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In a final interview as race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane condemns politicians and media organisations for profiting from racism, and warns it will get worse. Mike Seccombe reports. By Mike Seccombe.

Who is making money out of racism?

In a famous 2010 episode of the animated satire The Simpsons, a Fox News helicopter swoops down over New York City and hovers beside the Statue of Liberty so a besuited network executive can step off, literally into the statue’s head.

The chopper is emblazoned with the slogan: “Not racist, but #1 with racists”.

At the time, the episode made big news, not only for the brilliance of its juxtaposition of Fox’s race-baiting with the prime symbol of American multiculturalism, but also for its daring – given that The Simpsons is part of the same Murdoch media empire as Fox. The show took multiple other shots at Fox News, too, for its fostering of the worst aspects of right-wing politics in the United States.

As The Simpsons executive producer, Al Jean, subsequently explained, the network anticipated the controversy as something positive, both for his show and for Fox News.

“Both ends of it benefit the ultimate News Corp agenda,” he said.

More even than the “racists” gag, Jean’s frank admission spoke to the cynical intent of Fox – to profit from prejudice.

Fox News, established in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch, with Republican Party media adviser – and inveterate sexual harasser – Roger Ailes at the helm, was not the first media organisation to exploit bigotry and ignorance for financial and political advantage, but it is surely the most successful. It is consistently the most-watched of the big US cable networks and is now the key reference point for a president just as chauvinistic, as eager to court controversy and as cavalier with the truth as it is. Both seek to gain by dividing society.

Success breeds imitation, in this country as in the US. Here, too, those who would be “#1 with racists” are increasingly noticeable, although they are not often called out on it. But this week they were, by a person with a uniquely close-up view.

On Monday, in a final address entitled “Confronting the Return of Race Politics”, and again on Tuesday when he sat down with The Saturday Paper, Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s outgoing race discrimination commissioner, condemned what he calls “the monetisation of racism”.

“Sections of a fracturing media industry, under the strain of technological disruption, seem to be using racism as part of their business model,” he told his audience at the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University.

“Faced with competition from a proliferation of news and entertainment sources, some media outlets are using racial controversies to grab attention …”

Discussing that Simpsons episode in particular, he elaborated to The Saturday Paper: “Publicity is the currency of media organisations and the more controversy that is generated, the better it is for many of the media outlets involved in the airing of bigoted views.”

As coincidence would have it, a perfect example presented itself this week in the form of the controversy over the appearance by Blair Cottrell – a self-acknowledged racist with a nasty past – on a program hosted by the former Coalition politician, Adam Giles, on Murdoch’s Australian pay TV outlet, Sky News.

Lost among all the fuss about Cottrell’s background was the detail of what he said in that interview. He spoke about a lack of Australian national pride. He advocated a migration program focused on people “not too culturally dissimilar from us”, bringing white South Africans to Australia and stopping the import of black Africans. He condemned African crime gangs in Melbourne.

In sum, he didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before by senior members of the current government, including Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, former prime minister Tony Abbott, Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge and even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Cottrell even singled Dutton out for praise. His tone was actually more moderate than that of many other commentators featured on Sky and in other Murdoch media.

Yet Sky apologised for having Cottrell on, and put Giles’s show “in recess”.

Why?

Consider the consequences. Sky canned – at least for the time being – a show watched by a tiny number on a Sunday night. In return it garnered vast free publicity in virtually every media outlet in the country, as commentators with vastly bigger audiences lined up to bag what one called the “human centipede of jabbering trolls” on Sky News’s evening programming. 

Even Sky’s political editor, David Speers, delivered an on-air condemnation of his network’s decision to feature Cottrell, whom he described as a “neo-Nazi”.

To Soutphommasane, the ginned-up controversy over an otherwise unremarkable interview on a dull and little-watched program, is but one of many examples of how media outlets – Murdoch outlets foremost among them – seek to monetise racism.

“Just because Sky is watched by a small audience doesn’t mean we should downplay the potential it has to do damage,” he says.

Of course, not all the race-baiters have small audiences. In his speech, Soutphommasane cited another very recent example.

