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Men and the Media - John Stapleton

The Sunday Tasmanian has nowhere near the clout or the distribution of mainland papers like The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, the east coast Sunday papers or The Australian. Yet it is the only newspaper in the country which has reported that the male suicide rate in Australia is now at its highest since the Depression. The paper puffed the story on its front page last October under the headline "If Men Were Whales" and a full front page picture of a group of men marooned on a sand bank.

It began: "More than 40 Australian men commit suicide each week. If men were whales, this would cause community outcry and public mourning." The accompanying inside story, the best compilation of male suicide statistics published in Australia so far, showed that more men suicided in the last decade than died in World War II, and the male suicide rate in a single year is four times that of the total number killed in the Vietnam conflict.

The entire mainland press was creamed on what is a fundamentally important social story. Why? It's not a lack of interest.

Reporter Simon Bevilacqua says: "We had an amazing amount of feedback from people working in the industry, like nothing else, from left, right and centre, from the federal government to people in the industry. There were a lot of people pleased the issue was raised." Managing Director of media monitors Rehame Australia Peter Maher said there was a distinct increase in the reporting of men's issues and the Family Court throughout 2000. He said "huggy stories" about men wanting to spend more time with their children ran all year with coverage of family law reform peaking in December after the introduction of new jailing provisions into the family law. The government's big push for men in the last year was the Men and Relationships Conference, organised by the Office of the Status of Women.

Not one newspaper in the country seemed to think it odd that hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds was spent flying 300 public servants and domestic violence experts from around the country to a very comfortable hotel in Sydney for a two-day male bashing exercise of the "all men are violent" type. Not one newspaper raised the point that numerous reputable domestic violence studies show both men and women are equally guilty of domestic violence. , or that the Office of the Status of Women had been previously caught out making exaggerated claims about domestic violence. Nor did anyone seem to think it odd that there had been no invitations to a men's conference issued to anyone from the broad spectrum of men's groups to speak and which clearly failed to address any issues that actually concern men.

Indeed Adele Horin of the Sydney Morning Herald, told a million or so readers: "Hardly a single 'angry dad' could be sighted at the Men and Relationships conference the Federal Government put on in Sydney this week. It was a civilised, hand-picked gathering. New Age men. New Age women. About 300 in all hopping from workshops on domestic violence, to workshops on men's post-separation services. It was a festival of enlightenment... those incendiary words 'Family Court' and 'child support' were barely uttered."

Why should the disenfranchisement of men's concerns be such a source of delight? In reality this was a "festival of enlightment" most men would have preferred these people held on their own time and at their own expense.

The Coalition's major effort to review the troubled family law domain has also ignored half of the population. The Family Pathways Advisory Group, chaired by a former head of the NSW Dept of Community Services and consisting almost entirely of feminist advocacy groups, feminist academics or industry insiders, has not a single representative of men's groups. That any findings by such an unrepresentative group will lack legitimacy does not appear to bother the government a jot. Their answer to criticisms of the make-up of the group has been that the Attorney General has confidence in its members. He might. Half the population doesn't.

No newspaper has commented on this.

In haste the Federal Coalition Government, which paints itself as standing for family values and probity in public life, has just passed legislation jailing parents who defy Family Court orders. Both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, without speaking to those involved, incorrectly reported that men's groups supported the legislation. In fact jailing is opposed by most men's and women's groups, neither of whom were consulted. Men's groups in particular are opposed, seeing the jailing of former wives as inappropriate and fearing the laws will be mostly used to jail fathers. There have been a number of appalling stories in the international media over the past year on the consequences of these types of laws: a man in the US jailed for three months for ringing his daughter on Monday and not Sunday suicided within hours of being released; a bus conductor in Britain was jailed for waving at his children out the window of a bus.

In Australia an Indian man was jailed for writing to his parents in English, not Hindi. The Family Court was not satisfied he was attempting to comply with their orders. His efforts to point out that his father had two masters degrees in English fell on deaf ears. The story received extensive coverage in the ethnic press, but not a word in the mainstream.

The Family Court has ordered outraged litigants not to contact the United Nations over their concerns about the court's conduct. It all began a long time ago. Most of those now in senior positions within the media and in government were in or around universities in the 1970s. Many have not altered their views much since then. It was at a time when Germaine Greer and The Female Eunich was at the cutting edge of social commentary, when Shulamith Firestone's The Dialects of Sex was course reading in Philosophy 1, 2 and 3; when women's courses were just beginning.

It was a time when family courts were being founded throughout the western world.

What was once the cutting edge, widely supported by many men, became in its playing out in family courts, social welfare departments, domestic violence shelters and all the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of supporting bureaucries, a shock to many of its original male supporters.

Fathers have been consistently demonised for more than 20 yearswith relentless anti-male propaganda which has in classic Marxist language painting the family as patriarchal nests of violence and abuse. Studies which have consistently shown children to be better off in all ways in intact families or with their fathers have been studiously ignored.

In the universities where it all began, the bias against men both in terms of courses and behaviour continues. At the University of NSW a men's issue of Tharunka was squashed by the Guild Council last year. It condemned "any proposal to produce a men's edition or white heterosexual male edition of Tharunka. Accordingly, Guild Council directs the media directors/Tharunka editors not to produce any such editions or publish material which contravenes general guild policy or anti-discrimination legislation or which undermines the purpose of women's, lesbian/gay, indigenous or ethnic students departments." At the same time the Guild passed a proposal for a women's only edition. A string of stories from American campusses now attracting media attention make Helen Garner's The First Stone look like a picnic.

