Bugger The Journalism. Fairfax's Future Is In Racial Click Baiting


Sometimes, society rewards mediocrity. I’m thinking the Kardashians, reality television generally, and Christopher Pyne.

But sometimes, society rewards bone-jarring stupidity. Introducing Mark Sawyer, a film reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald who decided to try his hand at social commentary.

On Thursday, under the headline ‘How racist are you?’ Sawyer treated us all to his theory on why white people really aren’t that racist after all, and why coloured people get all uppity and really should just shut the f**k up and stop whining. At least, that’s how I received it. You can make your own judgment… over to Mr Sawyer….

“So who’s a racist? Not you, of course. Certainly not me. Hey, maybe none of us.

“No, that’s not what people were saying this week as the sports commentator Warren Ryan quit his job over an on-air quote from Gone with the Wind that included the word ‘‘darky’’.

“Here was another controversy, depressingly fresh on the heels of last year's furore over indigenous AFL player Adam Goodes being called an ape by a young spectator.”

“It may pay to look at the bigger picture. After all, aren’t we living in a era (sic) when evil is an outmoded concept, when there are no bad people, only bad acts? On that basis it seems counter-intuitive and frankly crazy to label people racist on the basis on one or two remarks.

“Yes, of course, ‘the standard I walk past is the standard I accept’, to quote another example of vogue reasoning. Sorry but I have walked past it plenty.

“I walked past it when a man in Spain told me he was ‘‘working like a black’’, when an old girlfriend asked whether I still ‘‘smoke like a Turk’’ and when a fella in country NSW offered me his ultimate accolade: ‘‘Thanks mate, you’re a white man.’’

“Hey, I also walked past it when people assert that Australia is a uniquely wicked racist country. Get real.”

Ok, Mark. I’ll get real. My first question, and I think I speak on behalf of a great many Australians when I ask this, is ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

Let me see if I’ve got this right, Mark. You agree that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept? So the standard you accept is silly little racist people saying silly little racist things? And this helps us all how, Mark?

Ok. Continue.

“Yes, Australian country towns once banned Aborigines from swimming pools. From this came the Freedom Rides led by Charlie Perkins. And the treatment of indigenous Australians by white settlers and government authorities remains unfinished business.

“But how many people alive today are honest to god racist? You know, willing to stand at the school gates like a southern US governor in the 1950s and ’60s and say non-white children will not pass? Refuse to shake the hand of a non-white person? Oddly, when Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani failed to offer his hand to European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, there was not a glimmer of protest. (Rouhani saw fit to shake hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin).”

Wow. Where do I start?

Firstly Mark, the history of Australian race relations – in particular our history regarding First Nation peoples – is a little bit more complicated than not letting ‘Aborigines’ (most hate that term by the way, but we’ll move on) into a swimming pool.

There was also, oh, I don’t know, the attempted genocide? And the forced removal of their children. Remember that one, Mark? And the theft of their land. And their wages. And our current Indigenous incarceration rates, which are the highest on earth. And the Northern Territory intervention.

Secondly, people who stand at a school and say black children cannot pass are not racists, Mark. They’re what we call ‘white supremacists’. There’s a bit of a difference.

I’ve probably lost you at this point Mark, so here’s a simple analogy that might assist. Muggers are people who rob other people. And murderers are people who kill other people. Both of them are criminals, but one of them is quite a bit worse than the other. But that doesn’t make either of them particularly desirable, nor does it make the ‘less bad’ of the two something we should aspire to.

In the case of racism, no level of it is acceptable, and all of it seriously impacts on the ability of people of colour to live healthy, happy lives.

What Mark fails to understand is that many white Australians consistently refuse to accept there is a problem with racism in this country. They deny it like an alcoholic denies his drinking problem. And yet people of colour keep saying – day after bloody day – that this country has a problem with racism.

It’s a bit like men declaring sexism is dead, while women earn less and are subjected to the overwhelming majority of personal violence.

It’s not that difficult a concept. If the people who are subjected to racism are overwhelmingly saying they don’t like it, then suggesting it’s all a bit over the top is not really all that helpful, or intelligent.

And neither was this.

“For seemingly endless days in May, CNN’s television coverage was obsessed with the Donald Sterling controversy,” writes Mark.

“The billionaire owner of the US basketball team the Los Angeles Clippers was rightly denounced in all quarters for moronic comments about black people.

“He now has to sell the franchise and will end his days as a pariah. Isn’t that enough? Not for CNN, though that network was not alone.

“Its anchors weighed every nuance, parsing comments by his wife that Sterling had dementia, interviewing each other endlessly. For what?”

