No, I’m not referring just to the vile placards that were the backdrop to Tony Abbott’s address to the ‘people’s revolution’ rally in Canberra on March 23. Vilification goes back much further.
The purpose of this piece is to argue that while vilification has been around a long while, it is worsening in recent times, is taking on a distinctly North American tone, and is threatening the political health of our nation.
When I was a kid the term ‘Pig Iron Bob’ was applied to Bob Menzies, a response to his exporting pig iron to Japan, some of which likely came back in the form of bullets directed at our soldiers. Was that term vilification? Only those who remember that era clearly could offer a considered opinion. The context is important and memories of the context then are now dim. So at the outset let us agree that comparison of contemporary events with those long past is fraught.
Before we go too far, let’s agree on what vilification means. For the purpose of this piece I am using a definition from an online dictionary - The Free Dictionary – which defines ‘vilification’ thus: ‘a rude expression intended to offend or hurt or insult; revilement, discourtesy, disrespect, unscrupulous abuse, foul-mouthed or obscene abuse, a remark capable of wounding mentally; invective, vituperation, vitriol, abusive or venomous language used to express blame or censure or bitter deep-seated ill will.’ That definition leaves no doubt that vilification is a serious attempt to denigrate someone or something. Vilification can have its roots in race or religion and of course in politics.
If we confine our reflections to recent times, where memories are less dim, it may be possible to ascertain whether vilification of our nation’s leaders is gathering momentum, or whether it was always thus.
My impressions of the Howard era are that vilification of him and his ministers was unusual and relatively mild. We know the cartoonists made fun of his eyebrows and protruding lower lip – they still seem to believe they have carte blanche to insult with impunity – but vilification was unusual. The Coalition, in response to criticism of the placards at the ‘people’s revolt’ rally could only point out that at union rallies attended by union officials who are now members of parliament – Bill Shorten and Greg Combet – placards depicting Howard as Hitler and a ‘baby killer’ were used. They would fit the definition of vilification, but were there many other instances? If there were, the Coalition would have trotted them out in some detail; if readers can recall others, they can add them in ‘comments’. Of course there were those pivotal pre-election interviews, several with Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones where Howard was embarrassed and shown up in a bad light with the help of gotchas, but they do not fit the ‘vilification’ bill.
It was when Kevin Rudd rose to prominence and became Opposition Leader that the vilification pace seemed to accelerate. You will recall that even before he became PM, Rudd was assailed with the ‘Brian Burke’ story and the ‘Scores nightclub’ affair, the former being in response to Rudd attacking the Government over nuclear power and its contact with businessmen Hugh Morgan, Ron Walker and Robert Champion de Crespigny. So it was a tit for tat sequence but nevertheless a pretty vitriolic and vilifying exchange.
Then there were a series of episodes in which Rudd was involved – the ‘RAAF hostie affair’, the ‘hairdryer story’ in Afghanistan, the veracity of which is still a mystery, the ‘rude to staff’ and ‘overworking staff’ allegations, some of which turned out to be factual, but the reporting of them was designed to denigrate, to demean, and in some instances vilify him.
But Rudd rode high in the polls, his popularity at near record levels despite these attempts to put him down; indeed the episodes seemed almost to enhance his standing with the people. But the MSM was not to be denied.
Despite his success in managing the GFC, involving as it did stimulus measures, the News Limited media set about denigrating his stimulatory efforts, first the HIP, then the BER. Both were painted as classic instances of Labor mismanagement and profligate waste, a meme that fitted nicely with the ‘Labor can’t manage money’ theme that the Coalition trumpeted relentlessly. The Australian set up a special section to monitor waste and mismanagement in the BER and gave prominence to every story coming out of the HIP, vilifying the Government for the needless deaths of several workers installing ceiling insulation, a misdemeanour now sheeted home to the installation companies who employed them. You may contest the use of the word ‘vilification’ here, but take a look at the definition and see if fits.
Throughout the life of the Rudd Government it has had to contend with a largely hostile media, seemingly hell-bent on destroying it. Andrew Bolt was prominent among those vilifying Rudd, something he did at every opportunity via his Melbourne Herald Sun column, his ’million hits a month’ blog, and through his TV appearances. His venom towards Rudd was frightening to see. He used his vitriol to persistently demean Rudd so as to drive him from office, and as that occurrence came closer he lauded Julia Gillard as the obvious successor. Now he has turned his vilification against her with as much hate as he exhibited towards Rudd.
