In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa famously rehashed the words of Samuel Johnson by describing prayer as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”. But that isn’t true. There’s always Australian Story.
At first blush, ABC TV’s long-running program might not seem like much of a magnet for controversy. Its episodes comprise personality-focused, empathy-building, talking heads fests with a sweet and humane core: This Is Is Your Life for a more sophisticated, latte-sipping crowd.
The vices of its subjects are brushed over and/or halfheartedly considered. The perspective of the show tell us that the positives of a person’s life and character are more worthy of attention than the negatives. That may be a fine philosophy to adopt in one’s day-to-day existence. But when applied to a current affairs program that investigates people of influence, whose ideologies and actions can be controversial and far-reaching, it becomes painfully problematic.
For people like Sam Dastyari, Australian Story is a godsend; a perfect tool for rebranding and professional rehabilitation.
Last week’s episode Playing With Fire, about the life of disgraced Labor senator Sam Dastyari, is a case in point. Outraged political opponents of Dastyari, and of the ABC, swooped in like starved vultures, arguing the network had delivered nothing more than a puff piece – timed to coincide with the release of Dastyari’s new book.
The show addresses the elephant in the room (last year’s expenses scandal that saw Dastyari retire from the front bench) in a typically Australian Story-like, no-hard-questions way. There is a mention of it at the start, with a grab from George Brandis condemning his actions, as if to indicate that the episode will be framed in an objective manner.
Dastyari’s parents, reflecting on war torn Iran, explain to us that their son’s indiscretion means little in the scheme of things. His wife tells us the debacle was actually a good thing: it forced him to slow down, reflect, stop working at such a cracking pace.
If you’ve ever answered “I’m a perfectionist” during a job interview, addressing the question of what your greatest flaw is (or “I have trouble switching off”) you can relate to what they’re doing. It’s about framing a negative as a positive, and entrusting that the listener will accept – or at least tolerate – the pish-posh and move on.
It is the profiles of influential people (which presumably get the best ratings) that most draw attention to Australian Story‘s problematic underpinning ethos.
On the other side of politics, the most recent episode about Malcolm Turnbull, The Making of Malcolm (to use one of countless examples) is just as blatantly skewed, with the critical depth of a greeting card. Perhaps we should refer to the Prime Minister as “Malco”, as he at one point refers to himself, following the words “poor” and “little”, speaking in front of a log fire on the subject of a toy bunny. Poor little Malco is introduced on horseback and seems like a swell guy. His greatest regret in life is not having more kids.
We are living in a time when encouraging critical analysis of media content is more important than ever. With news rooms confronting decimated resources, the appeal of cutting corners and/or rehashing press release is strong. As is the temptation of sensational, hot-and-cold, P.T. Barnum-esque headlines, informing us that whatever matter in question is the best or worst of its kind. Most of us also acknowledge that we live in bubbles and ideological, social media-reinforced echo chambers that reinforce our own opinions and preconceptions.
As Australian Story unwittingly but rather shamelessly demonstrates, virtually any kind of controversy or wrongdoing, committed by virtually any kind of person, can be re-engineered to reflect the opposite. Trump calls this “fake news.” Orwell called it “doublethink.”
If Australian Story were to profile Adolf Hitler, much would be made of his time as an arts student. A friend or family member, perhaps speaking in front of a log fire, might reflect on Dolfy’s political views using words like “controversial”. If you think that comparison is outrageous, you might not have seen Australian Story‘s sympathetic portrait of Robert Farquharson, a man found guilty (twice) of murdering three children.
The kind of ‘take their word for it’ approach epitomised by Australian Story is not just lazy; it’s dangerous.
The quality of the episodes, like any program, varies from week to week, as does the nature and status of the subjects. Many are not famous, but it is the profiles of influential people (which presumably get the best ratings) that most draw attention to Australian Story‘s problematic underpinning ethos. The very structure of the program discourages considered thought and critical thinking.
Not every television program needs to be – or should be – overtly cynical; gotcha-fests revelling in the ‘art’ of catching of people with their proverbial pants down. But the kind of ‘take their word for it’ approach epitomised by Australian Story is not just lazy; it’s dangerous. It doesn’t take a genius or a media expert to envision how this might be taken advantage of (and already has, on many occasions). For people like Dastyari, Australian Story is a godsend; a perfect tool for rebranding and professional rehabilitation.
Premiering in May 1996, the show has had a good run. The time has come to axe it. Or maybe it could be saved by fundamentally redeveloping the premise. A similar format could be used, for example, to focus exclusively on groups of people whose lives have been given short shrift when it comes to media attention on mainsream networks: like the disabled, the sexually and racially diverse, the poor and downtrodden.
As it stands, Australian Story is a news program without a meaningful perspective or ideology. Or, worse, an ideology that bends every week according to its subjects, who may or may not be scoundrels. There is no place for it.
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