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March 05th 2015 print

Roger Franklin

The Exterminator Is Overdue

Media coverage of Gillian Triggs' turn before a Senate committee manifested more than the gallery's standard-issue bias and groupthink fealties, it was also a record of glaring partisanship in what it failed to report. Turn on the lights, Mr Abbott, and watch those hacks dash for the skirting board

cockroachOne day, as Franz Kafka related, salesman Gregor Samsa awoke to find that he had become a cockroach, a species the author didn’t bother to tell us comes equipped with primitive, compound eyes. To the extent entomologists can know how such a creature perceives the world, some believe those organs sense no more than the presence and intensity of light and, in the more advanced breeds, perhaps ill-defined outlines. Today, after a full week of words about Gillian Triggs, her appearance before a Senate committee and the Human Rights Commission report on those allegedly “forgotten” children in detention, we can be confident – indeed, absolutely certain – that poor Gregor would be much happier were he to have undergone his transformation other than when and where he did. As a cockroach his prospects for success as a travelling salesman were decidedly limited. At The Age, Sydney Morning Herald or ABC he would fit right in with the other forms of life scuttling about the newsrooms.

Samsa’s first recommendation for a career in journalism, or what passes for it, would be that vision thing and the limits it places on actually seeing more than a single, simple, one-dimensional blob of black-on-white. The point is easy to illustrate, thanks to the Parliament’s practice of videotaping all proceedings, including the Senate hearing before which Triggs last week appeared. What the proverbial man from Mars would observe in viewing that tape is chaos and rampaging disorder, a proceeding supposedly invested with the dignity of the Parliament but reduced by a coven of Labor ladies and Sarah Hanson-Young, that ubiquitous public nuisance, to such depths of – there is only one term for it – howling bitchiness that Committee Chairman Ian MacDonald must at times have wondered if he had wandered into the first scene of Macbeth, as staged by the Callan Park asylum’s drama-therapy group.

Interrupted deliberately and often, insulted to his face, jeered at, blitzed with snide asides and barbed sarcasm, MacDonald perhaps received no more than a politician’s due. The Parliament, however, its authority and every citizens’ expectation that elected representatives will be free to inquire on their behalf – this is what the Triggs Auxiliary quite deliberately set out to debase and demean. In this they succeeded admirably, not least in having their version of what transpired reported as gospel. “Female senators were also being barked at by Senator O’Sullivan and the committee’s chairman, Senator Ian MacDonald,” insisted youthful Fairfax scribbler and “immigration correspondent” Sarah Whyte, who would seem seem to have a weakness for reporting the improbable meme as unqualified  truth. Somehow, amid all that male barking, Whyte entirely overlooked the eruption of female cattiness which prompted it.

None of the uterine militia’s antics rated more than the merest of passing mentions in the next day’s press, nor the days thereafter, as a chairman’s mugging was depicted via some remarkable consensus as the exact opposite. It was Saint Gillian, the evasive centre of the hearing’s attention, who had been beaten up and insulted. She was the messenger shot, the woman demeaned, her ordeal the paradigm for patriarchal oppression, glass ceilings and all the many and endless what-have-you slights of phallocratic injustice.

You really need a simple cockroach’s dumb vision to see things in terms of those blocked-out, flash-card slogans, but that is what the press imagined it witnessed and dutifully reported. Gregor’s myopia would have done him proud on the day, because it is the press pack’s twitching antennae that these days do the real work of recognising and defining what constitutes “news”. Tuned to the vibe of social media, the hot buzz and latest talking points, the press gang picks up all the approved signals, amplifies them and waves them on to its broader audience. Sad, really, because a straight-bat account of the hearing itself, with all its clowns and circus antics, would have made a great story. What a pity the hacks couldn’t see it, let alone report the many scenes like that which is captured on the transcript’s page 52:

Senator O’SULLIVAN: She said, ‘It sounds like a bribe to me,’ referring to the passage of evidence given by the secretary.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, I did not hear the comment, but if you did say that, then I would ask you to withdraw that and apologise to the secretary.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I will not be withdrawing.

