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A thousand stories in the naked country
International media is focusing on Australia as Olympics host and the attention could challenge our cherished self-image.
Amanda Meade reports
AN Aboriginal woman explains that when she was a child, her mother covered her in soot to darken her light-brown skin. All mixed-race children were being forcibly removed from their communities by welfare authorities, she says. But she was taken away anyhow after an officer discovered her ruse by washing her tiny leg in the creek. This is the stolen generation of Australia, BBC World's correspondent Michael Peschardt tells his audience in 71 million homes around the world.
In a 30-minute special on the Olympics, Peschardt reports on the preparations for the opening ceremony, does a light piece on Japanese tourists and interviews Prime Minister John Howard. But the focus of the package is that not every Australian will be celebrating the Olympics because the Aboriginal community is outraged by the Government's attitude towards the stolen generations. Unflattering and uncomfortable as it is, stories of this nature will increasingly be broadcast to the rest of the world in the run-up to the Olympics. One significant news organisation that has already given in to the international fascination with Australia is Peschardt's BBC World. The Beeb's international cable arm has developed the first news program about Australia to be locally produced, and broadcast in Britain and the other 200 countries the network reaches. "The whole plan is to cover the country in a way that's more than just one-dimensional," Peschardt says.
Internationally, Australia Direct will be screened once a fortnight on BBC World four times during a 24-hour period. This means that it will be available in each country in prime time, including in 864,000 homes in Australia. In Britain it will be shown on the top-rating BBC's News 24, as well as on BBC1. In television terms, that is a high penetration rate.
To date, BBC World has only one other locally produced program, USA Direct, although it is planning a Europe Direct in the near future. Ted Turner's CNN has no plans for an Australian-made program but several of its shows will be broadcast from Sydney during the Olympics.
Rob Milne, the BBC's general manager of news for the Asia Pacific, says the program will take Australian issues and events to the world. Britons, of course, are more interested in us than Americans. Says Peschardt: "In terms of all the foreign countries, I would argue the one that is of most interest, particularly to young British people, is Australia. And there is a growing realisation that this country is more interesting and more complex than people imagine.
"Australia is quite sensitive about how it's perceived in the rest of the world. We will have to show that Australia is more than just Neighbours, Kylie and kangaroos, and there will be some pain in showing that."
If Peschardt's first Australian special is anything to go by, our soap opera image is about to undergo a transformation. After covering the sports and the nuts-and-bolts issues such as transport and technology, foreign journalists will be looking for non-Olympics stories. At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, it was the plight of the homeless; in Sydney it will be the Aboriginal issue. And the poverty in many black communities will make for compelling pictures. "Australia won't come out of it too well," Peschardt says.
Peschardt came to Australia as the BBC correspondent back in 1989 and fell in love with the country, returning home three or four times a year to fill in for the regular host on the BBC's breakfast program. Although he has a unique perspective on Australia after 10 years living here, Peschardt's clipped vowels still mark him as every inch the BBC man.
Before Australia Direct began last week, Peschardt's main task was to cover politics, business and general news for the BBC World's news bulletins.
"When I first arrived in the late 80s, early 90s, all the stories we did were Alan Bond entrepreneur-type stories, and that's what the Australian economy was all about," Peschardt says. "They were great stories but they didn't necessarily impress the central bankers.
"Because Australia survived the Asian financial crisis, the image of the country has been transformed and is now being taken more seriously in a business and financial sense. So, rather than being seen as slightly irrelevant, it's now seen as a serious and weighty place in terms of business and finance."
Peschardt has a more personal view. "I think it's a country that's changing very fast and probably changing faster than people here realise or appreciate. I've seen massive change in the 10 years I've been here. On the positive side, there is undoubtedly greater wealth and a much more responsible attitude towards environmental matters, but there has been a massive shift away from egalitarianism too.
"There is no doubt in my mind the inequality in the country is just growing to a very large extent, and I think that is a crisis for the country and its whole impression of itself."
Undoubtedly, Peschardt will not be the only journalist to gain this impression as the international media shines the spotlight on us during the next six months.
The question is whether our image as a sunny, happy-go-lucky, sports-mad nation will survive the onslaught of media attention as the Olympics give the rest of the world the opportunity to see our ugly side as well.
Amanda Meade is The Australian's media writer.
Forum readers who may have followed my postings re: Australia would have twigged that I believe our soap opera image is about to undergo a transformation. I personally believe this transformation began in earnest with the Calwell immigration schemes of the 1940s/50s. Then came the transformation visited by marketplace deregulation and the nonsense of level-playing fields. We're now entering another phase -
Regards from OZ
-- Pieter (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 17, 2000
I just love your accent.
I am really enjoying your writings. I have a lot of friends in Australia that I have met on the internet. We spend hours on the phone to each other.
Can you explain how the educational system works there? Uni and Ozstudy?
-- Cherri (email@example.com), April 17, 2000.
Ask your friends that question - I'm just a provincial raconteur who rages against a centralisation of a rogue bureaucracy & a flat earth mindset. Do a wildcard query on HECs Schemes to find there isn't a free lunch anymore. Do another query on CITB and find how central apprenticeships tutelage gets paid via levy. By the time I write about the OZ education circus they'll have changed the rules once more. There's votes in it... Things depends though on if your Catholic or something else to what the breaks will be regarding education and work. Schooltie networks are handy when you want to get along. If you live in Adelaide it pays to be a St Peter's Collegian...they know what's right-n-wrong...doesn't require brains at all.
Regards from OZ
-- Pieter (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 18, 2000.
Cherri and Pieter, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G,
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Pieter with a baby carriage!
(Pieter, are you ready to take care of another man's throwbacks/children?)
-- (Poet @.the .ready), April 18, 2000.
Regarding jibe about children. As the above link points to contemporary reality of education might I be so bold as to suggest anyone contemplating being birthed in OZ in future choose carefully when and where. Anything less than the top 5% of the socio- economic class would be deemed as careless.
-- Pieter (email@example.com), April 18, 2000.