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SBS goes celebrities over substance on asylum seekers


Go Back to Where You Came From. Tuesday 28, Wednesday 29 and Thursday 30 August. 8:30pm on SBS ONE 

Peter Reith, Go Back to Where You Came FromThey stop short of calling it Go Back to Where You Came From: Celebrity Edition, but they needn't bother. The second season of SBS television's 'refugee journey in reverse' reality TV series replaces the 'ordinary' Australians of last year's inaugural season with six 'prominent' Australians, with divergent views about Australia's border protection policies.

They include former rock star and aspiring politician Angry Anderson; actress and supermodel Imogen Bailey; former Howard minster Peter Reith; outspoken journalist and comedian Catherine Deveny; former 2UE and 4BC 'shock jock' Michael Smith; and Allan Asher, the former ombudsmen who resigned in 2011 after revelations he provided Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young with questions to ask him during a Senate committee hearing regarding problems with detention centres.

It's hard to escape the view this is a cynical exercise on the part of SBS, and the show's production company Cordell Jigsaw. Series one was a bona fide 'conversation starter' but also a ratings boon. Its sizeable multi-platform approach enlivened the debate through a vigorous social networking component. Whatever its flaws, his was about ordinary Australians watching ordinary Australians whose experiences both illuminated and challenged their own values and prejudices.

Two episodes in, series two seems more interested in conflict and drama than illumination.

This is best epitomised by the pairing of Deveny with Reith, whom the forthright journo scorns for his role in the Tampa crisis in 2001 and in the construction of the original Pacific Solution. Deveny is knowledgeable about the issues but her style is belligerent to say the least. She pays Reith due respect for being willing to partake in the journey, but what she calls 'robust debate' between the two is better described as aggression both passive and active. There's not much insight to be gained from watching these two snipe at each other, fun as it may be.

The producers also waste no time ramping up the sense of peril confronting the 'celebrities'. In the first episode, after visiting local Afghani and African refugees living in the community, the participants are immediately flown either to Kabul in Afghanistan or to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Breaking from the strict 'journey in reverse' formula allows the producers to cut quickly to footage of the nervous participants clad in armoured vests as they are driven through war-torn streets, ever mindful of the proximity of bombs and gunfire.

This is edge-of-your-seat television. And it arguably is a more effective means of shaking the participants' prejudices, juxtaposing so explicitly the lives of refugees living in the destination country of Australia, with the dire state of affairs in their country of origin. But it also conjures up images of emphatic television producers sitting around a table as they opine: 'It's the sequel, so we need more action, and we need to get there faster!'

More encouraging is how the series allows some of the participants to transcend easy labelling. Bailey's reflections on having been in a long-term relationship with a devout Muslim man, and of experiencing 'reverse racism' as 'the only Australian in the room' on social occasions, suggests she is more than merely a bleeding heart on this issue. Her views have some substance, even if they are vaguely and weepily expressed.

By the same token, Smith, whose particular beef is with 'illegal' entrants and the 'gravy train' they provide for refugee lawyers, is shown interacting easily with children in Mogadishu, displaying digital photos of his own children and hoisting one young Somalian to his shoulders with avuncular glee; whatever his political prejudices, he encounters them simply as human beings, while Bailey can only stand aside looking overwhelmed.

This acknowledgement of human complexity is more heartening. Problematic legislation enacted in the wake of the Houston Report highlights the fact that these are issues that we need to continue talking about. If the primary goal of Go Back to Where You Came From is to help stimulate this conversation, then it needs to be a conversation of substance, with the inherent dignity of all human beings at its core, and not one characterised by the cynical and even puerile elements that have marked other aspects of the series so far. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Go Back to Where You Came From, SBS, asylum seekers, refugees, Peter Reith, Catherine Deveny



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Existing comments

Well said Tim . . .that bickering spoils it for me too instead of focusing on the victims. It's the same as the politicians in the House - bickering instead of doing something about the situation. Looking forward to the next chapter and Insight on Friday night. Thanks again Tim

Murray J Greene | 29 August 2012  

disagree entirely with this analysis of the current sbs tv show. this may be true for experts in the field but for us ordinary people at home, it is very illuminating and informative. you can see the humanity in all the participants and it helps to illustrate the massive nature of the problem and the reality that unless there is action at a global level to address the horrors of life for so many poor refugees, this situation will not be easily solved. i admire the guts and fortitude of all the people who took part. it is easy to be a smug armchair critic, it is admirable to have a go.

debbie clarke | 29 August 2012  

This is so disappointing, especially here, in Eureka Street. You say, 'It's hard to escape the view this is a cynical exercise on the part of SBS and the show's production company, Cordell Jigsaw.' You might be amazed then to learn that I HAVE escaped it, along with many thousands of others. You object to the fact that the participants are all well-known people, and you can offer no other reason for this than ratings. But while that strong ratings have been a result, a result is not the same as a goal. The goal of this series is clearly to get us all thinking about the issues - for some of us to change our minds and for some of us to deepen our understanding, and become more articulate, motivated and committed. And what better way than to show these six well-known people in most uncomfortable situations, being forced to confront the facts? It is particularly powerful to see the three 'rednecks' still trying to justify their positions at the end of the second programmes, but with less and less assurance. These are influential people. It makes sense to involve them. If their attitudes can change, they can, in turn, influence huge numbers of Australians. By the same token, the three 'bleeding hearts' are becoming better informed, and perhaps will emerge from the experience able to communicate more compellingly.

Kate Ahearne | 29 August 2012  

I watched the first episode last night, found it fascinating. I'd love to see us do a show like this in the States. I would say, at too many times the program seemed designed to make Peter Reith look bad. I hope the second and third episodes are a bit more organic; the situation is confronting enough in and of itself.