CHAIR: Well, can I indicate, Senator Hanson-Young, I will not be calling you again. Well, first of all, can I establish—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: No, you cannot do that.

Senator WONG: You cannot do that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You cannot just gag senators because you do not like what they say, I am sorry.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: There is no naughty corner!

CHAIR: Can I establish that you did say those words?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I said, ‘This sounds like a bribe.’ Smells like a bribe, sounds like a bribe — what we are trying to work out is whether it is.

CHAIR: Well, that is a reflection on the secretary —

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: We are trying to work out whether it is.

CHAIR: I ask you to withdraw and apologise and, until you do that, I will

not be calling you.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Perhaps it was Senator Brandis’s idea in the first place, is what we are trying to work out.

Senator WONG: Well, it is.

Senator Brandis: Well, might I —

CHAIR: Whether it is to the secretary or to Senator Brandis, it is equally offensive and I would ask you again —

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Well, let’s go through the evidence. Let’s get through the questions and go through the evidence —

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, would you please be quiet when I am ma

king a ruling, and the ruling is that you should withdraw and apologise, otherwise I will not be —

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: On what basis, Chair? I would like to know —

CHAIR: Please do not interrupt when I am making a ruling. Common courtesy and manners would indicate that —

Senator WONG: Except when you interrupt everyone else, Chair.

CHAIR: And the same for you, Senator Wong. I have no hesitation—

Senator WONG: If you had some consistency, Chair, then you might have some respect.

CHAIR: Senator Wong, you are reflecting on the chair, and, unless you apologise, I will not be calling you either.

Senator WONG: What am I apologising for?

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Well, I asked you to be consistent —

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, are you—

Senator WONG: I apologise for asking you to be consistent.

CHAIR: Senator Wong!

Senator WONG: You asked me to apologise.

CHAIR: I am speaking with Senator Hanson-Young and making a ruling.

Senator WONG: I apologise for asking you to be consistent.

CHAIR: I am not calling you. Sorry for raising my voice, but it is the only way that I can be heard above the yelling from each end of this table. Senator Hanson-Young, are you going to apologise and withdraw?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I would like to know on what basis I am being asked to withdraw, when my point—

(The video record can be found at this link. Mind you, as the video-player software was selected by public servants and paid for with taxpayers’ money, it almost goes without saying that it does not work very well, so the transcript may have to suffice. The latter omits most of the interjections and acts of blatant, incidental rudeness with which MacDonald had to contend, but you can still get a fair idea of the extent to which the Senate Sisterhood transgressed ladylike behaviour to protect a woman with so many questions to answer.)

It’s all there in the above minute-or-so of rapid-fire dialogue, a Canberra farce as might have been scripted by David Mamet, complete with his standard cast of dishonest, devious and self-interested charlatans and schemers. Notice in the extract above how Chairman MacDonald is hardly ever allowed to finish a sentence. He is endlessly tag-teamed, obliged to pivot constantly between the sniping of Hanson-Young’s passionate incoherence to his right and Penny Wong’s oleaginous sarcasm at far left. Together, they tie him in knots, reject with pouts and eye-rolling scorn his every plea and attempt to restore some semblance of order. For good measure, there is the further sabotage and bristling huffiness of irregular interjections from the likes of Senator Jacinta Collins, who aspires to gorgonism but seldom rises above the garrulously gratuitous.

At one point in the video record (but not the transcript), an unidentified female voice tells the chairman, already swamped by Hanson-Young’s moronic drool, that she would put him “in the naughty chair” if only one were handy. Just imagine the reaction if the attackers and their victim were to reverse roles and turn that infantalising wisecrack on its head. Can’t you picture the fury on the next day’s front pages, in that same evening’s edition of 7.30: “Women’s groups demand apology for ‘go play with your dolls’ slur”.

