Reality TV Gets Real

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So reality television has finally embraced reality. ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ on SBS TV last night was a refreshing look at the refugee debate in Australia. In the first episode of three on consecutive nights, it smashed a few stereotypes and undermined a shibboleth or two without preaching once.

It allowed ordinary Australians to imagine what it’s like to be an asylum seeker. Until last night’s ‘Go Back’ have any programs given viewers the opportunity to walk in a refugee’s shoes or literally sleep on an asylum seeker’s leaky boat? I can’t remember many, perhaps a couple of Four Corners stories using amateur or surveillance footage of the horrors of incarceration.

I know of a Dateline story or two: Bronwyn Adcock sneaking into the Nauru detention centre — watch it if you want to satisfy yourself that a re-opened Nauru is not a viable option — and Olivia Rousset’s touching piece on Aladdin Sisalem, the last man on the Manus Island Detention Centre. Aladdin was alone, except for a stray cat which became his only company behind razor wire, in that steamy former Papua New Guinean naval base at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per month. (He was later granted refugee status and came to Australia along with his cat.) Then there was Sophie McNeill’s first ever piece for SBS when Insight was still a magazine program — she detailed the horrendous treatment of a Middle Eastern asylum seeker in Port Hedland — and David O’Shea’s excellent work exposing the conditions of UNHCR-declared refugees virtually imprisoned in Indonesia because no third country would take them.

While it is all constructed for the cameras, what ‘Go Back’ offers is contact and context which immediately frees us from the straightjacket of the dominant narrative. Don’t forget we have been confined to the illegal/evil/terrorist boatpeople meme for over a decade now and while the defenders of that myth are fewer in number they are still with us.

I notice the cameras didn’t go into Villawood along with the contestants — sorry, I mean participants. How delicious it was when the former army bloke felt he was being manipulated to reach into his wellspring of empathy, after a night on that leaky refugee hulk? If that were the extent of the manipulation then all would be well with the world. As the host with the Master Chef voice asked, "Who is manipulating you?"

I suppose it began with the lie of "children overboard" and continues to this day. You rarely see or hear a refugee in any news story — they are almost always denigrated and suspicious. The Howard government fought hard to prevent the human face of the crisis from ever being seen, it even attacked the Norwegian captain of the Tampa who had rescued the refugees from their sinking tub in accordance with international maritime law.

We had Alan Jones and others at 2GB inciting Cronulla to rise up against the Muslim hoards in Gunnamatta Park. How dare they sit on the grass and not go to the beach? It’s un-Australian!

We had truly draconian legislation enacted to prevent the reporting of asylum seeker issues after the Woomera breakout when many refugees were being hidden by well meaning folk. I’m not sure if these laws are still on the books but it was a crime to not report a refugee’s location, if that were known to the reporter or producer. This necessitated the silly charade of having the reporter and crew blindfolded, taken to an unknown location where an interview could be carried out. If the police subsequently asked, then one could truly say, they had no idea where reffo X was! On reflection, it sounds very much like a police state.

At the hight of the hysteria and after discussions with the Jesuit Refugee Service, I foolishly made a genuine offer, as an individual not a TV producer, to billet some of the Tampa asylum seekers on my farm, should that be necessary. Well that offer, made in the letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald, generated a tsunami of abusive calls to my home phone: "f*cking Muslim lover" was the most creative. That was followed by two attempts to entrap me and compromise my independence as a TV producer and even more bizarrely, I was flamboyantly tailed by a car as I choose the most illogical, back-street run to work.

Still, that intimidation didn’t stop us from trying to follow the refugee pathway to Australia. Dateline had video-journalist Mark Davis kitted out with satellite phone and GPS gear, after a navigation lesson or two with an old friend and merchant navy captain. I think, in the end, we just couldn’t get the people smugglers to trust us and put us on a boat. Geoff Parish and David O’Shea did a mighty job piecing together the final hours of the SIEV X, which sank killing hundreds. Their questioning and persistence certainly made them enemies in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

These all sound like excuses to explain away the mainstream’s failure to do in years what ‘Go Back’ did in one night. I don’t believe reality TV is implicitly better at telling these stories — it’s not — but mainstream television current affairs has been captured and tied down with editorial rules by producers who are too afraid to challenge the system.

In ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’, the asylum seeker story is creatively told in the abstract using all the devices of Master Chef. It’s a fantastic concept, but also an indictment of mainstream news and current affairs. I hope executive producer Michael Cordell already has his crews out in an Alice Springs town camp with racist whites from Moree and Mosman, forced to live under the Intervention and unable to take a bottle of Riesling home for dinner. (In 2009, NM journalist Scott Mitchell lived for a fortnight under Intervention-like conditions. Follow his story here.)

Like ‘Go Back’, it would make great TV, but we shouldn’t have to rely on reality television to do our heavy thinking.

 

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