and refugees did not dominate the 2004 election as they did the last. Rupert Murdoch had his wish. The script had been written like all good soapies with the story line plotted out for months in advance. Then the hack writers step in to fill out the detail.
TV News is a sham. Not reporting events but hard at work to reconstruct and remix events to fit a preconceived story line. At the opening of the 41st Parliament the plot was all set to unfold. The news media has already written out justice and its emblems. In its place is the myth of a prosperous country.