Writing for the quietly disapproving Mums on Mamamia, Jamila Rizvi has universally labeled us all Violent Student Protestors and given us a stern warning to stifle our anger and “grow up”. Annabel Crabb suggests that “protesters are somehow getting dumber” and that students shouldn’t be “protesting like it’s 1969”, while accomplished wordsmith Andrew Bolt has labeled us the “Storm-troopers of the Left”. Any protest efforts are regarded, to varying degrees, with paternalistic patronising or outright condemnation. On the flipside, if no action is taken to publicly voice our views as students, we are labeled the “apathetic youth”, “Gen Y bludgers” or “politically disengaged whingers”. Whatever we do, we can’t win.
By discrediting the student sign-wavers of today, these commentators have neglected to reflect on the long history of student activism that has influenced culture and politics, and produced some of Australia’s most ambitious, socially conscious and politically engaged leaders and revolutionaries. Heralding the end of protesting means either disregarding the successes (and failures) of over 120 years of student demonstrations as a means of circumventing the vitriol of traditional media commentary, or massively overstating the potential of social media.
While the budget rallies of last semester roused even the most apathetic of students from their midday slumber, the machinations of our national media outlets have nudged the issue out of our collective consciousness. The perpetual news cycle ensures that evocative headlines and photographs are all you need to satisfy the majority of readers.
On slow news days without any gaffes or aviation disasters, cats and human-interest pieces are offered up instead. The concerns of students only make the cut when thousands in the streets are yelling them.
This brutal media cycle is widely accepted, even as it continues to sideline the problems being picketed in university campuses across Australia, not to mention almost anything else affecting groups without much political sway. We all know this is not a new phenomenon, but neither are the continuing proclamations that protesting is futile. Following riot clashes with police and widespread social upheaval during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, President Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate, among other phenomena, media coverage of the Civil Rights Movement. It conclusively surmised that national reporting was shortsighted, biased and harmful to vulnerable minorities and ultimately unethical. In Australia, media outlets similarly panned protests in 1970 in response to the Vietnam War and conscription as the moratorium marches became increasingly violent. Familiar condemnations of “wild, uncouth youth” and “un-Australian students” were utilised in an effort to stymie student activism.
However, the fate of social change has rarely rested on the shoulders of a lone individual. Decrying mass movements as ineffective implies that there is another, more effective way of getting a message across, when in many cases, there simply isn’t. Social media is often hailed – by Crabb, for instance -– as an effective and cohesive forum for change. However, as much as social media has built essentially the largest forum of students on earth and disrupted traditional conceptions of the fourth estate, established media outlets continue to define the foundations of knowledge, conceptualisation and interpretation of national events that form our knowledge of and opinions on current events. And it is with this power that the media reinforce the purported need for social order whilst lambasting those who actively attempt to defy systematic forms of oppressive authority. The media’s chosen, decades-old approach has resulted in students’ budgetary concerns being relegated to the ‘old news’ pile; it’s clear where the priorities of the Australian mainstream media lie.