Media's role in the politics of fear; a look inside One Nation and the alt-right

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 1 June 2017
That moment on Q&A when a stunned Pauline Hanson asked Labor politician Sam Dastyari 'Are you Muslim?'.

The emergence of the global alternative right movement that helped the Brexit vote get over the line and saw Donald Trump become US president has also laid a marker in Australia.

In recent years, the movement has manifested into the rise of nationalist extremist groups, such as like Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, while One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has enjoyed a sudden revival in federal politics.

While many people dismiss these movements and their policies as racist, xenophobic and only representing of a fringe minority, the makeup of their audiences and how savvy they are at marketing their brand will surprise.

Last week at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, one of Australia’s leading journalists, David Marr, and one of its best documentary makers and author, John Safran, offered a fascinating insight into what makes these groups tick, their appeal and how they attract people, including ordinary Australian families, to their cause. 

Branding the alt-right

Safran spent many months attending nationalist rallies, hanging out with the leaders of alt-right groups and getting to know ISIS sympathisers and other extremists for his book Depends What You Mean By Extremists.

Perhaps the most high-profile of leaders of the alt-right movement in Australia, is United Patriots Front leader Blair Cotterill, who was recently in court for beheading a dummy outside Bendigo Council offices as part of an anti-Islam video.

Safran said he had spent some time getting to know Cotterill personally and describes him as the “Today Tonight of anti-Islam”, adding “it's like something you can get away with”.

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But the image Cotterill (pictured above) has curated for the public is not what it seems; take brand Cottrell Blair, that brand is quite a different beast from real life Cotterill, Safran explained.

For example, Cotterill knows his extreme personal views, such as there should be a picture of Hitler in every classroom, aren't going to wash with ordinary mums and dads, so he carefully curates an image that is more palatable.

“He's sort of bent [his real motives] and is pretending that his concern is really about sheiks and halal certification,” Safran observed. “I guess his game plan is that you get people in on that and then you upsell them.”

One Nation’s appeal is somewhat different even though it holds similar racist views and anti-Islam policy positions. The party attracts a base of support beyond far-right extremists, and a large part of that is down to 'brand Hanson', explained David Marr, author of the Quarterly Essay - The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race.

In his essay, Marr says that Hanson’s appeal is partly driven by voters’ affection for her – how normal and Australian she appears – as well as the courage to bluntly call out issues as she sees them. She has an authenticity that has long been lost in the major parties (see more about Hanson’s appeal in below: Inside One Nation – the comeback queen).

Another element is that she comes from a similar ‘working class come good’ background and offers the aspiration that ordinary folks can be heard in federal politics and its chambers of the elite.

“She was, for three years, the member for Oxley. She got elected on a platform of bashing blacks and she was in parliament. That gives you this prestige that she can draw on forever,” Marr told a packed Roslyn Packer Theatre.

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‘Beautiful and dangerous’ political language

Safran and Marr's books examine how the alt-right and other extremist groups market themselves with a remarkably similar use of political language.

Marr says a common thread is that these groups will use language and spin that in attempts to arrive at a messaging outcome without using direct language that many would find offensive.

An example used by the far right groups in America and Australia is how they frame their hatred of race.

Marr explained it like this: “[They say] we’re not preaching race hate here, we’re showing our contempt for the elites and exhibiting our opposition to political correctness.”

“The principle bridge of bringing these terms [from the US] to Australia is of course News Corp and a couple of organisations like the [right-wing think tank] Institute of Public Affairs.

“It is a beautifully constructed new language to do old things, principally to sledge people who have small 'L’ liberal moral views about the way in which society should develop. So these people are pillored as elites and followers of political correctness.”

Conservative politicians and their allies in the press often use parochial slogans to drum-up emotions and confuse or conflate issues when they oppose something, he explains.

A classic example of how this works is with Indigenous Australians' land rights.

“You’re not really trying to stop them getting land rights which you believe would interfere with mining companies, it’s a ‘culture war’. This language is beautiful and dangerous and has permeated political debate in this country,’ Marr said.

The ‘culture war’ slogan is widely used when fighting against marriage equality, safe schools or the effect or how halal certification may impact of the ‘Australian way of life’.

The alt-right have jumped on this language and, unlike previous eras, have a powerful tool to widely distribute and disseminate their propaganda to like-minded individuals.

The role of social media in making politics into brands

The discussion moved on to the role social media and how it has empowered these groups to parade as legitimate organisations in a way previously not possible.

