The Guardian 22 June, 2005

"Shock jock" broadcaster
found guilty of racism

Peter Mac

Australia’s redneck radio broadcasters got a jolt recently when the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) bared its teeth over racist broadcasting. The ABA found that South Australian radio station 5AA had broadcast material damaging to Aboriginal people, after the death of T J Hickey and the subsequent Redfern riots last year.

The ABA found that the broadcast had breached two aspects of the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice, because it had broadcast "a program which was likely to have incited or perpetuated hatred against Aboriginal people on the basis of their race…" and because the station licensees had not replied to a complaint made about the broadcast by Derek Thomas, an official of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

During the broadcast "talk-back" show presenter Bob Francis stated that Aboriginal people who described the riots as a show of grief were "dirty rotten bastards". He invited Aboriginal people to ring in and "have an argument about it". In another reference to grief as manifested in the "Redfern events", he blew a "raspberry" and shouted "Display of grief? In your bum!"

Speaking about the obligation on police to talk to Aboriginal leaders after disturbances involving Aboriginal people, he sneered that "We’re getting so bloody do-goody-goody. And we need to stick it right up them as far as I’m concerned."

During much of the discussion Francis encouraged the view that Aboriginal people would not work, and were in many respects pretty worthless. After one caller recommended demolition of Aboriginal people’s dwellings in Redfern’s Eveleigh Street, he replied "The do-gooders would just move in and say ‘Where do you put those people?’ I don’t care!" When another caller claimed about the "ferals of Redfern" he declared that "The whole of Redfern … should be absolutely bulldozed".

When another caller recommended that the police should have shot the Redfern rioters, Francis did not object, but simply argued for more cautious tactics, saying "Well mate, you see, the point is, you can’t do that. Everything is so touchy in situations like that".

Francis appears to have believed that because he was talking about a specific current event he could say almost anything without being accused of racism. He discouraged discussion about Aboriginal people except in relation to the Redfern riot. When forced to do so, he stated (rather reluctantly) that "there’s a lot of good Aboriginal people". When a drunken caller said, "Give a blackfellow a house and he’ll burn it down" he replied "I won’t allow you to talk like that", and terminated the call (albeit with an apology).

The 5AA licensees argued that these and other aspects of the broadcast compensated for any breach of the Code. The ABA was not convinced, however, and found the complainant’s case proved. They agreed that open discussion of controversial events was entirely appropriate, but concluded that the Francis broadcast was not presented "reasonably and in good faith for purposes in the public interest". They also rejected 5AA’s statement that a reply to Derek Thomas had been written but had been mistakenly filed.

The ABA’s decision is a good result. However, there are some sour notes at the ending of the story.

Firstly, the Authority’s actions, and its findings, were based on a complaint lodged by an individual. The authority itself seems reluctant, and may be unable under the law, to monitor the media and take action in its own right.

Secondly, while the ABA’s sober report offers a clear indictment of the broadcast, it imposed or recommended no penalty against Francis and the 5AA licensee. The ABA report on the case simply noted with satisfaction the licensee’s promise to give Francis "training and assistance" to meet aspects of the Broadcasting Code, as well as staff training, support and monitoring, and other actions. The ABA may have bared its teeth, but it certainly did not sink them in.

Under Australian law, if someone slanders another person, they risk very large financial penalties. However, the Francis case demonstrates that a person who slanders an entire people only risks a mild verbal slap on the wrist and a compulsory course in media practices.

It seems that eliminating media racism in Australia still has a long way to go.

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