STUART REES Character Assassination as Journalism & Politics

The notion common humanity presupposes regard for respect, dignity, tolerance, thoughtfulness, generosity and support for non-violence. Recent attacks against the Assistant President of the NSW Upper House, Moslem Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane, displayed none of those qualities.

Mosselmane was the victim of character assassination for questioning anti-Chinese sentiment and for praising Chinese leadership’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan.

One side of this controversy included radio shock jocks Ray Hadley and Alan Jones, Sky News’ Peta Credlin, former politicians Stephen Conroy and Graham Richardson, two SMH journalists, a representative of the Daily Mail, Federal Minister Peter Dutton, Walt Secord of the NSW Labor Party and the One Nation representative Mark Latham.

Shaoquett Moselmane is a generous, selfless parliamentarian who for decades has contributed to invaluable charitable and community work. I regard him as a significant human rights advocate. Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr describes his Labor colleague as conscientious, hard-working, ‘a very good person’.

Given Shaoquett’s character and achievements, what do his detractors have against him? He supports the human rights of Palestinians. He had contrasted the leadership of Xi Jinping with the absence of Prime Minister Morrison in the early weeks of the bush fire emergency. One academic China watcher said that Moselmane’s praise of Chinese leadership was ‘misguided’, but that does not mean he’s a spokesperson for Chinese communism or should be hounded from office.

In diatribes against Moselmane, repetition was the first of three techniques. Journalists and ex-politicians threw mud on the assumption that some of it might stick. A Nick Mckenzie article in the SMH became a catalyst for abuse against the MP and seems to have fed the scapegoating of Chinese Australians. Mackenzie’s colleague Lisa Ventin repeated his claims, the Daily Mail chimed in.

Searching for sensation, some journalists think they must attack something and someone. Between March 31 and April 10 there were thirty-two articles or broadcasts attacking Moselmane, 12 from the Daily Telegraph, 10 from the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 from Sky News and Radio 2GB, 2 from the Jewish News/Jwire and 1 from the Daily Mail.

On April 2 in a Peta Credlin interview on Sky News, One Nation MP Mark Latham referred to Moselmane’s ‘disgusting praise of China’s corona virus response’, and in another Credlin exchange, former Labor Senator Stephen Conroy said, ‘Mr. Moselmane is an absolute disgrace to the Labor Party.’ The vehemence of Conroy’s attack sounds like projection, attributing to others what he feels about himself: ‘an absolute disgrace to the Labor Party.’ Conroy gave Credlin the cue to insist that a politician who made bizarre pro-China comments should be sacked.

To add to the let’s get him campaign, on April 2 Peter Dutton spoke to 2GB’s Ray Hadley, ‘You can’t have an allegiance to another country and pretend to have an allegiance to this country at the same time.’ A barely disguised hint of Moselmane being a traitor was repeated by Hadley.

Added to this repeat technique is the notion that if bullies express the same charges, they must be right. On April 2, Hadley referred to Moselmane ‘copping a giant spray from former Federal Labor Minister Steven Conroy on Sky News and again on my programme.’

A second characteristic of attacks against Moselmane is the confidence in making false claims, as though having a microphone means that ethics are irrelevant, no one will be held accountable.

In an interview with Latham on April Fools Day, Peta Credlin declared that since entering parliament in 2009, ‘Well this bloke had, you know, nine or so sponsored trips to China, to do you know, God knows what…If we really have foreign agent laws, why isn’t Moselmane being looked at?’ This implied the MP was a well-supported Chinese sympathizer. A more careful assessment would have shown that he pays his own expenses and had created a charity ‘Kids on Wheels’. With friends, he had delivered wheelchairs to meet the needs of children in one of Shanghai’s largest orphanages.

