Culture

Why We Should Stop Listening To People Like Sonia Kruger

It's time to call bullshit.

Another day, another morning TV show host using their platform to fire off a few ignorant comments targeted at minority communities. It’s happening so regularly these days that it’s basically become a national tradition, like prawns on Christmas, paying ridiculous amounts for smashed avocado on toast, and electing racists.

This morning on Today Extra, Sonia Kruger criticised the Australian Business and Community Network Scholarship Foundation (ABCN) for reserving one of its high school scholarships for an LGBTI student. Kruger slammed the scholarship as an example of “reverse discrimination” and said “I don’t think it [sexual orientation] should have anything to do with the awarding of a scholarship. I think scholarships should be given on merit.”

Her comments are a ridiculous response to a completely confected controversy. The Australian published an article today quoting a representative of Family Voice Australia who argued the scholarship offered “A financial ­incentive to identify as ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and/or intersex’”. The ABCN offers 15 scholarships a year and has now decided to offer one to an LGBTI student.

Let’s be very clear about this: This scholarship is an example of “reverse discrimination” because every scholarship is about reversing discrimination. That is the entire point of these kinds of scholarships.  The ABCN scholarships are designed to aid students who are experiencing “significant economic, family or social challenges”. According to Beyond Blue LGBTI students are more likely to face bullying at school and are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. We know LGBTI students face disadvantage and discrimination every day. And that’s exactly why this scholarship was proposed, to try and counteract that discrimination in one small way.

Kruger made headlines a couple of weeks ago when she called for a ban on Muslim migration and refused to apologise in the face of substantial community anger. Her latest comments are so absurd they seem designed to explicitly stir up outrage and generate media commentary. If so, they’ve succeeded. Every prominent media outlet in the country, including this one, has written about them and at the time of writing the most read article on the most read news website in Australia, news.com.au, is about the latest Kruger controversy.

When prominent voices who have access to significant national media platforms, like Sonia Kruger and even Pauline Hanson, use those platforms to say ridiculous things, it creates a challenge for other media outlets. Do we cover them? And how do we cover them without just perpetuating the original, hateful or ignorant commentary? There’s an interesting discussion to be had here, but before we get to it, there’s a bigger question.

What even is Sonia Kruger and why do we care about her?

The debate around Hanson is a bit more cut and dried. What she says is regularly offensive and designed to generate controversy, but she has re-emerged as a significant political force. She can’t be ignored and nor should she be, though the media has a broader responsibility to critically analyse what she says rather than reporting it verbatim. But Kruger isn’t a politician. She isn’t even a political commentator. She acted in one film, Strictly Ballroom, and went on to become the host of various entertainment and variety shows.

Her first foray into incidental political commentary came last month, with her call for a ban on Muslim migration to Australia. At the time Junkee, along with the rest of the country’s media, covered her comments. It was the first time someone with a significant national profile, outside of Pauline Hanson, had echoed her party’s policy of banning all Muslim migration. Her comments, her lack of an apology in the face of criticism and her doubling down all represented a significant shift in the public discourse on this issue: a shift in the wrong direction. All of a sudden calling for an entire religion to be prohibited from entering the country became a normal part of mainstream media commentary.

TV Producers Think We’re Suckers

As Kelis once sung, “Might trick me once, I won’t let you trick me twice.” Kruger’s initial comments may have just been an off the cuff comment in response to the tragedy in Nice. Maybe she genuinely underestimated the potential response. But with her latest foray into “political commentary” it now seems like Kruger, and producers at Channel 9, are trying to play us for fools. They know what response Kruger’s comments were going to generate. They are banking on it. And given that everyone played along, I think it’s a pattern we can expect to see more of.

Justin Pen wrote a piece for Junkee back in 2014 decrying the “Outrage-Sorry! Industrial Complex”: a phenomenon where media outlets would publish rage-inducing clickbait then follow it up with an apology, similarly designed to be highly shareable. In 2016 it seems we’ve dropped the “Sorry!” part (with one notable exception). TV producers have discovered that getting their straight, white media personalities to lay into minority groups generates them enough attention they don’t need to worry about the apology.

So how we do respond? We can respond by calling bullshit on them. These kinds of comments are designed to go viral, so we can’t bury our heads in the sand. But nor do we have to write about them as though Sonia Kruger’s opinion on immigration law and scholarships is actually worth anything. We can cover them by pointing out how flawed their spurious arguments are, and calling out the manipulative media strategy that relies on exploiting the vulnerable that lies behind them. We can cover them by giving space to diverse writers that unfortunately so rare in our media landscape.

We can talk about people like Kruger, we can respond to them and we can critique them. But we definitely don’t have to listen to them.