The treatment of Stan Grant that has driven him off the ABC is a case study in how content on the professional mass media can fuel social media toxicity, especially on issues such as race.
It does not require the professional mass media to be overtly racist to accomplish this, but to send signals of intense disapproval that trolls then use as the basis for their racist attacks.
Grant himself clearly sees this. In his statement on ABC Online announcing his decision to step away from hosting Q+A on ABC television, he wrote:
Since the King’s coronation, I have seen people in the media lie and distort my words. They have tried to depict me as hate-filled. They have accused me of maligning Australia.
He does not accuse the professional mass media outright of racism, and indeed it is difficult to find outright racist statements there.
Instead, he reserves his accusations of racism for social media, writing:
On social media my family and I are regularly mocked or abused. This is not new. Barely a week goes by when I am not racially targeted. My wife is targeted with abuse for being married to a Wiradjuri man.
The professional mass media’s contribution to the racism he writes about is more subtle. It is to be found, first, in the singling out of Grant from the other members of the ABC panel whose discussion as part of the ABC’s coronation coverage has led to the outrage driving Grant away.
A review of The Australian newspaper’s coverage of the controversy in the period between the coronation and the day following Grant’s announcement shows that Grant was named 11 times: that’s more than the other panel members, Craig Foster, Julian Leeser and Teela Reid, put together.
He was portrayed as the personification of all that was said to be wrong with the panel discussion. Yet Foster, who was there as a representative of the republican movement, and Reid, an Aboriginal lawyer, were just as outspoken, in their own ways, about the effect of the monarchy and its place in Australian life.
But Grant is a tall poppy whose performance as the moderator of Q+A was already the subject of controversy, and the attention directed at him reflected that well-established stereotype.
Second, some of the language used to describe Grant’s words – “rant”, “tirade”, “steam-bath of emotion” – was calculated to intensify antipathy towards him.
That is all the trolls need. From there, the hate speech launches off into territory that will not be described here beyond a general statement that it involves varied references to skin colour and attitude.
This is not to say Grant or anyone else should be immune from criticism. Grant is frequently criticised for his interviewing style, and his views are open to legitimate challenge. But the line is drawn at the point where the criticism becomes personal: where his motives are impugned or his race invoked.
The professional mass media well understands the effects its work can have – for good or ill – on those engaged on social media. But it fails to give sufficient weight to this when making judgements about the portrayal of people who are vulnerable to being trolled: women, people of colour, ethnic and religious minorities.
It may be that the lack of diversity, especially in the upper echelons of media organisations, including the ABC, accounts for at least some of this failure.
In the aftermath of Grant’s announcement, Osman Faruqi, formerly a journalist at the ABC and now culture news editor of The Age, wrote a scathing assessment of the ABC in this respect. He writes:
The higher up the organisation you go, the fewer and fewer diverse faces you see […] contributing to a culture that is, at best, dismissive of the needs and concerns of staff and audience who aren’t white and, at worst, actively hostile to them.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the ABC management’s appalling lack of support for Grant, his fellow panellists and the journalists who conceived and executed the coronation coverage when they came under severe attack from reactionary elements in Australian politics.
Grant himself called it out, saying no one at the ABC offered a word of public support:
Not one ABC executive has publicly refuted the lies written or spoken about me. I don’t hold any individual responsible. It is an institutional failure.
This was obvious even from the outside. Not until Grant had announced his withdrawal from Q+A did the director of news, Justin Stevens, come out with a statement of support, saying the attacks on him were abhorrent and unacceptable.
And then, finally, the editor-in-chief, David Anderson, broke his silence. He apologised to Grant, saying he was “dismayed” at the “sickening behaviour” he had been exposed to, and announcing a review of the way the ABC responds to racist abuse of its staff.
These are fine sentiments, about two weeks too late.
Where were they when some unnamed source inside the ABC was briefing The Australian that complaints about the coronation coverage were being referred to the organisation’s ombudsman and that senior management were reviewing the way the coronation had been covered?
Leaving the field open while your people are attacked is not the way to run a news organisation. A robust defence was called for when the whips were cracking, but it has taken Grant’s stand to bring it forth.
That defence is set out in the organisation’s editorial policies on impartiality: the requirement to present all principal relevant perspectives on an issue. The coronation was first and foremost an intensely political event, freighted with religious and political history, overlaid with spectacle. The journalists who devised the panel understood this and brought in the principal relevant perspectives: monarchist, Indigenous and republican.
As this article was being written, ABC staff were taking matters into their own hands, walking out in support of Grant. Leadership is coming from the bottom.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Denis Muller, The University of Melbourne.
Denis Muller does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.