The Mediaby John StylesNews Weekly
, October 21, 2000
Wheel of misfortune
Philip Ruddock's reputation as a small 'l' liberal did not save him from a media savaging when he ventured into a heavily policed area of Australian sociology.
The whole episode once again said a lot about the political correctness that characterises and stifles certain areas of debate in Australia today.
The outrage centred on two interviews about Aboriginal disadvantage the Minister had given to foreign newspapers in the lead-up to the Olympics. When they recently came to light, a frenzy ensued.
From the outset, Mr Ruddock's interview with French daily Le Monde was reduced to the suggestion that he had attributed "Aboriginal disadvantage to unfamiliarity with the wheel". This simplistic and misleading summary was repeated frequently on ABC radio.
In an ABC interview, Mr Ruddock pointed out that his conversation with Le Monde was "wide and discursive" and "the reporter has reproduced particular aspects of it". He said: "That interview went for over an hour in which I was asked a series of questions which were about a wide range of issues that have brought about a situation where we are addressing today this question of disadvantage in relation to our indigenous people." He added: "When people that write about some comments that you make and they take some of them and not the whole, there can often be in such an approach matters that are taken out of context."
Philip Ruddock's critics declared that "great newspapers" like Le Monde and The Washington Post were unlikely to have distorted the minister's comments or used them out of context.
Whether Le Monde and The Washington Post did or did not distort Philip Ruddock's comments on Aboriginal disadvantage is open to question. That sections of the Australian media did do so is beyond doubt.
Reading the parts of the Le Monde interview and the The Washington Post story that generated so much local outrage, it would seem quite obvious that Mr Ruddock's references to Aboriginal unfamiliarity with technology like the wheel were used to provide background for audiences ignorant of the nature and history of Australia's indigenous people.
Mr Ruddock discussed other reasons for Aboriginal disadvantage, a fact largely ignored by his critics.
Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul Sheehan, author of the 1998 best-seller, Among the Barbarians, objected to the narrow interpretation of the minister's comments. He told ABC Radio: "My reading of the remarks by the Minister was that he was trying to convey the enormity of the distance that the Aboriginal people had had to travel in the last 200 years when they were overwhelmed by the numbers of an invading culture that was technologically far more superior. And so Ruddock, I think, was trying to give credit to the Aborigines for the amount that they've actually absorbed and had to absorb and had to put up with."
Mr Sheehan said the real message was that when you're dealing with the media, "you have to be very wary of the context". He said, "The media has a tendency of taking remarks out of context. I am very wary of when the media gets their hands on these things and ... goes looking for outrage and finds it very easily, and I've become extremely cynical about the media's role in this whole process."
Mr Sheehan said he knows from personal experience that the media will make the worst interpretation possible. "We end up debating things that the Minister didn't say. I don't think Philip Ruddock has ever said anything or believes that the Aboriginal people are inferior. I just don't believe that for a minute and I don't think your average educated Australian believes that."
At the end of a week of outrage in which there were hysterical calls for Philip Ruddock's resignation from members of the ALP and the Aboriginal élite, even the Melbourne Age, probably the most "politically correct" daily newspaper in Australia, finally acknowledged the obvious.
In an editorial on 6 October, The Age pronounced: "The context in which he [Ruddock] made his comments must be appreciated. In explaining the predicament of Australia's indigenous people to foreigners, it would naturally be necessary to establish a historical perspective and to use intellectual constructs that probably would not be needed in a conversation on the same issue domestically."
The Age concluded that the calls for Mr Ruddock's sacking were "excessive and unjustified". The editorial ended with a plea that those familiar with The Age may find slightly ironic: "Surely our capacity to debate or at least discuss and reflect upon these matters is more substantial than Mr Ruddock's detractors would allow."Andrews survives
Federal Liberal MP Kevin Andrews survived a pre-selection challenge and retained his party's endorsement for the Melbourne metropolitan seat of Menzies.
Reporting the pre-selection battle, The Sunday Herald Sun quoted "Liberal insiders" who claimed Mr Andrews won by "the narrowest of margins".
However, The Sunday Age said Mr Andrews won the contest "comfortably", quoting sources who said the three-way contest was decided on the first round of voting.
The challenge was seen to be a reaction by libertarian Liberals to Mr Andrews' stance on social issues, especially his anti-euthanasia campaign.
Mr Andrews successfully initiated a federal move in 1996-97 to overturn the Northern Territory's euthanasia law.
Kevin Andrews' performance in the euthanasia debate led Paul Kelly of The Australian to note at the time: "Andrews emerges as a politician with what the public says it wants quite simply, the courage of his convictions".