Waleed Aly And The Cult Of Celebrity: The Caveats For Entering ‘Club Media’

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First things first, like most Australians, I’m a big fan of Waleed Aly. I think it’s refreshing to have someone of his obvious talent on television. He is the antidote to the Karl Stefanovics of TV land.

I also love that an Egyptian Australian – and a Sunni Muslim no less – can dominate our airwaves. And dominate Aly most certainly does.

Aly frequently confronts the bigotry that pervades our nation – and my industry – with a powerful intellect and a deep compassion. That’s worth acknowledging.

Having said that, I rarely watch television, so I rarely watch The Project. I get my Waleed Aly fix from the short clips that make it online, as journos are assigned to watch the program each night, and churn out a story about Aly’s latest expose or clash.

More broadly, The Project is an excellent program, with excellent hosts. It has high production values and it clearly places great stock in explaining complex and important issues simply, and concisely. The journalism on The Project is also surprisingly good, and the people behind it clearly know how to produce high quality, informed television.

I also appreciated Aly’s speech at Sunday night’s Logies – his tale about a man named Moustafa changing his name so he can get a job was inspiring, and that he chose to tell it to an industry that has routinely been one of the worst offenders was heartening.

So I was interested to see The Project’s reaction to the excitement over Aly’s Logies win, hence why I tuned in last night.

I didn’t make it to the end of the show. I switched off shortly after an interview with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Which brings me to my chief objection to the show: playing nicely with people who don’t.

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One of the regular guests on the show is shock-jock Steve Price, a man who I consider to be archaic and deeply flawed.

I get the theory behind Price’s participation in the show – viewers like tension, Price creates tension.

But I do tension for living, and I’m sure as hell not going to subject myself to it when I get home. And if I wanted stupid ideas, I’d join a major political party.

Here’s some of Price’s.

Public breastfeeding is a bad thing. And if refugees “didn’t get on a boat illegally, they wouldn’t be here”. Coal mining is awesome, particularly big coal mining by giants like Adani, who are going to create jobs… while tearing up the Galilee Basin, lying about the benefits, and increasing Australia’s emissions exponentially, at a time when small Pacific nations are going under water.

And for the record, while Price used The Project to advance this nonsense, his wife was the chief of staff to the minister responsible for signing off the environmental approvals of the project.

But it’s not Price’s simple presence on The Project that annoys me. It’s that Aly, Bickmore and others play nicely with him.

‘Pricey’, as they call him, always gets a smile and a tummy rub after every clash. Personally, if I was in a room with him, I’d make it my life’s work to ensure that for every minute we spent together, Price understood precisely what I thought of him, and much more importantly, precisely why I thought it.

There would be no smiles and guffaws at the end. Smiling might be good way to end tension and boost ratings, but I don’t think it particularly helps humanity. I think it allows serious issues to be left unresolved.

Of course, Price’s influence is relatively limited. His power is restricted to right-wing populist rants, and most of the time most of the people on earth simply ignore him.

But the same can’t be said for Julie Bishop, our Foreign Minister, whose appearance on The Project last night reminded why I don’t watch much television.

Bishop is in a position of real power and influence. And like her colleagues, Bishop routinely wields that power and influence for the benefit of her party and rich mates, to the detriment of our nation.

Bishop was challenged (in part by Price, but far more eloquently by Aly) about why, after two years of ‘on water silence’ about asylum seeker issues, her government was now suddenly keen to start talk about the details of ‘asylum seeking’.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, at the COP21 talks in Paris (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell, New Matilda)
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, at the COP21 talks in Paris (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell, New Matilda)

By any chance did an election campaign have anything to do with her newfound enthusiasm for talking about boats?

Bishop fudged the question, and no-one bothered to pull her up.

And then the segment ended with them all laughing and smiling, and Julie Bishop pretending to be a tiger.

Need I remind you, moments earlier, this was a group of people discussing the indefinite mandatory detention of innocent men, women and children on an island hell-hole in the middle of the Pacific, and a government’s use of them to boost their own electoral fortunes.

So here’s the message I took away from the exchange: Recently, two people fleeing persecution set themselves on fire in order to escape the abject misery of their lives. But shit happens. And hey, we’re all human right? It doesn’t mean we can’t all still get along.

Yes, we are all human. But that sort of shit does mean we can’t all get along, because it’s being done in our name, by our government.

The fact is, the cult of celebrity in my industry is a major problem. The media is a club, and if you don’t ‘laugh and get along at the end of the day’, then you’re not allowed through the mainstream doors.

My colleagues work for News Corp because, well, we’ve all got to earn a living. And my colleagues turn a blind eye to the frequent racist excesses of Fairfax, because hey, we’ve got to work with these people.

My colleagues pretend the ABC doesn’t create false balance, because sometimes you have to dumb things down a bit to stay alive.

And while all this goes on, the standing of the media gets lower and lower in the minds of the masses. We just keep doing what we’ve always done, because… well, we’ve all got to get along.

I’m sorry to say, but Waleed Aly is a card carrying member of this club. Indeed his Logie is the equivalent of a gold pass, albeit with a few caveats. He may be an Egyptian Australian whose grown up staring down racism every day – and I don’t pretend to understand what that must feel like, or how that must shape your views – but when the very people who enforced that oppression embrace you, it either means the oppression has ended, or you’re now expected to be a part of it.

Labor Member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke.
Labor Member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke.

I have genuine respect for people who are able to work within a system to affect positive change. So people like Melissa Parke in the Labor Party, who sacrifice popularity for principle, and Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan in the Liberal Party, have my admiration and respect. And people like Larissa Waters and Lee Rhiannon and others in the Greens.

But I think the system is the problem. I don’t think it can be reformed. I think we kid ourselves when we pretend it can. And I think we forget the price that others pay while we work to fix it. I think we need to face the realities of our systemic industry failures, then burn the structure to the ground, and start again.

Privilege is so entrenched in our society that despite what our governments do to asylum seekers and to Aboriginal people, and despite what our soldiers do to innocent men, women and children in countries most of us could never locate on a map, we can still ‘have a laugh’ at the end of the day. And we can still be ‘inclusive of all views’, like those of Price and other conservatives.

Except that it’s not a ‘view’ to jail innocent men, women and children. That’s an action.

It’s not a view to deny the slaughter of the First Australians. It’s a conscious choice.

Waleed Aly and Steve Price.
Waleed Aly and Steve Price.

The problem with my industry is that so many of us make that conscious choice, because we just want to ‘get along’.

It’s not our job to get along. That’s not how our privilege in the media is supposed to be used. It’s our job to hold truth to power.

Aly does that better than most, but choosing to ‘get along at the end of the day’ allows people like Bishop and Price and others off the hook.

Their comfort is why poverty is entrenched in Aboriginal communities. It’s why Muslims are routinely demonized. It’s why our nation rushes to war regardless of our national interest.

It’s why we’re one of the worst polluting nations on earth, in the face of a climate disaster that will impact on us least, and last*.

I acknowledge that Aly mostly uses his privilege powerfully, and responsibly. But our capacity as a society to allow the humanization of people who preside over inhumane things is actually the real reason why they call Australia ‘The Lucky Country’.

It’s not lucky for everyone, and I hope that Aly and others with his privilege remember that the next time they feel the need to laugh and get along, because that’s precisely the caveat that keeps him in the club.

* If you haven’t yet subscribed to New Matilda, you can do so here. $6 a month ain’t a bad deal. Also, a friend gently noted after publication that Australia stands to lose the most from climate change. On that front, here’s a piece in The Guardian worth mulling over.

https://newmatilda.com/shop/

Chris Graham

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. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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