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A fascist by any other name

  • 17 November 2015

The emergence of the fascist groupuscle the United Patriots Front from within the larger, more amorphous Reclaim Australia movement poses a challenge to the media: namely, how should such an organisation be described?

In the face of controversy, journalists too often revert to the old 'he said, she said' convention. That is, when covering a contested issue, they report what both parties to the dispute say and then let the readers make their own judgements. Jay Rosen, the influential journalism academic, notes that the practice offers a solution to 'quandaries common the reporting trail':

'When, for example, a screaming fight breaks out at the city council meeting and you don't know who's right, but you have to report it, he said, she said makes the story instantly writable. Not a problem, but a solution to the reporter's (deadline!) problem.'

The practice becomes particularly handy when writing stories in which you know you'll get pushback. Think of your standard Middle Eastern correspondent quoting, with professional evenhandness, what first the Israelis and then the Palestinians say about a deadly incident in the Occupied Territories.

As that example suggests, 'he said, she said' often functions as an evasion. The Golden Mean might be a classical principle of aesthetics but reporters' loyalty should be to accuracy, which isn't necessarily about compromise between extremes. When denialists and climate scientists take diametrically opposed stances, the truth doesn't lie somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, one side's objectively right and the other's just wrong.

Blair Cotrell, the leader of the UPF, denies being a fascist.

He's lying.

Yes, 'fascism' is a term thrown around lightly, used by some as a simple insult for any politician to the right of the Greens.

Paradoxically, it's also freighted with an almost impossible heft, serving to signify the ultimate evil. For understandable reasons, after Auschwitz, fascism in general — and Nazism in particular — can seem, as manifestations of incomprehensible depravity, entirely divorced from the everyday world. Hence the popularisation of Godwin's law, in which the first party making reference to the Nazis during an online debate gets adjudged the loser.

Yet fascism was once a mass phenomenon, a political philosophy with adherents in every developed nation. Its followers did not come with devil's horns attached. They were everyday people, who just happened to agree with fascist principles.

To put it another way, fascism grew once and it can grow again. By ruling the term out of polite conversation we deny ourselves the ability to recognise