The ABC’s 7:30 program is a reliable source of quality journalism, offering dignified current affairs investigations at a time in the evening when other networks race to the bottom – zooming in on tasty dishes in My Kitchen Rules and lifeguards pounding the sand in Bondi Rescue.
Last week 7:30 investigated franking credits, the aftermath of the floods in Queensland and a high school for students with autism. This week’s stories include an excellent 30-minute episode on the conviction of Cardinal George Pell.
But on Wednesday night, in its final minutes, the ABC’s flagship current affairs program did what current affairs programs so often do with stories involving celebrities, and turned to mush. Celebrities have a strange effect on people, reducing even sharp and shrewd minds to the state of weak-kneed adolescents.
Appearing on the program to spruik his world tour, which arrives on our shores later this year, Hugh Jackman responded to a range of questions reminiscent of a Dorothy Dixer once asked of Mr Burns in an old episode of The Simpsons: “Your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?”
As I tweeted that night, I find it astonishing that a show like 7:30 can be so diligent in covering politics and so starry-eyed in covering culture. The program plugged the film and soundtrack of Jackman’s monstrously successful musical The Greatest Showman, splicing in footage of the acclaimed song-and-dance man performing as notorious shyster PT Barnum, whose life inspired the production.
Why was there no question for Jackman about the history rewriting of this repugnant film, which indulges in lies that will be remembered, cherished and interpreted as truth long into the future?
Barnum built a career off the back of exploiting the suffering of people he presented to the public as ‘freaks’ – a far cry from the champion of diversity Jackman plays in the movie.
As The Guardian’s Steve Rose wrote in December 2017, Barnum “exhibited African-Americans with birth defects, affirming their racial ‘inferiority’.” One of the scammer’s earliest “hits” was Joice Heth, “a blind, partially paralysed slave” whom Barnum claimed was 161 years old. When Heth died, “Barnum held a public autopsy and charged spectators to watch.”
That moment didn’t make it into the director Michael Gracey’s toe-tappin’, feel-good musical. Funny that. An obscene exercise in historical revisionism, the film tells us that these empowered (and not at all exploited) people should be grateful for the beautiful Barnum’s charity and ‘make no apology’ for their lives and appearances.
One person responded to my tweet by writing: “I had a grown adult telling me what an inspiration Barnum is to him since he saw the film. ‘He saw the best in everyone, regardless of their physical appearance.’”
The idea that the average viewer consults the history books after watching a film about a historical figure is, of course, fanciful. Filmmakers dealing with true stories bear some responsibility – not to get all the details right (which is impossible) but to think about, at the very least, what impact the content they produce will have on how narratives are formed and remembered.
Instead of questioning Jackman about anything along those lines, 7:30 host Leigh Sales began: “For a show like this, how do you choose what song to open with?” The remainder of the interview followed suit, delving into subjects such as how the superstar feels about life in his 50s (spoiler alert: he feels better about life than ever).
7:30 often uses cultural coverage as a fluffy bit to bung on the end of the program, complementing the hard-hitting stuff. Sales meets her idol Sir Paul McCartney, for example, and has the greatest day of her life. Occasionally there are cultural stories of substance, such as Sales’ excellent interview with Yael Stone last December.
There’s nothing wrong with balancing light and dark elements, and not all parts of the show need to be hard-hitting. But journalism is about critiquing power structures. Why does that scrutiny so often not extend to the big entertainment companies, who in some ways have more power than governments? Politicians would kill for the influence that Hollywood producers have over children’s dreams.
People may shrug their shoulders and say, “The Greatest Showman is just a movie,” as if the status of entertainment affords content creators carte blanche to say and do anything. Maybe you think the talented (and hugely influential) Jackman has done nothing wrong: just an actor hired to play a part.
Perhaps that is true. Or perhaps we are living in a new era when performers like him must, finally, take some ownership of the content they help produce. Not just for our sake, but also for their legacy. Remember Mickey Rooney’s grotesquely racist performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Of course you do. Remember the name of the bloke who directed it? Probably not.
Either way, on a current affairs program, these matters are least deserving of a question.