Jim McDermott | 29 August 2012  

I am not sure I see the clear distinction between series 1 and 2 that is trying to be made here. In last year's 'Go Back' I saw a great deal of conflict and drama, as well as powerful dynamics firing between participants. Albeit through the actions and behaviours of 'ordinary' people. Its all good 'Reality TV'.

Andrew Wilcox | 29 August 2012  

I understand your concerns but still think this is rivetting, thought provoking TV. I hope it stimulates continuing public debate that gets into the issues of why people see asylum as their only route and getting on boats their only means of travelling it. In other words lets confront the front end of the problem rather than ranting out how unfair to us it is to have 'illegals' on boats at the back end. Asylum seekers deserve better; and we can be better than the way we have presented ourselves on this matter so far.

Robert Smith | 29 August 2012  

I didn't even notice the so-called stars. I and most others are more interested in the people themselves. Like did we hear anyone threaten to abuse the Somali's who could get a cart to Ethiopia because they had an advantage over those who had to walk? Or were they abused because they left and had the advantage of a tent in safety instead of being left in Mogadishu. The little girl who didn't die in the mosque bombing would be sent to Nauru as a queue jumping advantaged criminal if she got here. The orphan Michael Smith was smitten with would be sent to Nauru and demonised asa queue jumping advantaged refugee. Do Australian's even realise how stupid we are. People too lazy to wait 5 seconds in a shopping line?

Marilyn | 30 August 2012  

On the contrary one can see the negative stances changing.

Bev Smith | 30 August 2012  

Peter Reith called refugees people, what a shame he didn't do that when he demonised them as parents who chucked babies overboard.

Marilyn | 30 August 2012  

it is a real shame the opportunity wasnt taken to facilitate the discussion. The natural response to aggression is defence. we hit back or run or just build walls. I just wondered how Peter integrated his decision-making of a dozen years ago with his experience in Kabul. His struggle could be seen. it can't be easy for someone to make a decision from the safety of the Canberra bunker to experience the reality of what that means for those sent back to live or die in a place that day to day is still an uncertain hell on earth. I was just saddened that what i experienced as Catherine's judging questioning left Peter the poli no where to go. I wanted to know about the man who felt terror in Kabul. As i write I am thinking back to a time many years ago when i was state manager of a company. I was given a job to cut numbers. I made a decision between two employees...one was to be retrenched ...I chose one to stay and one to go. A month later the one chosen for retrenchment dead from a stress related heart attack.....And I know i made a wrong decision one I regret. I have little doubt as Peter stood there in Kabul he was remembering his decisions. I would like to have known a little more of that...there were other moments..like comments on decisions and the Australian voting public which could have been picked up...what was happening for him then in that moment as he remembered with new awareness of the truth.

john | 30 August 2012  

It seems superficial to object to the celebrity status of the participants when so much that fills TV screens is celebrity focussed. This series nicely complements the first series focussed on responses of "ordinary" Australians. For one person to be emotionally overwhelmed and another to be aggressively critical is within the range of responses we hear from friends. I found the program confronting and challenging. How can I respond to such desperate people? What policy actions from our government could be humane and realistic in face of such human suffering and the tragic extent of the problems? The arguments of the six people who had the courage to look at the situation ring true.

David Merritt | 30 August 2012  

I still agree that it's hard to escape the typical shock tactics of reality TV ploys - and when I watch the last series, I was more concerned about how well the reality was being presented, and how much was influenced by the fact there were cameras being poked into vulnerable people's faces, and they were being forced to tolerate a group of poverty tourists looking for a karma kick. And I disagree that these celebrities are influential in the current situation - they are all "former" ministers, etc, although I accept it would be unlikely for someone currently in a position of influence to volunteer for such a circus.

AURELIUS | 30 August 2012  

I have to disagree with you Tim. I thought the mix of people was brilliant – from opinion shapers to policy makers. I was initially dubious about the inclusion of Imogen Bailey, but found she represented the voice of young people who genuinely want to understand how we have come to the point we have. Her gently questioning was in stark contrast to the dogmatic, intractable views of both Smith and Deveny. Perhaps the most fascinating person for me was Angry Anderson. He completely shocked me at the start with his talk of ‘cattle trucks’, but as time went on it was what he didn’t say that spoke volumes. I felt we were watching a man in the middle of an epiphany, unable to find words for his realisation. I know from personal experience this has reinvigorated the conversation among the next generation of voters, which surely can only be a good thing.

Deb | 30 August 2012  

After watching the discussion on SBS's Insight forum last night with the participants in said doco, it's clear that Reith and the radio shock jock haven't budged an inch in their attitudes and behaved like consummate politicians with a selfish agenda. I felt sickened and angry, and felt myself swearing at my television (I was watching alone). At the end, the whole cynical exercise made me feel that Australia is losing the plot.

AURELIUS | 31 August 2012  

Tim, the bickering you speak of took place amid the ever visible reality of people searching for a way out of their suffering in the face of the harshnes of the people they were with and the people with whom they sought refuge. I felt the negativity of your article was less helpful than the 'reality TV' it criticised.

Steve | 01 September 2012  

Regardless of who the "players" were in Series 2, it was a sober reminder of the massive crisis facing not just Australia, but most of the Western World."The Head in the Sand "approach of both major parties is so depressing.We are so very lucky and its purely by accident of birth that we are not in the same situation!

Gavin | 01 September 2012  

Crisis for Australia and the Western World? What about the crisis for the "other world". The bickering we may have to put up with is merely an annoyance compared to the harsh reality faced by the majority of the world's population - and it doesn't finish for them when the credits start rolling.

AURELIUS | 03 September 2012  

I did not see any reverse racism anywhere in this program

sam | 09 September 2012  

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