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Nothing But The Truth
25 / 06 / 2015
Leading Sheilas this month, journalist Ruby Hamad (Daily Life, The Drum) considers the outrageous treatment of Gillian Triggs, in the context of not only Australia’s seemingly-default sexism towards any female tall poppy, but of a slow ‘death by a thousand lashes’ style march towards a less transparent, more ideologically-driven political sphere. When exactly did legitimate and necessary criticism morph into un-Australian and unfair bias to be greeted by a chorus of boo’s from the boys at the top?
For several months now, Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has been the target of a sustained attack from the Australian government.
Amongst other things, the government claims it has “lost confidence” in Triggs over her handling of a damning report into children in detention, calling her decision to delay the report’s release until after the Labor government’s defeat in 2013 an act of political partisanship.
The government also balked at her following comments, which they claimed linked the deaths of Bali Nine drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Mayuran Sukumuran to its asylum seeker policy:
“Boats have got to stop…But have we thought about what the consequences are of pushing people back to our neighbour Indonesia? Is it any wonder that Indonesia will not engage with us on other issues that we care about, like the death penalty?”
Speaking on the Bolt Report, immigration minister Peter Dutton called her statement an “outrageous slur,” suggesting she should resign:
“When you reduce the position (of president) to basically that of a political advocate, I think it is very difficult to continue on, and these are issues for Professor Triggs to contemplate.”
Speaker of the house, Bronwyn Bishop, reiterated the government’s stance on last week’s QandA program when she challenged Triggs to quit her statutory job and “stand for office and…become part of the political process.”
This has led to an outpouring of support for Triggs, including a campaign to see her voted next year’s Australian of the Year, a Twitter hashtag, #IStandWithGillianTriggs, and media commentary calling the government’s treatment an act of sexism, ranking alongside that meted out to former PM Julia Gillard.
While not discounting the role of sexism, I don’t believe that, in this particular instance, that sexism tells the whole, or even the bulk, of the story; the government’s campaign to see Triggs deposed is purely ideological.
The campaign against her- for that is exactly what it is- is a deliberate, concerted attempt to recast any and all criticism of the government’s policies as biased and baseless attacks.
This is not the first time the government has behaved in this churlish manner. Indeed, they had launched a similar campaign against public broadcaster, the ABC. Helped along by the Murdoch press, who published headlines as “Bias against Tony Abbott is truly sickening,” “ABC’s bias against Tony Abbott has its parallel in Britain,” and “Biased ABC out to destroy Abbott,” the government sought to undermine the integrity of the public broadcaster by claiming its coverage, including that of asylum seeker claims of mistreatment at the hands of the Australian navy, was unprofessional.
The ABC “took everyone’s side but Australia’s,” complained Abbott, suggesting the broadcaster should instead “show some affection for the home team,” as if politics is a sport and the media merely cheerleaders.
Putting aside Abbott’s extraordinary claim that the media should applaud him no matter what, which sounds disturbingly like a call for propaganda, even the idea that news organisations should always be “objective” in the journalistic sense is itself problematic. That’s because, due largely to its specific employment in journalism, the perception we have of objectivity differs somewhat from its actual dictionary definition.
To be objective is to set aside personal feelings and prejudices in order to form an opinion or judgement based on the available evidence. However, in media circles, objectivity has come to mean having no opinion at all (or at least pretending not to) and merely “balancing” opposing sides in controversial issues.
The idea that “both sides” have equal claim to the truth can be fraught with danger and unintended consequences. Action on climate change, for instance, was delayed for far too long because of the media’s pandering to so-called climate sceptics, presenting them as legitimate critiques. Indeed, in 2004 the journal Global Environmental Change found that, “the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.”
Simply presenting competing points of view in the interests of “objectivity” results in both sides being presented as if they have equal scientific weight, which is obviously not the case. Similarly, giving equal weight to anti-vaxxers only further harms the children at risk of catching diseases that had once been all but eradicated.
In other words, “balance” or “objectivity” can create a bias of its own. If Triggs were to refrain from criticising the government in the interests of this narrow definition of objectivity, then that too creates a bias in favour of the government by leaving them unaccountable for their harmful policies.
Even the UN is not safe from the government’s goal of dismissing all criticism directed against it in this manner. An unapologetic Tony Abbott rejected the UN’s objection to its asylum seeker policy (the UN claimed the Aust government had acted contrary to international law and the Refugee Convention it had willingly signed) with a childish, “I think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the UN.”
We should be wary of a government that demands its media, public figures, and even international bodies like the UN abstain from criticising it. As Triggs eloquently put it in her response to Bishop’s challenge on QandA.
“I am a statutory officer and that’s a position of independence which allows me to speak, based on the evidence and based on the law, as truthfully as I can to Government and to the Australian people and that is what I believe I have been doing. I have been meeting my statutory obligations. Indeed, were I to receive frequent praise and commendation from the Government, I think the Australian people would have a good reason to ask for my resignation.”
What Triggs is describing is objectivity in its truest sense. It’s dangerous territory to tread, to pretend that one must be neutral always, because that allows the status quo to continue, even when the status quo is clearly unjust – neutrality favours the powerful.
The government wants free reign to continue its dubious policies without transparency or accountability. Calling them to task on this may seem biased to them because it inhibits their gaols, but then, as US satirist Stephen Colbert quipped when parodying the tendency of the conservative Republican Party to also equate criticism with bias, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
As her Twitter handle describes, Ruby Hamad is a “Vegan. Feminist. Writer.“ Hailing from Sydney, Ruby’s writing often focuses on feminism and race. She writes regularly for Fairfax’s Daily Life website (her story archive is here), for ABC’s The Drum website (archive here), and is currently working on her first book. Follow her on Twitter on @rubyhamad. (photo by Onni Elliott)