Right. So here we go again. Firstly Mark, May has 31 days. That’s a long way from endless, and it’s not even close to ‘seemingly endless’.

Secondly, there was substantial coverage around the Donald Sterling issue because it was a filthy rich moron who made comments about superstars who work for him. No matter how much you hate sport, that’s pretty newsworthy.

Which leads me neatly to my third point. You work in the media, Mark. Ney, you write about entertainment! And yet you really can’t work out “for what?”

For ratings Mark, for ratings!

Racism? What racism...?

And this is the part where I get to enjoy the delicious irony. Because, Mark, the reason why CNN gave wall-to-wall coverage of the Sterling outrage is the same reason why your employers asked you to depart from your usual round of writing about ‘tits and bums’, and file a piece on racism.

Confused Mark? Ask yourself this question: Did the Herald ask you to file on race relations because (a) even though you work primarily as a film reviewer, the Herald thinks you have undiscovered talent as a social commentator, or (b) the Herald is bleeding out its arse financially and needs to create controversy, thus they suspected you might say something sufficiently stupid to drag a bag load of traffic to their website?

My guess is the answer is ‘B’. I also have a theory on how yesterday morning’s Fairfax news conference went.

Faceless editorial bureaucrat 1: “Tony Abbott hasn’t done anything really stupid overnight, we’ve filed all the disabled parking permit stories we can manage, and there’s been no serious injuries on the steps of the Opera House. What are we going to do for news? We need to manufacture some sort of controversy!

Faceless editorial bureaucrat 2: “Unprecedented. Hmmm, Mark Sawyer’s not doing anything important. Maybe we could get him to write a column about race?”

Faceless editorial bureaucrat 3: “Isn’t Mark Sawyer a privileged white journalist masquerading as a film reviewer?”

Faceless editorial bureaucrat 4: “Brilliant.”

The news editors must near shit themselves with delight when they see copy like Mark Sawyer’s come through the door.

While Fairfax does occasionally do some excellent work – their coverage of NSW corruption is a case in point – increasingly, it’s become the home of click-bait journalism, and much of it racially based.

What’s so infuriating about that is that as an organisation, it doesn’t even know it’s a bottom feeder. Fairfax, and many of the journos that inhabit it, genuinely believe that they are the last bastion of ‘real journalism’ in Australia.

Their copy all-too-frequently suggests otherwise.

I’m not suggesting Sawyer doesn’t believe what he wrote. Scarily, I think he does. But this sort of social commentary is designed to do one thing: get shared on social media and create a frenzy of amplified outrage by blackfellas, people of colour and lefties.

And it works. Every time.

Even better, the Herald has found a way to click-bait their racial click-bait, by waiting for the outrage to reach fever pitch, then throwing a peace dove into the metaphorical cat fight.

Today, the Herald attacked it’s own story with a piece from Aparna Khopkar. Under the headline ‘Stupidity is no excuse for racism’, she rebutted – quite effectively by the way – the horseshit the Herald had printed the day before.

It’s the McDonalds’ equivalent of ‘would you like fries with your order’. In this case, it’s ‘Would you like reasonable commentary with our redneckery?’

It’s all designed to get you to consume more of it.

The truth is, I don’t know if Warren Ryan really is a racist. I’ve never met the man. I know that when I hear him talking, pictures of dinosaurs appear in my mind. I also know that what he said WAS racist, and that he should no longer have a job in public broadcasting.

Similarly, I don’t know if Mark Sawyer is a racist. I’ve never met him. I know he writes some inordinately stupid stuff. I also know that he’s deeply ignorant, and he shouldn’t have a job in public writing.

But of course, that’s not going to happen. Mark is not going to lose his job for feeding the social troll. Because racial click baiting is the new business model of a media organisation that has increasingly struggled for relevance.

So, what to do? How do we combat it?

My advice to people who want this to end – the people who no longer want to wake to white people explaining why racism is okay – is to not consume it. 

Don’t swallow the bait. Don’t click on their stories. And definitely don’t share their links through social media.

Instead, get even by busting the racial click-bait business model.

If you still feel an overwhelming desire to knock down the myths, then share their stories by copying and pasting the text into your newsfeed.

And when a little Herald notice pops up on your screen to warn you that you’ve read 29 out of your 30 stories for the month, go to your preferences and clear your cache.

* IMPORTANT NOTE TO READERS: The original version of this story referred to Herald journalist Aparna Khopkar as one of the ‘coloured girls in the editorial pool’ in single quotes. The reference was intended to highlight the SMH's racism however it missed its mark wildly. New Matilda apologises unreservedly to Ms Khopkar, and to readers, for any offence caused.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.