How condescending can you get? Helen Kellie (the chief content officer at SBS, who reports to managing director Michael Ebeid) refers to the residents of Mount Druitt who appear on the SBS documentary Struggle Street as “these people”.
On the ABC’s Lateline last Tuesday, Kellie justified the use of taxpayers’ money on the controversial documentary on the basis that SBS hopes “to be able to inform large numbers of Australians about the lives of these people” in Mount Druitt.
It’s not clear how the British-born media executive, whose background is in marketing and communications, has obtained the expertise to inform Australians about the western Sydney suburb. As revealed in The Australian on Wednesday, Kellie refused to provide a definitive answer as to how many times she has visited Mount Druitt.
Kellie said that she thought she might have driven though the suburb on her way to somewhere else and added, “You’re asking me a geography question.”
Not so. Since Kellie defends Struggle Street on the basis that it informs taxpayers “about the lives of these people” who live in Mount Druitt, it is reasonable to ask whether she has any experience of the subject matter of the SBS documentary concerning which she exercised content control.
The first episode of Struggle Street, which aired on Wednesday, began by contrasting the beaches of Sydney with the suburb of Mount Druitt, 45km to the west of the Harbour Bridge. However, the documentary is essentially a reality TV series that presents a caricature of Mount Druitt as the land of the hopeless and the hapless.
If Kellie had travelled to this area she would be aware that the residents of Mount Druitt — many of whom are from non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds — are experiencing strong economic growth and rising property values. Western Sydney, a vibrant part of Australia, has been mugged by the nation’s self-proclaimed multicultural public broadcaster.
Sure, Mount Druitt is a long way from Artarmon on Sydney’s lower north shore (where SBS is based) and Darlinghurst (where Ebeid resides). But you do not have to travel to western Sydney to see rundown public housing estates. Indeed, there is one not far from Artarmon and another not far from Darlinghurst.
The most egregious snobbery in modern Western societies involves the well-educated looking down on the less well-educated. That’s the problem with Kellie’s approach to “these people”. It’s not clear whether David Field, Struggle Street’s narrator, has been to, or passed through, Mount Druitt. But even he refers to Mount Druitt as “out here”. Far away, presumably, from the inner-city intelligentsia.
Struggle Street is replete with condescension. Nearly all the subjects of the documentary, apart from an Aborigine named William, are of white Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic background. Yet, as commentator Tim Blair observed, one of “the most jarring features” of the documentary “is the frequent use of subtitles for people speaking relatively clear English”. Then there is the narration. Field gives the impression that he is attempting to speak like the Australian working class of an earlier era.
Even more condescending is his attempt to match the language of narration with the perceived language of Struggle Street’s subjects. Hence Field’s “It’s a tough life when you ain’t got much” statement. Well, yes it is. Ditto when you have not got much. So, why the condescension?
It’s true there are pockets of poverty and apparent social deprivation in Mount Druitt, as there are in many parts of Australia — inner city, suburban, regional and rural alike.
Struggle Street focuses on some poor white Australians who have experienced, or are experiencing, alcohol and drug dependency and the social blight that is all but an inevitable result of dependency.
It’s not surprising that a certain percentage of Mount Druitt residents are alcoholics and/or drug addicts. But brain damaged? For his small sample of Mount Druitt dwellers, Struggle Street producer David Galloway enlisted two men who are suffering from mental disability.
There is middle-aged Ashley who, along with his wife, Peta, is the antihero of the first episode. Ashley has suffered a brain injury and is undergoing tests for dementia. And there is Tristan, who suffered brain damage following a motorbike accident and now has a carer.
Struggle Street presents Mount Druitt as consisting entirely of welfare recipients — from teenagers to the middle-aged. Yet if two of this reality TV cast have acquired brain injuries, they are entitled to be on a disability pension.
Late last month, Galloway told Fairfax Media: “There is — it’s an awful world — an underclass, a strata of society that is out of sight and out of mind. And it is the one we try to portray in this, where they literally struggle every day to keep a roof over their heads, keep their families together, get food on the table, not because they’re lazy but because there’s a range of issues and circumstances that have brought them to this position.”
None of the participants in Struggle Street looks malnourished and all seem to live in a reasonable way in public housing (when it has not been trashed by an acquaintance).
And at least one is not short of purchasing power when it comes to buying drugs.
Society should not be blamed because some citizens seem down on their luck. Sure, society has a responsibility to create a safety net. But we don’t need Struggle Streetto tell us this — welfare payments make up a large part of government expenditure.
On ABC News Breakfast on Thursday, journalist Tracee Hutchison said that she found Struggle Street “empathetic” and claimed it revealed a “really powerful and important slice of Australian life that we don’t tell often enough”.
No, it didn’t. The participants in the documentary represent a small fraction of Australian society.
That’s why Struggle Street created such interest. It was not at all like looking over the back fence.
Clearly Kellie, Ebeid and the powers-that-be at SBS like to identify social dislocation in the lower socioeconomic areas of Anglo-Celtic Australia.
It’s unlikely that SBS would do a documentary on the lower socioeconomic areas of, say, Lakemba in Sydney where the Muslim population of Arab background is high.
Which suggests that SBS is interested in forensically examining only some people.