Tabloid TV meets the ghost of Ern Malley

Struggle Street & the Dole Army
Christopher Sheil

If it wasn't true ...

It was a great victory for struggle street. The Nine Network's A Current Affair and the Seven Network's Today Tonight programs featured competing stories exposing a group of dole bludgers who lived in Melbourne's drains, surfacing in balaclavas to scavenge food and use a website to cheat unemployment benefits.

"And now to a group that don't work", announced the lead-in on Nine's A Current Affair : "they don't believe in working or paying taxes; instead, they rort the system, so they can live off the taxes everybody else pays." "They call themselves the Dole Army", boomed the program's anchor over drumbeats, "and they say they are on the march". Meanwhile, two channels down, the Seven Network's Today Tonight announced "one of the country's best kept secrets: a rebel army working deep beneath the city". "They live in drainage tunnels under Melbourne", Seven's reporter, Norm Beaman, told his viewers, "and their goal is to teach people how to rip-off the welfare system". "If it wasn't true", boomed Beaman, "it would be almost comical."

As widely noted the next morning, Beaman was half-right. The story wasn't true, but it was funny. In a hoax reminiscent of the famous wartime Ern Malley stunt, a group of activists doing voluntary work on behalf of Australia's unemployed had fooled the two giant networks. The so-called 'Dole Army' had emailed A Current Affair with a two-line story, parodying the program's stereotyped attitude toward the unemployed, and the producers swallowed the bait. No sooner had Channel Nine's promos gone to air than the Army ensnared Today Tonight, which paid $1000 for the same story. Going to air almost simultaneously in prime time on Monday 4 February, according to a review article in the Sydney Morning Herald, both programs did their work "in a manner befitting their trademark outrage".

The Dole Army exposed the hoax the next day. "Last night the big guns of Tabloid TV fell victim to their own sleazy set-up tactics", announced the Army's press release. "We presented them with exactly the kind of story they love and they lapped it up like dogs. They enjoy nothing more than victimising the poor and unemployed".

Ern returns

Like the Ern Malley hoax of 1944, the stunt was an inspired, irreverent, reverse heckle, and a striking social criticism. Just as the perpetrators of the legendary literary hoax had served up fake poems by an imaginary 'Ern Malley' to show how publishers had become "insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination"; so the Dole Army fictionalised the drain-dwelling dole bludger story to highlight the shamelessly superficial way that tabloid TV operates, particularly in relation to the unemployed. "We've proved that there are a lot of people that get paid a lot of money to make really bad media with very little integrity", explained the Army's "Agent Koala" in The Australian.

As with Ern Malley, the perpetrators of the drain-dwelling hoax had imbibed the anarchist spirit. As with Ern, they also set out to have a good deal of fun: "Taking the Mickey" read the caption beneath The Australian's photograph of the Army, the members shown wearing Micky Mouse masks. And just as over 50 years ago Ern's publishers had continued to insist that their poems were valid long after they had been exposed as a joke, so the television spokesmen continued to insist that their stories were valid. The incredulousness that had been so scarce in the making of the programs was at a heavy discount in the aftermath. "I don't understand how we were conned," Channel Nine's Martin King insisted on ABC-Radio. "I'm still at pains to see what the actual hoax is," Seven's Allan Craig bluffed in the Age.

Beyond this, the differences between the two hoaxes are more significant than the similarities. Unlike the literary hoax, in which everyone could (and still can) join the joke by reading the phoney poems, those who missed the television programs can only experience the lark second-hand. Unlike the Ern Malley affair, where the publishers eventually surrendered with a degree of defensive grace, the television producers mixed their stiff upper lips with a hostility that left no doubt about that the big fish were having no fun on the end of the Dole Army's hook. "Lazy, good-for-nothing, disaffected anarchists, who haven't got enough to do", hissed A Current Affair's Martin King on ABC-Radio; "faceless liars" spat Today Tonight's Craig Emerson in the Age. Whereas the Malley poems had sparked a battle royal between the supporters and critics of the avant-garde periodical that published them, Angry Penguins, the executive producers of the duped TV programs declined to be interviewed on the substantive issues.