There has been scathing worldwide media attention focussing on family courts throughout the past year. The Observer newspaper in London just completed a three month expose into the British Family Court, concluding that custody evaluation procedures were utterly flawed. They found "a shocking culture producing routine misery on a vast scale for both children and parents". The paper continued: "We have found wide ranging inadequacies in the legal system, ill-trained professionals, badly prepared judges and decision making which is often a lottery."

No such investigation has ever been conducted in this country. For many years and to this day the blurring, if not total lack of separation, between women's affairs rounds and social affairs rounds on newspapers, radio and television has meant that the concerns of womens groups are put forward as newsworthy while the concerns of men and fathers are simply ignored. Many of these reporters are women. As American author of The Myth of Male Power Warren Farrell, who has written extensively the media's silence on men's issues and what he calls "the lace curtain" says, gender issues are regularly covered by feminists whose gender reinforces their political ideology... feminism achieved power informally, by becoming the one party system of gender politics: creating a new arena of study, defining the terms, generating the data and becoming the only acceptable source of interpretation."

In many of the opinion pages of Australian newspapers the words of the Women's Electoral Lobby or other sympathisers are paraded as the cutting edge of social commentary. The opposite view is virtually never put.

The so-called "sinister men's groups", to quote the Chief Justice of the Family Court, in reality nothing more than groups of people who want to see more of their kids, have long complained of the media bias against them.

Lone Fathers, Dads, Fathers Against Family Equity, Men's Rights and many other smaller groups have all struggled to get their views across against what they perceived as overwhelming odds. Outfunded more than 1000:1, they are no match for the public relations expertise of the womens groups. The media rarely bothers to consult them in any issues affecting families or single parents.

Over the years many family law reform campaigners have viewed the wall of silence arrayed against them as some kind of leftist conspiracy. Indeed, as professional surveys have shown, journalists tend to be left leaning partly by the nature of their work and the impulses which drove them to it. Like most people, they tend to want to leave the world a better place, and for some this has meant making a strike for the disadvantaged.

Women's groups have managed to define themselves as victims and to draft the entire debate of divorce and the position of single mothers into a left/right, progressive/conservative dichotomy. They have commandeered the much abused phrase "the best interests of children". The concerns of men and fathers have been dismissed in some bracket where according to them lie the rabid One Nation voting gun toting four wheel driving "send them back to kitchen" maniacs. But in the new millenium, when most men support their wives in their career choices, it is by no means clear that separated mothers are more disadvantaged than separated fathers. The media has never seriously tackled the most draconian censorship in the country, Clause 121 of the Family Law Act, which prohibits the identification of parties to a Family Court case. It makes coverage of family law issues almost impossible for television. People expressing their views on radio have taken to court purely on voice recognition. The secrecy laws have effectively shielded the Court and its decision making from any detailed public scrutiny. This protection spills over into the operations of children's courts, welfare departments such as DOCS in NSW and Human Services in Victoria as well as the family law units of Legal Aid.

No investigative journalist has ever questioned why if we are in fact in the midst of an epidemic of child sexual abuse as indicated by the number of "substantiations" by welfare officers, why there are so few convictions.

The legislation means that the agencies that intrude most into the private lives of individuals have evolved in secrecy. These agencies impact on the lives of millions of Australian adults and children, and will impact on them for generations to come. And yet no one questions or exposes the behaviour of lawyers in any of these jurisdictions, their agendas or their use of psychiatric evidence. It's just not politically correct to do so.

Imagine, for fun, how PM John Howard would appear in a family report by a Family Court counsellor on a mission from the Goddess! Journalists also rarely question the conduct of the protecting bureaucracies and heftily funded academics circling family law. The dictums of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, founded under the same legislation as the Family Court, are repeated as fact. Academics know better than anyone which side their grants are buttered on. The Institute has spent far more money on studies of social capital, an academic discourse devoted almost entirely to attempting to define itself, than it ever has in investigating the position of fathers after divorce. It has never properly investigated the high suicide rates of fathers and the linkages to family law. But there are signs of change.

Significantly, The Australian has run a number of stories and editorials critical of the Family Court. These were written by then High Court writer Bernard Lane. Lane relied closely on Australia Law Reform Commission's reports, whch found overwhelming disquiet with the court and its processes, as well as the questioning of senate committee member and former barrister Senator Mason, who asked a string of parliamentary questions on the travel budgets of senior judges and delays in the court. The court refused to answer a number of the questions.

But while the Family Court remains something of a sacred cow for most of the media, the same is not true of the Child Support Agency, which has received more hostile or mixed coverage over the past year than ever before.

The exception was The Daily Telegraph, which ran a series kicking off with a screaming headline "Child Cheaters" and a photograph of a father with a Porsche evading child support. It would have been just as easy to find a woman living high on the hog on income from the government, the ex, the latest rich boyfriend and her own business, but that was not to be. But even the Tele felt obliged to run a range of views in its followup stories and extracts of letters. The Canberra Times has broken a string of excellent stories on child support in the past few months; including running on its front page twice in the same week a story on the inquest into a 28 year old man with three children who suicided with a CSA letter in his hand. He was losing 80 per cent of his pay in tax and child support. The Agency claimed it was treating him fairly.

The Brisbane Courier Mail has just run a three part series on child support throwing up a range of moving stories. The Adelaide Advertiser has also just run an excellent piece called Fathers Fighting Back. With the government having just thrown jailing into the present toxic mix of family breakdown, media interest is unlikely to die off. The day when we have a National Council for Single Fathers as well as one for mothers, the day when shared parenting is the norm after separation, when destructive custody battles are a thing of the past and family courts are a long forgotten institution, is the day when we will be able to say we have truly made progress towards equality in all areas.

John Stapleton