But there has not been much vilification by the media of Tony Abbott and the Coalition. Why is it so? Even after his ‘shit happens’ encounter with Mark Riley, did you see him vilified by the MSM? I saw them make plenty of excuses for him, instead directing their vilification at one of their own – Riley himself.
Vilification has been alive and well these last few years, and in my opinion is worsening, evidenced by the extreme messages exhibited on placards at the March 23 Canberra rally, called by Tony Abbott, but orchestrated by Sydney shock jocks and the Liberal Party. There is no need to recount those vile messages here – you know them well enough. But it is worth emphasizing that they were not just about the carbon tax, supposedly the reason for the rally, but about other dark issues that impugned asylum seekers and reinvigorated One Nation’s platform of racial hatred. Other nasty images emerged that exposed the black heart of some of our countrymen.
The nasty exchanges that followed immediately in the House of Representatives aggravated the vilification. Just when the heat of the rally needed to be quelled, Tony Abbott and his front bench set about exacerbating it. The vilification continued with motions of censure supported by some of the most vicious and unbecoming language ever heard there. The street fighter, always the pugilist, pulled no punches in his assault on Julia Gillard, mocking her as ‘being precious’ and describing her with sneering invective using words that ought not to issue from the mouth of a leader of a major political party. His every word vilified her, the Prime Minister of Australia. We were sickened by his onslaught, but not surprised.
From where has this intensification of vilification come?
One can but postulate, but it bears a striking resemblance to the strategies being employed by the US Republican Party and its offshoot, the Tea Party. Aided and abetted by the Murdoch media, their approach has been and still is a strident anti-Obama campaign that began almost from the moment of his election. Misinformation about him has been spread far and wide – 40% of Americans incorrectly still believe he is Muslim despite his denials, because the TV shock jocks on Fox News have said so. Every piece of legislation he has proposed had been opposed, and grossly misrepresented, with even talk of ‘death squads’ to determine who received benefits (presumably life or death benefits) under Obama’s health reforms that will bring some 40 million previously uninsured Americans into health coverage. Every move he makes is demeaned in the most extravagant way with misinformation, deception and downright lies. TV shock jocks invite onto their programs strident supporters of their anti-Obama position, and the occasional guest they invite from the other side is harassed, put down and talked over by their people. It is as flagrant as it is disgusting, but they get away with it hour after hour, day after day, because no one can stop them. Truth is irrelevant – they simply make up stories, shout them from the airwaves unremittingly, and will truck no opposing views.
Sound familiar? Are we not seeing the same here? The grossest manifestation is the shock jock crew, led by Alan Jones, that exist on most commercial radio stations, and a similar, although not as grossly biased set of TV shock jocks and panels that pedal largely a conservative line. Add to that a formidable News Limited media empire, which despite all its open-mouthed protestations, is clearly pro-Coalition and anti-Labor.
To augment this heavily pro-conservative messaging, we are now seeing the emergence of conservative websites, of which Cory Bernardi’s is one of the most extreme, fostering as it does racial discord, particularly directed at Muslims.
We are seeing here a process of vilification of political leaders, mainly Labor ones, at a gathering pace that shows no sign of remitting, and will not while the pugilistic Abbott is leading the pack. The ugliest manifestation so far was the March 23 rally with all its vilifying placards, and the raucous and undignified aftermath in parliament with its own brand of vilification.
The Republican and Tea Party approach of ‘say anything’, ‘allege anything’, ‘tell any lie’, ‘vilify whenever an opportunity arises’, and do it over and over again, is now being reflected here in this country. Do we want this American-style politics here?
Can this be healthy for our democracy? Politicians here are already held in low esteem; vilification pushes them lower still in the public’s estimation. Yet they are our leaders that we have elected to progress our country. How can vilifying them advance that cause? They need more respect, not less.
In my opinion the vilification of this nation’s leaders is rendering our politicians less potent, damaging our nation, setting Australian against Australian, and fostering hatred and anger, all in pursuit of power, all to claim residence in The Lodge.
We ought to be fearful. If what is happening in the US is repeated here in all its dirty and damaging form, we are heading towards a calamitous state where the powerful and the moneyed call the shots, create the messages, and rule the roost. It’s not quite George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four yet, but before we know it, it may well be. Be afraid, very afraid.
What do you think?