“Just last week,” he said, “News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt argued that we are seeing a ‘tidal wave of immigration’ overwhelming Australia – that Jews, Indians and Chinese were forming ethnic ‘colonies’ across the country. Clearly, we are seeing a challenge to the non-discriminatory immigration program that Australia has conducted since the end of the White Australia policy.”

This was, he said, all part of a resurgent appeal to racism, directed to political ends, which has unfortunately coincided with his five years as race discrimination commissioner.

Soutphommasane was appointed to the role in August 2013, just before the fall of the Rudd Labor government.

“Shortly after I started, the Abbott government was elected, and it had promised in the election campaign to change the Racial Discrimination Act,” he tells me.

“That was the first challenge I had: to defend this legislation.”

Twice the government tried to water down section 18C of the act, first under the leadership of Tony Abbott in 2014 and then under Malcolm Turnbull in 2017. And twice it failed, opposed in the Senate and by an extraordinary coalition of ethnic groups, as well as the large majority of Australians – 78 to 88 per cent, according to polls.

“We had absolute solidarity,” Soutphommasane says. “Between Aboriginal communities and ethnic and multicultural communities. This has been a fight that has galvanised disparate groups who otherwise would not be working together. When do Jews and Arabs work together? But they have been in lockstep the whole way through the five years I’ve been in this job.”

But past failure has not, he says, deterred the political right and its media surrogates from flogging this particular horse.

As he said in his Whitlam Institute speech, the race debate has not been shut down. Not when “The Australian has devoted hundreds of thousands of words to attacking the Racial Discrimination Act; when there are regular beat-ups on race in the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph; when nocturnal panels on Sky News endlessly berate multicultural political correctness; when Pauline Hanson makes regular appearances on Sunrise and Today

“From broadsheet to tabloid newspapers, from breakfast to night-time viewing on television, and from backbenchers to the most senior members of government, there’s plenty of race-baiting happening.”

As he leaves his position, Soutphommasane fears worse to come.

“I’ve spoken about race politics and sections of the media trying to cash in on racism, but I believe there will be further attempts to weaken the institutional architecture we have established against discrimination,” says Soutphommasane.

“There’s a significant section of the parliament extremely annoyed that it did not manage to get a change to 18C. I noticed just this [Tuesday] morning that Cory Bernardi was out soliciting signatures for a petition to change 18C. There are many people chomping at the bit for another crack at the legislation.

“Christian Porter, the attorney-general, has said he has a desire to rename or refocus this statutory office. That can only be done if you change the terms of the act. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, but I do find Porter’s statements troubling. What he has said about racism suggests he is not a friend of racial equality and not a friend of the RDA.”

But why? Why continue to attack a policy that has, by measures both objective and subjective – such as the overwhelming support of the populace – been of such benefit to the nation?

“Red meat to the base,” Soutphommasane says.

“This appears to reflect the ascendency of a particular brand of identity politics, practised by the conservative side in Australia right now. It’s an identity politics defined by cultural anger, racial resentment and a desire to put minorities in their place. You see that in the 18C debate, through debates about multiculturalism – you’re seeing an attempt to assert a more muscular, Anglo-Celtic form of national identity.

“I would imagine many of those who have been most enthusiastic about repealing section 18C would also feel very strongly about punishing any university that does not agree to host the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. This is the ideological universe in which some people live. They genuinely believe that 18C, the Ramsay Centre, privatisation of the ABC, represent the most pressing political issues of the day.

“This should worry mainstream citizens in our society because it shows there is a section of the political class that is significantly removed from reality.”

He notes, also, that the appeals to racism made by the media and politicians in this country have intensified since Donald Trump was elected in America.

And that suggests something else: that the elevation of race as an issue also serves as a valuable distraction for conservative forces whose real agenda is economic.

While Trump’s electoral base – disproportionately older, white, ill-educated, underpaid and male – was diverted by Muslim travel bans, walls to keep out Mexican “rapists”, outrage at black footballers “taking a knee” and sundry other race-oriented distractions, Trump and his party made like bandits, pushing through tax cuts that gave 80 per cent of the benefit to 1 per cent of the population.

Perhaps the true agenda here is more akin to class warfare: the manipulation of the base instincts of the mob to the benefit of one racial group, in particular, rich white folks.

That’s how you monetise racism, big time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "Who is making money out of racism?". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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