“Before the internet, if you were radical and you printed out a book, it would look a bit wrong, it wouldn’t look like a Penguin book,” Safran explained.

“And if they are handing out these pamphlets and they are photocopied you could tell straight away it was a bit weird. But with [social channels] you have all these templates and if you are a radical your blog can look like you’re Coca-Cola or something.”

Marr recalled the types of pamphlets that such activist groups used to distribute: with purple ink, which gave off a funny smell that instantly registered as ‘dodgy’.

He jokingly added: “Queensland, and this is a scientific fact, is where all of these groups come from…and they would have a really hard job getting their message around. But the message [today] passes effortlessly now to anybody who is interested in it.

“They were never going to be reported sympathetically in The Sydney Morning Herald, or even in The Daily Telegraph but now you can go online with all of the bells and whistles of what appears to be a respectable publication.

“You can have all of your fears confirmed, all of your madness reinforced and it’s just at the press of a few buttons.”

The internet hasn’t worked out well for all fringe groups. Organisations like the Church of Scientology and Freemasons had all of their “mystery” debunked by basic Google searches.

Interestingly, some of these far right groups have managed to retain an air of mystery – at least for now.

“When I started following these groups online, they have worked out a way to have this power and mystery,” Safran said.

"They will put up a Facebook page and they’ve got their logo like ‘Patriot Army of Melbourne’ and you have no idea whether it’s one guy who’s put that up yesterday or is that 20 of them. How organised are these people – you just don’t know.”

The energy of individuals is also rewarded. Posting a lot of material online, even of dubious quality, can present an image that these groups appear legitimate.

Safran observes a parallel between how these far right leaders use social media and how influencers use Instagram.

“You know you can will yourself into existence to be an Instagram model. With social media being in so many different areas, you can just will yourself into something, and that’s what these far right figures do,” he said.

“[Blair Cottrell] really did that whole thing where he looked at Big Brother and thought, ‘I could do that’. There’s really a performance aspect to at least two of the big leaders, one in the UPF and one in another group.”

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The role of traditional media 

Pauline Hanson's One Nation party relies heavily on the internet to distribute information even though its supporter demographic skews older than the major parties. In fact, the party is only second to the Greens in using digital media to distribute campaign messaging

But it would be inaccurate to suggest Hanson doesn’t also benefit from the traditional media. In fact, her resurgence has been given “a free ride” by the media for much of the past two years, developing a media profile that few other senators, perhaps aside from Nick Xenophon, could achieve.

It’s almost an ‘Aussie lite’ version of the sort of media attention that Donald Trump attracted.

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Marr partly blames TV shows like Sunrise and Q&A for feeding this phenomenon, with special words for the ABC panel show.

“I don’t know how The Australian gets Q&A so wrong because there is an opening for attack on that show, which The Australian doesn’t pursue,” he explained.

“[That is the number of] people of appalling reputation that Q&A has restored to public life. Allan Jones goes on Q&A and seems completely reasonable. Graham Richardson was an outcast but went on Q&A and was really interesting.

“Pauline Hanson goes on Q&A and she was a riveting performer. It wasn’t just the moment when she turned around to one of the fellow panelists (Labor's Sam Dastyari) and said in shock, ‘you’re a Muslim’.”

The major political parties have been reluctant to directly attack Hanson and her policies for fear or upsetting some of their own constituents who may be sympathetic to her cause and swing voters.

Their methods of dealing with her, according to Marr, has been to treat her as any other politician and pounce when chinks in the armour emerge.  

Recently, a scandal leaked in which One Nation chief of staff James Ashby discussed a plan to cash in on the party’s own candidates by selling ‘advertising packs’. This would amount to form of electoral fraud. A Four Corners investigation exposed the influence Ashby and Hanson have over the party with candidates complaining it operates like a “brutal dictatorship”.

Four Corners also raised questions about Hanson and whether this adhered to laws about donation declarations.

There’s little doubt the scandals have taken the shine away from One Nation and Hanson’s image, certainly in the eyes of the media with the exception, perhaps, of a few far-right columnists and shock jocks.

“She had become a magnet for mainstream media attention since. But in the last weeks, since the Western Australian election, it’s shifted,” Marr explained.

“She’s not seen any more by the media as the harbinger of a political revolution, what’s she’s now seen as is the leader of a dodgy movement…she’s not getting the extraordinary free ride of 2016 and early 2017 – that’s over.”