The vanishing act that the network executives performed was, perhaps, predictable: starving them of public 'oxygen' has become the preferred corporate way of dealing with damaging stories. But the networks' refusal was also regrettable because, unlike the Malley affair, the Army's stunt had serious and valuable social purposes. The Malley hoax was basically a contest between two modernist literary factions. Two young and, at that stage of their careers, largely unrecognised Sydney poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, confected Ern's life and works to show their supremacy over the editors of the Melbourne-based Angry Penguins, which centred around the Adelaide poet, Max Harris (other prominent penguins included John Reed, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and John Dutton). Out to "get Maxie", McAuley and Stewart fabricated Malley and his bogus posthumous poems one Saturday afternoon, when they were idle soldiers rostered on duty together in Melbourne's Victoria Barracks. No sooner had the counterfeit been delivered, than Harris and his colleagues were convinced they had discovered an untutored genius, and they devoted most of their June 1944 issue of the Angry Penguins to Ern's complete works. In announcing the discovery of one of Australia's "most outstanding poets", they set themselves up to become an international laughing stock.

The crucial distinction between the hoaxes is that, whereas the Dole Army sought to challenge popular prejudices, McAuley and Stewart had appealed to them. In contrast to the Army's hoax, which was exposed through Australia's broadsheets and the national public broadcaster, the Malley affair was exposed by the Sydney tabloid, the Sunday Sun. As the philosopher, John Anderson, observed at the time, although McAuley and Stewart professed to be upholding moral standards, they actually succeeded in lowering aesthetic standards by exploiting the popular prejudices of the press. They pandered to and reinforced Australian anti-intellectualism by exciting laughter at the pretensions of high art. In short, the Malley affair was a brilliant, audacious but reactionary stunt that would fit snugly with today's attacks on 'the elites'; a political stance that in retrospect appears to have anticipated how McAuley would soon shed his anarchist inclinations and become the founding editor of Quadrant.

Social good

In contrast, the Dole Army aimed to serve the social good in two ways. Most obviously, the Army made a substantial contribution to crtiquing the accountability of Australia's tabloid journalism. Featuring celebrity presenters with one-sided polemics based around stock formulae - which are, invariably, defended as neutral, unbiased, impartial and balanced reporting - the tabloid press, radio and television have assumed an exaggerated political significance in recent years. With large audiences (up to two million in the case of A Current Affair), they mix their staples - celebrity, crime, adventure, gadgets, anxiety, scandal, miracles and spectacle - with campaigning political journalism. The tabloids presume and thereby help to form an effective conservative consensus around issues such as the unemployed, which few of Australia's politicians are now prepared to challenge.

Yet, as the power of the tabloids has enlarged, so too has their disgrace. In recent times we've learned that their editorials can be sold to the highest bidder, as the 2000 Australian Broadcasting Authority's Commercial Radio ('Cash for Comment') Inquiry established. We've learned that the performances by the actual people who are featured on the programs can be purchased, as confirmed by the reported $0.5 million the Nine Network paid out in February to a 60 Minutes journalist, who said he'd been sacked because he objected to chequebook journalism. And we've learned that the producers themselves fabricate their programs. The proliferation of trickery was recently confirmed by sensational testimony in the ACT Supreme Court, where 60 Minutes reporter, Richard Carlton, was seeking to sue ABC-TV for suggesting he might have plagiarised a story on a massacre in Bosnia. Under cross-examination, Carlton conceded that he didn't know where much of his program's material came from, that he couldn't remember who edited his program, that his program's subtitles were misleading, that he used a Czech-born Nine staffer to masquerade as a Serbo-Croatian voice, and that he faked a grave-site, a fabrication that even he conceded amounted to a "lie". Thanks to ABC-TV's award-winning Frontline, we also know that everyone in the industry also knows about the shonky professionalism and dubious ethics of commercial current affairs. In sum, we could be forgiven if we were to believe that the nation's commercial current affairs programs are no more than a multi-million dollar corporate exercise in perpetrating an unending stream of Ern Malley-like hoaxes on the Australian public.

Since our politicians are intimidated by all this nonsense, any citizens prepared to interrogate, confront and expose the dodgy methods and unwarranted authority of these forms of popular opinionation in the way that the Dole Army has done are performing a valuable public service on behalf of democracy. As well as the demonstration effect, the Army has revealed that, in addition to the $1000 paid by the Seven Network, the activists received $360 in digital videotapes from Nine, which also offered them $2000 (refused) not to co-operate with Seven. The Army further documented the extent to which the networks themselves are prepared to confect their stories, reporting that its members had placed their bedding in a drain at the urging of the Nine Network, and that Seven's crew "happily colluded in setting up a fake drain dwelling in an above-ground brick factory". On top of this litany of journalistic crimes and misdemeanours, the Army was keen to claim their hoax as a form of public revenge for previous hatchet jobs on vulnerable people (including revenge on behalf of the Paxtons, a famous ratings coup for A Current Affair, which involved the vilification of three young people who refused to accept jobs at a Queensland tourist resort in a set-up situation organised by the Network. The resort owner later conceded that he had offered the Paxtons jobs to get publicity, and had gone into receivership six days earlier).

