How the Murdoch press keeps Australia's dirty secret

12 May 2011

The illegal eavesdropping on famous people by the News of the World is said to be Rupert Murdoch’s Watergate. But is it the crime by which Murdoch ought to be known? In his native land, Australia, Murdoch controls 70 per cent of the capital city press. Australia is the world’s first murdochracy, in which smear by media is power.


The most enduring and insidious Murdoch campaign has been against the Aboriginal people, who were dispossessed by the arrival of the British in the late 18th century and have never been allowed to recover. “Nigger hunts” continued into the 1960s and beyond. The officially-inspired theft of  children from Aboriginal families, justified by the racist theories of the eugenics movement, produced those known as the Stolen Generation and in 1997 was identified as genocide. Today, the first Australians have the shortest life expectancy of any of the world’s 90 indigenous peoples. Australia imprisons Aborigines at five times the rate South Africa during the apartheid years. In the state of Western Australia, the figure is eight times the apartheid rate.  


Political power in Australia often rests in the control of resource-rich land. Most of the uranium, iron ore, gold, oil and natural gas is in Western Australia and Northern Territory – on Aboriginal land.  Indeed, Aboriginal “progress” is all but defined by the mining industry and its political guardians in both Labor and coalition (conservative) governments. Their faithful, strident voice is the Murdoch press. The exceptional, reformist Labor government of Gough Whitlam in the 1970s set up a royal commission that made clear that social justice for Australia’s first people would only be achieved with universal land rights and a share the national wealth with dignity. In 1975, Whitlam was sacked by the governor-general in a “constitutional coup”. The Murdoch press had turned on Whitlam with such venom that rebellious journalists on The Australian burned their newspaper in the street.


In 1984, the Labor Party “solemnly pledged” to finish what Whitlam had begun and legislate Aboriginal land rights. This was opposed by the then Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, a “mate” of Rupert Murdoch. Hawke blamed the public for being “less compassionate”; but a secret 64-page report to the party revealed that most Australians supported land rights. This was leaked to The Australian, whose front page declared, “Few support Aboriginal land rights”, the opposite of the truth, thus feeding an atmosphere of self-fulfilling distrust, “backlash” and rejection of rights that would distinguish Australia from South Africa. In 1988, an editorial in Murdoch’s London tabloid, the Sun, described “the Abos” as “treacherous and brutal”. This was condemned by the UK Press Council as “unacceptably racist”.


The Australian publishes long articles that present Aboriginal people not unsympathetically but as perennial victims of each other, “an entire culture committing suicide”, or as noble primitives requiring firm direction: the eugenicist’s view. It promotes Aboriginal “leaders” who, by blaming their own people for their poverty, tell the white elite what it wants to hear. The writer Michael Brull parodied this: “Oh White man, please save us. Take away our rights because we are so backward.” 


This is also the government’s view. In railing against what it called the “black armband view” of Australia’s past, the conservative government of John Howard encouraged and absorbed the views of white supremacists -- that there was no genocide, no Stolen Generation, no racism; indeed, whites are the victims of “liberal racism”. A collection of far-right journalists, minor academics and hangers-on became the antipodean equivalent of David Irving Holocaust deniers. Their platform has been the Murdoch press. 


Andrew Bolt, columnist on Murdoch’s Melbourne Herald-Sun tabloid, is currently the defendant in a racial vilification case brought by nine prominent Aborigines, including Larissa Behrendt, a professor of law and indigenous studies in Sydney. Behrendt has been an authoritative and outspoken opponent of Howard’s 2007 “emergency intervention” in the Northern Territory, which the Labor government of Julia Gillard has reinforced. The rationale to “intervene” was that child abuse among Aborigines was in “unthinkable numbers”. This was a fraud. Out of 7,433 Aboriginal children examined by doctors, four possible cases were identified – about the rate of child abuse in white Australia.  What this covered was an old-fashioned colonial grab of mineral-rich land in the Northern Territory where Aboriginal land rights were granted in 1976.


The Murdoch press has been the most lurid and vociferous in its promotion of the “intervention”, which a United Nations special rapporteur has condemned for its racial discrimination. Once again, Australian politicians are dispossessing the first inhabitants, demanding leasehold of land in return for health and education rights that whites take for granted and driving them into “economically viable hubs” where they will be effectively detained -- a form of apartheid. 


The outrage and despair of most Aboriginal people is not heard. For using her institutional voice and exposing the government’s black supporters, Larissa Behrendt has been subjected to a vicious campaign of innuendo in the Murdoch press, including the implication that she is not a “real” Aborigine. Using the language of its soulmate the London Sun, the Australian derides the “abstract debate” of “land rights, apologies, treaties” as a “moralizing mumbo-jumbo spreading like a virus”. The aim is to silence those who dare tell Australia’s dirty secret.