Daniel James
Stan Grant and the anti-Voice trolls

Late last week the seemingly impossible happened. Stan Grant, a veteran Wiradjuri journalist, with a 40-year career spanning commercial news outlets at home and abroad before his arrival at the ABC, announced he was taking a break. During his time at the national broadcaster, Grant had quickly become much sought after for his expertise on local and international affairs, and this year was chosen to host the network’s flagship show, Q+A.

Earlier this month, the ABC asked Grant to contribute to a panel covering the coronation of Charles III – the perfect forum, or perhaps the perfect storm. The crowning of a foreigner in whose name so many acts of atrocity and oppression had been committed was ripe for comment – and comment Grant did. As he was asked to do. The reaction was foreseeable, but not its length or breadth.

Of all the journalists covering or commenting on national conversations, Grant seemed to be among the most impervious to baiting from online trolls and News Corp – the troll farm in whose manure they sprout and flourish. Each week its minions are seeding more trivial yet more hurtful campaigns, all in the name of “entertainment”. As revealed in the Dominion Voting Systems v Fox News Network case, it’s not about principle, it’s about profit. Holding onto and growing an audience.

Yet Grant, even in the heaviest storms, would go about his work without the slightest reference to criticism, or to the hate that would turn up in his inbox on a daily basis.

So his announcement, followed by a stirring speech on Monday’s Q+A, came as a shock to many of us who thought he was beyond the monotonous barbs of hate and criticism. But as he said in his closing address, “I’ve had to learn that endurance is not always strength”.

It’s a pertinent point in 2023, in this year of the referendum that is testing us all, especially First Nations people. Many of us are learning some things are beyond endurance, and that’s a depressing thought when we’re still several months away from casting a vote. History tells us campaigns of any kind, especially close ones – which this referendum will be – become uglier, looser with the truth and more incendiary the nearer we get to polling day.

The treatment of Grant by the media and in particular News Corp – with more than 150 mentions of his one-hour appearance as a panellist in the ABC’s eight hours of coronation coverage – can easily be characterised as harassment. It is part of the foreign-owned company’s bid to destabilise and ultimately destroy the national broadcaster. Grant, a First Nations man speaking his views in the year of a referendum on Indigenous recognition and the crowning of a new monarch, was ripe for the sharp end of News Corp’s blade.

With all this happening in plain sight, it is unforgivable that the national broadcaster, and the people in positions of authority within it, left their “go-to man” to swing in the breeze, to weather the relentless onslaught on his own. Intended or otherwise, it sent a signal to every First Nations journalist within the organisation: that when the going gets tough, really tough, the ABC won’t have their back, at a time when wraparound support of First Nations presenters, producers and journalists must be galvanised. As someone who frequents the place from time to time, I know it’s affecting morale and a lot of work will have to be done to regain trust.

The events of the past week alone, and all the pitched battles in and around the referendum, are making 2023 seem like one long, seething January. In recent years, many of us have come to lament the calendar turning over at New Year. It’s the start of a tediously long month, Christmas fare barely digested before we’re once again heading to the front line of the culture wars to defend true history, as the Australia Day/Invasion Day debate inevitably flares up again. This year, First Nations people are being asked to account for themselves every day, to friend and foe alike, in the lead-up to the referendum.

We, as First Nations people, are constantly asked to explain ourselves when it comes to the Voice, which is revealing in itself. It is perhaps a sign the “Yes” campaign isn’t, as yet, cutting through. Campaigners for “Yes” will be quick to remind us their national campaign has yet to formally launch.

Yet we as First Nations people are asked about the referendum and its detail wherever we go, often asked without any insight into the motivation of the questioner. We’re asked for “more detail” – a rhetorical question posed by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, knowing full well it will be for the parliament itself to determine the shape and size of the Voice.

Dutton went full-on hyperbolic in his attacks on the Voice in parliament this week, claiming it “will have an Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others”.

“If the Voice is embedded in our constitution, there will be little to rejoice for when we sing the second line of our national anthem – ‘For we are one and free’. For instead of being ‘one’, we will be divided – in spirit, and in law.”

Such hammy rhetoric may prove to be the “Yes” campaign’s best asset. In its absurdity, it is mildly amusing. It also doesn’t leave the opposition leader much further to go with his embellished language, unless News Corp builds a scaremonger amp that goes to 11.

It all leads to a genuine question: Is Australia mature enough to have a meaningful and respectful national conversation?

Things as they are, it’s too early to tell. But the signs aren’t good, when even one the great thinkers and orators of our time, Noel Pearson, seems to have frayed nerves. His extraordinary attack on another widely respected member of the First Nations community, Mick Gooda, whom he described as a “bedwetter” for questioning the form of words put forward by the referendum working party, of which Pearson is a member, suggests maybe 2023 is getting to him, too.

As much as this national conversation can be gauged through social media, masochists – or long-term users of Twitter, as we’re also known – have begun to notice an unruly but somehow organised campaign against the “Yes” vote. It seems something larger is happening under the bonnet at Twitter, as almost every tweet in favour of the Voice has been met with racist misinformation and personal attacks. Much of this hate-filled drivel is informed by News Corp pundits under the guise of free speech.

These attackers relentlessly prosecute their opposition and troll supporters of the Voice or anyone showing sympathy to the plight of people such as Grant or Senator Lidia Thorpe, two people so different in many ways except they are both “uppity blacks” – both prepared to speak truth to power. Thorpe in particular is subjected to the most vile sexist and racist comments from trolls on a daily basis, without relent, and little seems to be done by social media platforms, least of all Twitter, to stop the torrent. Such treatment is part of Australia’s strong history of cutting down anyone who gets above what’s deemed their station in life – consider the fate of Adam Goodes. Similar lines are dished out by “No” campaigners Warren Mundine, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Dutton, whether through direct statements or dog whistles.

It’s a vile machine, and Stan Grant found himself wound up in this circuitry, simply through his critique of the monarchy.

It makes for a dangerous time for strong yet vulnerable First Nations communities. The level of unfettered racist vitriol doesn’t just affect those at whom it is targeted. It affects those who are witness to it, particularly the spectacle of loved ones being piled on by bots, trolls and everyday Australians for daring to speak up. It also has an impact on those interested in this national debate – it has a stymieing effect on anyone thinking of raising their voice for or against the question we’re all being asked. Of course, that’s the way some like it. A healthy democracy relies on the active participation and informed decision-making of its citizens, and not everyone wants a healthy democracy.

As for our national broadcaster, the ABC – the place where people go to seek truth and balance, away from the hysterics and partisan squelching of News Corp – has proved incapable of understanding the true nature of the referendum debate and the damage that it is inflicting on its own staff.

Because Stan Grant has a voice, he resides in a place of privilege and prestige, as he readily admits. Many will say, “He has a voice and look what they did to him.”

Ultimately, it’s a sad but inevitable fact of the referendum that the subtext to the question will be: Do we want to let all the racists and the hateful off the leash?

A “No” vote will embolden the worst among us. In turn, it will result in more imprisonment, more premature death, more mistrust and less understanding at a time when the sanctions for being a climate protester are far greater than for anyone committing hate speech.

Those rallying around the “Yes” campaign will remind us we have been here for 60,000 years and we are still unbroken. I, for one, will remember that. But I will also remember all of those we have lost – many far too early – along the way. As much as we commit ourselves to their memory, we also must remind ourselves to take better care of one another, because selflessness is a road without a horizon.

This is going to be a long year. The next may prove even longer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "Road without a horizon".

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