Through the rigours of COVID-19 lockdowns and lockouts, Australia’s psyche has lurched, shifting the outside world from opportunity to threat — and Australia’s political elite are eager to mine the shift for electoral advantage.
Parochial ignorance is turned to sneering asset: “Well, I don’t speak French,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison assures a press conference. “Are you going to go to India?” asks an incredulous Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk when quizzed on national border closures.
On Friday political newbie New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet broke with the accepted post-Tampa small-Australia political wisdom by endorsing “a big NSW”, ending COVID travel restrictions in and out of Sydney and touting a turbocharged immigration to pick up the two-year lockout shortfall.
You say wot? Morrison pulled him into line: “You don’t hold a visa stamp, mate.” It was pure Morrisonian politics, the visceral political horror about being seen to be responsible in taking on the political risks of a more open Australia.
On Insiders yesterday, his inward-looking political judgment was sagely nodded on (supported by an old-fashioned economic analysis on immigration challenged by last week’s winners of the economics Nobel.)
Hovering above the turn in is China, transformed from essential partner to existential threat, helped on by a news supply increasingly filtered through a US funnel, replacing the network of foreign bureaus weakened by years of cost-cutting and, this past year, by the Chinese bans on Australian journalists.
Australian reporters have been replaced in the supply chain by that gusher of content that washes into newsrooms from the global information centres: New York, Washington, London. News from our own region pings halfway around the world to be pounded into shape before being packaged up and shipped back to Australia’s media franchisees for retail delivery.
Confused about China? As political tensions rise, here’s a handy guide to navigating the Australia-Sino relationship
International news content has long been determined more by supply — and the supplier — than demand.
Once, foreign reporters were a peculiar public broadcasting responsibility (other than newspapers’ prized London post, of course). Then, as the country opened out in the 1970s and ’80s, correspondents — particularly in Asia — became the messenger of choice, and the message, too, as a way of demonstrating that the news organisation was serious about news.
They made news, as a signal to the rest of the world. When Margaret Jones was appointed Fairfax’s first Beijing correspondent in 1974 (following the ABC’s Paul Raffaele), it was read as something big both for the company and the country.
In the ’80s, Indonesia’s refusal to allow Australian correspondents was a major block to normal relations, calling for delicate negotiations at head-of-government level. A 1986 Fairfax article on corruption by David Jenkins (including reporting the punning jab at president Suharto’s wife as “Madam Tien Per Cent”) made Bali off limits to Australian tourists.
Although mass media evening news monopolised audience attention, news directors had to traverse that tricky moment, usually after the first ad break, of sliding in the international report, knowing it was the greatest risk of ratings slip. The accent of a foreign correspondent helped. Minimising slippage required dramatic images — preferably something politically safe like storms or floods — or the frisson generated by celebrities, from British royals and rock stars to American actors and presidents.
Although the market for an Australian perspective on foreign events was often small, story by story, successive generations of reporters in the region broke through to change the way Australians thought about their place in the world.
Now — blame it on the COVID lockout, blame it on Morrison’s adaptation of a Trumpian MAGA schtick, blame it on job cuts — Australia’s mass media have followed the audience inward. Where once it encouraged Australians to look out, now it’s offering a provincial audience what it thinks it wants, using the content it’s given.
In reporting the global “pan-” part of the pandemic, international news stories have been refracted into cautionary tales for Australia, with the early Italian response standing in for hospital overload, the Wuhan lab-leak speculation for Chinese unreliability, India’s Delta outbreak for developing world chaos, or Britain’s “freedom day” for the danger of a too-early opening.
Seeing the world through US glasses changes how we act. The Americanised perspective on China-as-threat is impacting our trade and culture. (Paradoxically, a nuanced take on what this means for Australia and its Chinese-Australian community has been in the very American The New York Times.)
Morrison’s thoughtless adaptation of America’s traditional casual dismissal of French amour-propre and English anti-continental Brexit sensibility has (as Malcolm Turnbull told the National Press Club) undermined Australia’s trustworthiness.
The good news? There’s pushback: the increasing diversity of the rising generation of journalists, fragmentation of audience choices, digital access to Asian media, the surviving pool of correspondents and stringers, and the continued commitment of the public broadcasters (all coming together, for example, in the ABC’s China Tonight).
Right now, Australia is struggling with how we open up to each other. Maybe it’s past time to start thinking about how we reengage with the world.Internet Explorer Channel Network