Signing off

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
  - W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’

Well, here we are, talking like this for the last time. How has it been for you, the last ten years? Actually, Eureka Street has been part of my life for 14 of its 15 years: Morag Fraser asked me to help out with the proofing in 1992, and I’ve sort of stuck to the place like dried Weet-Bix ever since.

March 1996 is so distant now, it was a different cosmos. The Labor government in Canberra was just about to lose the election after deciding to shaft its environmental voters, stop annoying big business and go after the demographic now known as ‘Howard’s battlers’. (Good move, fellas. You showed us. And where are you now? That’s right, say it loud and clear—IN OPPOSITION. FOR TEN YEARS. Just so you know, because we are all thinking that MAYBE YOU HAVEN’T NOTICED.)

What else? Well, a computer hard drive was about half a gig, and mobile phones were about as big as Maxwell Smart’s shoe-phone. And no one had heard of that ballroom-dancing chip-shop woman who made racism not respectable but just bloody shameless.

As the first Hughes Watching Brief was being written, John Howard was already telegraphing the future by refusing to go on the ABC to debate the then PM, Keating. He wanted Ray Martin and Kerry Packer’s Nine, and he got what he wanted because, as we now know, Howard tends to get what he wants. The events that followed have a curious inevitability about them, as we look back on the decade of wedging, dog-whistling and weasel words. I find myself wondering time and again, ‘How the heck did we let that happen?’ I don’t think I’m alone, but we wonderers don’t seem as organised, ruthless or determined as the people we are wondering about: Yeats said it all up there at the top of the page.

When Howard was elected he slashed the budget of the national broadcaster that he had so feared as a host for his pre-election debate, and installed as boss Jonathan Shier to run the organisation into the ground. It’s all the more credit to ABC employees that news and current affairs have continued at all. And as we now go to press with Eureka Street’s last print issue, Communications Minister Helen Coonan has announced the abolition of the one and only staff-elected position on the ABC board. Once that would have meant a strike, a nice big fat one, with strong debate in the press. But it was tucked away behind some bloody Commonwealth Games reporting and nobody seemed to notice. In any case, are strikes ‘legal’ any more under the draconian industrial laws that have just come in?

A rough decade of television stuff that stands out:

  • The image of the World Trade Center’s destruction on 11 September 2001.
  • The Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony.
  • The utter failure of any channel except ABC and SBS to display any sympathy for asylum seekers.
  • The disappearance from mainstream news/current affairs radar of Aboriginal rights and reconciliation.
  • Ditto for the environment, particularly this last decade’s onslaught on our forests.
  • The resistless rise of horrible reality programs.
  • The proliferation of cooking programs in a culture that eats packaged food in front of the telly.
  • The impregnability and longevity of soap operas.
  • Good comedies: Father Ted, Kath & Kim, Absolutely Fabulous, The Vicar of Dibley, Roy and HG, Frontline, Backberner, Good News Week.
  • Good series, mini or otherwise: The Sopranos, The West Wing, Sea Change, Xena, Buffy, Changi.
  • Good news: Media Watch, Four Corners and the 7.30 Report with Kerry O’Brien: may they survive to comment on this time as a unique and unfortunate glitch in the long, successful history of the national broadcaster.

TV programs that changed the way we look at the world, whatever you might think of them: The X-Files, The Sopranos, Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Roy & HG, Big Brother, Jamie’s School Dinners, The Simpsons, Princess Diana’s funeral, the September 11 images.

Back then in pre-millennium, pre-9/11, pre-SIEV-X days I began this column by breathlessly informing you all that we were watching less TV than before. It seemed like a good thing at the time—a whole ten minutes less per week than in 1991. Of course, there were only the five network channels then; the big cable rollouts started a bit later. The impact of pay TV has been quiet but profound, and the media pundits are predicting the end of network TV as we know it.

Other media, web-based, are taking over: the single Ed-Murrow-type of audience is splintered into a billion niches, so our 21st-century Joe McCarthys flourish without effective challenge. Murrow had audiences of about 60 million. No one matches that now: the proliferation of channels dilutes such influence, and voters are entertained 24/7 into passivity as billionaire warmongers ravage the Earth and keep us all working so hard for less money that we’re too tired to be activists.

Maybe, as mobiles and the internet grow exponentially, we are seeing the beginnings of Teilhard de Chardin’s noösphere, that web of connectedness that leads all evolution to the omega point. Or maybe we are just in for a great big dollop of Bladerunnerish dystopia. Whatever happens, we need to remember that there’s more to life than watching. Valete et bona fortuna. 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.

 

 

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