Julia Gillard’s record of achievement is negligible but here, in the caterwauling of the sisters she left behind, we see the twin strands of her real legacy: that possession of a uterus confirms a presumptive victimhood, which in turn grants immunity from the consequences of a narcissistic, self-indulgent eagerness to take offence at, well, anything and everything. Gillard was famously outraged that Tony Abbott sought hope of relief from her droning lies by glancing at his watch; incredibly, in the depths of a doomed politician’s hysteria, she even managed to find something sexist and sinister in his taste for blue ties. Grotesque as the woman herself, those inanities were nevertheless the banners behind which the harpy phalanx rallied, roared and rumbled forth, an army of sensible shoes on the march, to fill Fairfax opinion pages and Radio National slots with their adumbration of the then-Opposition Leader’s gendered hatred of all women.

And thus, by those same means and methods, was Gillian Triggs protected, not with a bodyguard of lies but by a barrage of bitchiness and the eager, obliging blindness of those in the gallery who found it expedient not to report the sisterhood’s ceaseless violations of dignity and decorum. That blind eye was so important, so vital to the moment, if readers and viewers were to be sold on the gallery’s favoured meme. Remember, the news pages were full of tales about Abbott’s impending demise and the imminent ascendancy of every Labor- or Greens-voting stalwart’s favourite conservative, Malcolm Turnbull. To advance the line that Abbott was doomed, the Triggs hearing had to be reported as another of his failed campaigns: Strong, brave women give the PM his comeupperance yet again, his failed bid to stomp on Triggs and her reputation a further nail in the political coffin of a vile misogynist. Stories like this, for example, and this and this and this and this as well.

The first days’ coverage was all of that and very little else, but rather than recede after the initial rash of mis-reporting and tactical omission of the hearing’s key issue – why did Triggs not investigate children behind the wire when Labor was in office and their numbers were booming? – it only escalated as the week progressed. Take Sun-Herald columnist Charles Waterstreet, for instance, who proudly put his name to this half-measure of wit:

“… disgraceful, sexist and bullying of the worst schoolyard type. Bully Baldy Brandis is chief bully boy who threw the first eggs in the egging of Triggs.”

A barrister, Waterstreet is said to have provided at least partial inspiration for the coke-sniffing, trouble-prone lawyer in the ABC series Rake, who at least has a substance-abuse problem to blame for his many griefs. What is Waterstreet’s excuse for the apparent belief that alliterative abuse equals argument?

Or, for that matter, how does the Age editor justify printing slander-by-omission under the byline of opinion-page contributor Hugh de Kretser, who attempted to demonstrate that the questioning of Triggs was but the latest of many recent and unfair assaults on the Human Rights Commission. “In January Prime Minister Tony Abbott and senior ministers condemned a commission ruling as ‘pretty bizarre’, ‘offensive’ and ‘likely to shake confidence in the institution,’” De Kretser wrote. What the contributor failed to mention (and no editor saw fit to insert) was that the “bizarre” and “offensive” ruling concerned a drunken thug and serial abuser who beat his wife to death with a bicycle and, in Triggs’ learned view, is due a $350,000 payout from the public purse.

Tony Abbott has shown some signs of life these past few days, once again manifesting some of the pugilist demeanour that played no small part in bringing down Gillard and her spendthrift rabble. While still too early to tell, it might just be that he has put aside the ill-conceived charity he extended to his enemies in the days after the victory of September, 2013. One hopes, for example, he is no longer tempted to demonstrate his sweet, conciliatory reasonableness by appointing implacable enemies, such as Natasha Stott Despoja and Greg Combet, to favoured posts and sinecures.

As for the press, well the Prime Minister would be well advised to take up Kafka and be reminded of Gregor Samsa’s end. Reduced to a husk by starvation — just like the failing Fairfax newspapers, come to think of it — he dies ignored, alone and unmourned, a presence so light and insubstantial what little remains is flicked into the garbage by the cleaning woman’s broom. The purposely blind cockroaches of the Fourth Estate warrant not even that slim degree of consideration. So, Mr Abbott, if you have finally come to appreciate you will never get a fair hearing nor unbiased reporting, why not just step on them?

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online