Fourth World Scandal

8 Feb

Fourth World Scandal

“Aboriginal communities are ensuring the continuity of their languages and cultures and representation of their views…they speak for themselves, no longer aliens in [a media] industry which for a century has used them for its own ends.”

Michael Leigh (1988: 88)

When Russian figure skaters Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin performed in the recent winter Olympics their routine and costumes caused controversy in the Australian media. Their piece was what they described as “Aboriginal dance”, in outfits detailed with designs expressing their representation of Australian Indigenous culture. In an opinion article “Russian Ice Dancers Should Rethink Their Routine” by Bev Manton, (SMH 21/1/10), herself an indigenous Australian, she expresses outrage and offense. However, the comments following the article attribute Manton as being “narrow minded” and “out of touch with society”. Does the SMH feel compelled to publish this angle of the story as a duty or as a way of protecting Indigenous Australians?

I argue the Australian media has a propensity to collectivise Indigenous Australians as an imagined community perceived as existing under Immanuel Kant’s humanitarian principle, and the hypothetical imperative. Kant’s formula of humanity is to “[a]ct in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, 1785 cited Nelson, 2008: 2).

Hartley argues gone are the days of the media acting “malevolently” towards Indigenous Australians (2003 cited Probyn and Lumby, 2003: 43). However, I argue the Australia media frequently and almost habitually patronises Indigenous Australians as a “victimised other, vulnerable to the influence of powerful agencies and as incapable of self-determination or self-representation” (Hartley, McKee, 2000: 4). Thereby, the media diminish the value and capacity of their contributions to wider debates about ethnicity and identity. Furthermore, Hartley argues Aboriginal people systematically appear as ‘they’ figures, outside the imagined community of media audiences.

The “‘generic’ news narratives [of Indigenous issues] focused on stories of ‘correction and protection’ of Aboriginal people” (Hartley: 1992, 3). The media still concentrates on finding examples of racist or negative coverage of Indigenous Australians (Hartley, McKee, 2000: 1, 275). However, Hartley and McKee argue “the generic imperatives of hard news, rather than any racist impulse, lead to the focus on conflict, the ‘negative’, and so on” (2000, 275). Hartley argues the problem of journalism that deals with indigenous affairs is not an ethical but a political one (Hartley, 2003 cited Probyn and Lumby, 2003: 44). However, I contend without an increased degree of indigenous ethical awareness and a decreased need to separate Aboriginal Australians from their Australian identity, the ethical need to constantly treat people’s of shared identity as a separate ethical problem will continue.

The supposed need for separate codes and regulations is illustrates by the Response Ability website, where certain population groups are elected needing differential treatment. Indigenous Australians, rural Australians and multicultural Australians are listed as requiring exceptional awareness of their “social and emotional wellbeing” (Response Ability, 2009). Media practises of regarding these individuals as a means to an end, a problem, rather than individuals deserving of respect and humane conduct equal to that of any other Australian.

If it is the duty of a good journalist to report with “professional indifference”, it is their duty to report based on professional ethics, not their own individual ethics (Hartley, 2003 cited in Lumby and Probyn, 2003: 44). So, why does a prominent Australian newspaper feel compelled to publish an article so adverse to the attitudes expressed by its readership? Does it have a duty to share this angle of the story with their audience? I argue Indigenous Australians and Manton are being used as a means to an end of confirming the controversy or ‘newsworthiness’ of the story, because Indigenous culture must be protected.

Other articles published by the SMH on the same topic describe the event as “controversial”, a “misguided homage” (“Russian skaters continue to use controversial Aboriginal routine”, SMH). Manton’s dual identity can be seen here as disenabling her from being “indifferent” ethically, when she would have to abandon ethical values attached to her indigenous identity (Hartley, 2003 cited in Lumby and Probyn, 2003: 44), but this does not forego the media’s duty to report other Indigenous Australian’s responses (even those that were not offended). In not doing so, they single out indigenous Australians as the “other”, and hence, needing a specific and protective response from a clearly identified “authentic” source.

Indigenous Australians involvement in the production of media has evolved extensively. Once the passive recipients of good actions and bad actions of white discourses (Ginsburg: 1991, 4), increasingly they produce their own media content not only to resist “outside cultural domination” (Ginsburg, 1991: 92), but also to demonstrate their active participation as equal members of the mediasphere, to pursue their own self-representation, community building and political agenda (Hartley and McKee, 2000: 7).


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