That said, One Nation still prevails and Hanson appears much more durable this time around. She performs in front of the press better as a more savvy operator. Far right groups, on the other hand, will come and go.

“I guess it’s a bit like MySpace collapses and then something new is around the corner. I think this incarnation may flame out but who knows what the next this is,” Saffran said.

Marr said that it’s important to acknowledge that these people who support these groups are part of Australia and they won’t simply “disappear”.

“My argument is we shouldn’t pay attention scrupulously to the numbers involved and that the politics of this country should not play to them as much as it does. You can deal with Pauline Hanson without kowtowing to her and that strange world out there… will remain even if the people leading the rallies pass by.”

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Further reading: The appeal of Pauline Hanson – the comeback queen

Pauline Hanson’s resurgence into federal politics may have surprised some but it’s no fluke.

Marr’s essay sheds light on why Hanson still resonates two decades after she first emerged on a platform of stopping Australia from being flooded by Asians – the ‘Muslims’ of that era to the far right. 

Marr points out that Hanson wasn’t exactly out of the public eye, with guest appearances on Seven’s Dancing With The Stars and “six or seven years on Sunrise”.

“This woman went to prison, danced the cha cha on the box on national television for a couple of years, and failed so often at the ballot box she became a running joke. But in truth she never left us. She was always knocking on the door,” he wrote.

Hanson’s attempts at returning to politics during the intervening period were a close run thing. The conditions weren’t quite right for her until recently when disillusioned voters (an equal split of ALP and Labor) were fed up with the disastrous rign of Tony Abbott and politicians that were out of touch. It also coincides with growing anti-Islam sentiment.

Hanson’s resurgence has “sucked the life” out of a lot of right-wing movements.

“Her ability to get back into parliament doesn't depend on the support of the really extreme fringe,” Marr pointed out. “It depends on a cohort of support of ordinary Australians with their ordinary fears and their ordinary distaste for race, which would never go out to a Reclaim rally.”

It is this ability to appeal to a broader base that gives Hanson’s party and her brand greater longevity than the likes of the UFP despite promoting similar messages of hate.

“Where Pauline works is that she, to a lot of people, comes across as pretty normal,” Safran said.

“When I spoke to Pauline Hanson supporters at this Adelaide shopping centre and I tried to talk to them about issues, race and religion and stuff, they'd always steer the conversation back to Pauline's personal story. Things like, 'she is a regular Aussie like us and she got put down and she came back'. It's for important to them, these supporters, that what they're doing is normal and not a radical action.

“With people like Blair Cottrell, their Nazism shines through, that's just too weird and people will back away.”

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Pauline’s people

Marr’s essay provides a unique insight into the characteristics of the One Nation supporter base, and it’s not the typical stereotype many would associate with a fringe far right political party.

One Nation is the most native Australian party with 98% of suppoerters born locally. It’s mostly older Australians, two-thirds above 45, slightly more male (56:44), and two-thirds are working class - the most of any political party.

A much higher proportion live in the bush than the general population and a lower percentage (20%) have university education.

The issues that rile up One Nation supporters much more than other party voters include immigration, 'boat people', Muslims and anger with the government.

One Nation supporters are also tough on crime, with a disturbingly high 88% in favour of bringing back the noose. That said, the majority support legaslised cannabis and supporters are unreligious, pro-abortion and support marriage equality.

A motley crew

What is just as interesting as those who support the party are the “truly weird” running candidates that Hanson attracts.

Perhaps the poster child of this wackiness is climate change denier senator Malcolm Roberts, a former coal miner who is never shy of sporting a tin foil hat or two.

“He believes the world is actually turning into an ice cube and all of that nonsense,” Marr said.

“But he also believes that if you punctuate letters in a particular way you can evade the control of the company that stands behind the government imprisoning all humans. It's crazy.”

Hanson has adopted her own form of “clap trap”, added Marr, particularly in how to frame the Islamic faith – messaging she inherited from evangelists in the US.

“One of the ways of dealing with that is by declaring that Islam is not a religion – it's a political ideology. This is completely insane claptrap but Pauline voices all of that,” Marr added. “One of my arguments is why aren't the mainstream parties challenging her on clap trap.”

It’s a question many Australian voters still interested in politics have probably been wondering, and one even Q&A hasn't been able to crack, but not for a want of trying. 

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