A question to readers of Fairfax media – has the Sheehan finally worn off?
By now most of my Australian readers will know the story. Last Tuesday (24 February) in the Sydney Morning Herald (and online via The Age and The Canberra Times) long time conservative Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan wrote an incredible story of police neglect and a Middle Eastern culture of rape called ‘The story of Louise: we’ll never know the scale of the rape epidemic in Sydney’.
It turns out it was too incredible. The alleged victim, ‘Louise’, had made the rape story up. There was no rape; there was no Middle Eastern rape culture; there was no rape epidemic. A quick google would have revealed her story as a fabrication, given for example she had regaled Reclaim White Australia rallies with similar lies.
The more outrageous suggestions that Sheehan built on the back of this one false claim by Louise of a culture of rape among middle eastern men and gangs roaming Sydney to rape women have been removed. Interestingly Sheehan blames rape culture for the Cronulla riots and that predictably is still in his rotten article.
The offensive article now starts with:
‘APOLOGY: In this column Fairfax Media reported the details of an alleged sexual assault. A subsequent column published on February 24 headlined “The story of Louise: why the police have no case to answer, but I do“, acknowledged key elements of the original story were unable to be substantiated. An earlier version of the story below, which has been corrected, included aspersions against the Middle Eastern community and raised untested allegations of inaction against the NSW Police. Fairfax Media sincerely regrets the hurt and distress the reports caused to these groups, and our readers, and unreservedly apologises.’
On Wednesday Sheehan apologised, not to Muslim men for his brown men rape white women ‘story’, but to the Police for calling into question their professionalism. You can read it here. The story of Louise: why the police have no case to answer, but I do
The damage has been done. The edited story remains on the Sydney Morning Herald and other Fairfax media websites, as does the apology that isn’t. Louise’s lies, relayed by Sheehan, were shared over 11,000 times, no doubt further justifying in the minds of many Reclaim White Australia racists their hatred of Muslims. The shit will stick.
A week later and neither the SMH nor Fairfax more generally have taken any action against Sheehan.
Since writing this the SMH has apologised, unreservedly no less. The ‘apology’ says:
‘In last Monday’s paper, the Herald reported the details of an alleged sexual assault under the headline “The horrifying untold story of Louise”.
‘A subsequent column printed in last Thursday’s edition, “The story of Louise: why the police have no case to answer, but I do”, acknowledged key elements of the original story were unable to be substantiated.
‘The original story, which has been corrected, included aspersions against the Middle Eastern community and raised untested allegations of inaction against the NSW Police.
‘The Herald sincerely regrets the hurt and distress this report caused to these groups, and unreservedly apologises.’
Sheehan remains untouched and the edited article remains a travesty.
Compare that to the treatment of SMH columnist Mike Carlton. He wrote a column highly critical of Israel and its treatment of the people of Gaza, (Israel’s rank and rotten fruit is being called fascism). He told some readers to f&*k off. Carlton resigned when editor Darren Goodsir told him he was going to be suspended for a few weeks.
As an aside some years ago Darren approached me to write for the online SMH blog, the National Times. I even visited him in his workplace and he showed me around the floor. When he became editor of the SMH I suggested the paper could do with a real left wing columnist, like me. He rejected my approach.
Australia’s mainstream media is a bit like Australia’s politics. It gives the impression of difference but in reality the two major newspaper outlets – News and Fairfax – disagree only on the detail. They agree on the overriding message and practice of neoliberalism and austerity. They agree too on creating a distraction from austerity. For Fairfax disguised and now not so disguised Islamophobia and liberal racism are good ways to do that.
Murdoch’s News media in Australia is like the Liberals. The loss making Australian newspaper is the key outlet for Rupert’s reactionary views about what needs to be done to fix the economy and to prop up and justify the conservatives and their world views. The Fairfax broadsheet stable is like the Labor Party, full of reassuring liberal and left of centre columnists who give cover for neoliberalism and racism.
There is more than one way to skin we punters. The first and perhaps most successful neoliberal government in Australia was the Hawke Labor government. Labor is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, while the L-N P is the wolf in wolf’s clothes. Fairfax is the disguised wolf of the media world.
Its audience is somewhat different to Murdoch’s. It appeals to the more liberal sections of society. Its readership is declining. It would be correct to say it is under real pressure from the online world. (That includes, in a very very small way, bloggers like me. However on a larger scale imagine a thousand websites to choose from and you begin to get a sense of the challenge to hard copy newspapers.)
But it is not just new technology that is undermining the daily newspaper. It is also the fact that they don’t engage with their readership on the issues that impact on them, like low wages, job insecurity and other economic matters. And when they do engage they often do so in ways that are top down, reflecting a bosses’ view of the world. Surveys show voters well to the left of politicians on most issues. It is the same with newspapers, which are after all part of the ideological machine of capitalism. They are well to the right of their readers.
Of course Fairfax has left wing columnists. They range from liberal left to liberal left. These left columnists perform a vital function for Fairfax media. They give a left face to an essentially neoliberal newspaper, much as left members of the Parliamentary Labor Party give a left face to the neoliberal Labor Party.
That is not to doubt their sincerity. It is just to try and understand their objective role.
Clearly too to my mind Fairfax media has made a conscious decision to shift to the right, or rather become more open about it. This looks like it is an attempt to win some of Murdoch’s readers in the perhaps forlorn hope of winning a bigger market share of a shrinking market. It is a similar strategy to Labor’s. You beat your competitors by becoming them. It hasn’t worked for Labor and it won’t work for Fairfax.
Readers may know of the concerns I have expressed about my local newspaper, Fairfax’s The Canberra Times. Through not reporting on important rallies in Canberra, such as Let them Stay, Invasion Day and Grandmothers against removals, and with page after page of sympathetic reporting on reclaim white Australia racists, the Canberra Times may be becoming a paper of white supremacy.
Certainly Sheehan’s article and his kid glove treatment since then suggest that engorging racists is now part of the modus operandi of the Fairfax media.
Is there a solution? Well we can respond as consumers. (I won’t for example be renewing my Canberra Times subscription when it runs out in May. I will probably subscribe to the open enemy, The Australian, just to see what the fruitcake faction of capital and the centre right think.) Consumer boycotts rarely work, especially those by isolated individuals.
Fairfax could employ a socialist columnist. After all the rise of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK suggest there is a big audience for socialist ideas in one form or another among ordinary people, and that audience exists too in Australia.
If Fairfax had any sense that is one step they would take. But their ideological blinkers mean they cannot do this. Even if they did it would merely add to the veneer of difference when their main game is austerity and hoodwinking workers with nudge nudge wink wink racism.
There are of course alternative newspapers and magazines on the left, such as Solidarity, the one I write for and of which I am a member.
Any reclaiming of the Fairfax papers for their readership ultimately must depend on the workers at Fairfax itself. Over to the unions and workers there. A group of senior leftish columnists and journalists could approach management and suggest life might get difficult for Fairfax if Sheehan isn’t sacked, reprimanded, whatever and if the case against racism and for refugees isn’t made more loudly in the pages of The Age, The Canberra Times and The Sydney Morning Herald.
How we can best contribute to the defeat of people like Sheehan and their agenda is to build the anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic movement and defend refugees. The Let them stay campaign offers a glimpse of what we can do and in doing that we can shift the debate to the left and give hope and guidance to all those workers looking for ways out of the neoliberal stranglehold they are caught in.