On April 6, to continue the claim that Moslemane is sympathetic to China and disloyal to Australia, McKenzie produced another piece of maliciousness. Moselmane had written that in the context of media xenophobia and hostility against China having become the norm, ‘the old white Australia fear of the yellow peril is re-surfacing’. From that observation, Mckenzie produced the headline, ‘Obsolete scum of white Australia behind anti-Chinese sentiment says NSW Labor MP.’ An initial, ‘the old white Australia fear of the yellow peril’ became ‘the obsolete scum of white Australia.’

A third trend concerns a determination to influence politics as though access to a microphone or the entitlement to write a regular newspaper column, means that abuse could bring down a politician or influence a political leader. Even modest praise of China or of Palestinians makes certain commentators feel that they should target anyone who voices those views, and there must be no caveats to their criticism. To express doubt would be an admission of weakness. Dogma does not entertain doubt. They want scalps. They think they can influence politics. They do influence politics. They influence the sacking of Prime Ministers.

Attackers against Moselmane behaved as though they represented a political party, at least in terms of getting rid of someone. In his 2GB interviews of April 2 and 3, Ray Hadley began with a modest description of Moselmane, ‘A rather regrettable fellow’ then warmed to his task. The MP is called, ‘This jerk’, ‘a train wreck’, ‘a Chinese PR spokesperson’, ‘a lunatic’, ‘a low filthy bludger’, ‘this low life’, ‘this bastard’, ‘this cancerous growth’, ‘unworthy traitor’, ‘a dolt’.

That bullying is then transferred to NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay. Hadley wanted to confront her about this Labor Upper House MP, but ‘We can’t find her. We can’t find her anywhere. We’ve been looking for her all morning.’ He threatens, ‘Unless you come out from your bunker…unless you come out and condemn this man, you will be associated for all time with this imbecility.’ On April 3 when McKay does appear, his listeners are told, ‘Jodi McKay has been flushed out.’

McKay attempts to be constructive, ‘My sole focus is to work constructively across the parliament to deal with the health and economic consequences of the pandemic. That’s what the people of NSW expect’. Hadley responds, ‘No, they expect leadership from you and they want that bloke sacked.’

…‘Can you shut him up’. McKay gives Hadley part of what he wants, ‘Ray his actions have been appalling’. Hadley concludes, ‘You can talk to me next week. … Once you get rid of him you can talk to me all you like. But get rid of him first.’

On April 7 Moselmane resigned his Assistant President position. The bullies had achieved a partial victory and were joined by others to remind the public that Moselmane is critical of the policies of Israeli governments and supports the human rights of Palestinians. A lethal brew is concocted. Pro-Israel sentiments are joined with antagonism towards the Chinese. Who could possibly disagree?

NSW Labor MP Walt Secord, Deputy Chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel says he welcomes the resignation of this long-term anti-Israel activist over his ‘extremely stupid pro Wuhan Covid-19 comments.’ Then he produces a familiar, unproven accusation, that Moselmane has compared Israel to Nazi Germany.

Not to be left out of a head kicking, Vic Alhadeff, former chief executive of the Jewish Board of Deputies joins in. ‘Mr Moslemane has taken deeply problematic views on Israel and our community over the years, drawing analogy between Israel and Nazi Germany.’ Then comes Alhadeff’s sickening ingratiation, ‘His (Moselmane’s) jaundiced views on such issues have reflected poorly on the many fine members of the NSW Labor for too long and we don’t believe many will shed a tear at this development.’

The details of this story are important, so too is a practice where derision, bullying, and repetition of information hinge on an apparent fascination with cruelty, compounded by an inability to re-define an issue, to question dogma, let alone consider the merits of an opponent’s views.

This episode of bullying and moral certainty may persist in a post corona world, hence a need to foster respect for the ideals of a common humanity. Without such respect, society will be uncivil, and the most aggressive may think that their dogma represents views a wider world should share.

There’s an irony in the bullies’ behaviour. Their ‘shut him up’, ‘sack him’, ‘get rid of him’, displays the same intolerance of dissent common in the Communist China.

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, Univ.of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize.

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Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”, Bristol: Policy Press. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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