Secondly, the Dole Army's tactics joined a long history of outrageous activism on behalf of unemployed Australians. When the Dole Army insisted that they were not anarchists and rebels but "true blue Aussies" who were all "about Aussie mateship" and being "resourceful", they were aligning themselves with a longstanding native tradition. The Active Service Brigade formed in Sydney in the Depression of the 1890s similarly bypassed the then time-honoured petitions and deputations on behalf of the unemployed in favour of more sensational action. After one incident in November 1893, the press dubbed the organisation the "blasphemous unemployed". The Brigade had organised an "emblematic tableau representing Christianity up to date", involving a few hundred unemployed whom it assembled near Hyde Park. The leaders "produced a large wooden cross, nailed to which was the effigy of a workman clad in ragged clothes and labelled 'Murdered by the Rich' and 'Humanity crucified'". The men then marched through the city to the Wesleyan mission, where they denounced the ministers as hypocrites and offered up a prayer for the Almighty to help the unemployed. Similarly, in the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Unemployed Workers' Movement was the most successful of several radical organisations that led hunger marches, protests, occupations and rallies, distinguishing itself most notably by organising neighbourhood barricades against evictions: amendments to tenancy legislation soon flowed, as did new provisions for rent assistance. With a membership that peaked at some 30,000, the Movement maintained a multitude of activities - including stunts such as ordering expensive meals in restaurants, which they then sought to charge up to the premier - that gave hope and strength to the unemployed.

Echoing the earlier activists, the Dole Army's stated purpose is to operate as "an independent collective existing solely to give unemployed and other Australian welfare recipients a voice". "It's time to end our isolation," announces the slogan on the group's website, "it's time to arm the unemployed". Refusing condescension, the well organised website provides useful, temperate, street-wise, irreverent and well referenced resources for the unemployed, students and other souls receiving social security benefits. The site's serious papers address questions about whether Australia's social welfare system encourages 'dependency', whether 'mutual obligation' is fair, whether social inequality is related to class, and contain advice on how to deal with government authorities and get the best deal under the regime of 'mutual obligation'. The site also provides message services, avenues to raise issues, and useful and amusing links.

According to media reports, the Dole Army's Ned Kellys amount to between 11 and 70, some of whom are in paid employment, others of whom work as freelance artists or musicians, and most of whom are really unemployed. With the apparent exception of 'Agent Koala', the Army's members are all generals, with amusing cognomens (General Kool Keith, General Kangaroo, General Vegemite, General Possum, and so on). Reputedly media junkies, adept at technology, and associated with the globalisation protestors and the culture jamming movement, there is - according to an analysis by a market research company in the Sydney Morning Herald - "no reason to expect that these efforts will stop and no reason they will not flourish".

A frightful spasm

So, all credit and more strength to the Dole Army. Far from qualifying for public outrage, the more complex and pressing story is why voluntary groups of citizens prepared to disturb the surface on behalf of the unemployed have not re-appeared much earlier in Australia, given recent conditions. Today, as the Sydney Morning Herald's economics editor, Ross Gittens, has observed: "unemployment is off the radar". Drowned by the Ern Malley-like stunt perpetrated by the government over asylum seekers, as Gittens has noticed, the campaigns that led up to last November's federal election were the first since 1974 during which "we didn't at least pay lip service to our concern about the high rate of joblessness".

The more you look at it, the more you wonder why we don't have dozens of Dole Armies. Australia's official unemployment rate of 7 per cent remains well short of the 5.7 per cent Labor achieved before the 1990-91 recession, in spite of having since experienced the longest period of economic growth since the longest period of economic growth in history (the postwar period, ending in the mid-1970s). In large parts of Australia, economists have found unemployment rates of up to 14 per cent. Even the Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that the number who want more work but cannot find it is about double the ranks of the officially unemployed. In new measures, the ABS recently calculated that, on top of the 596,000 people who were officially unemployed in 2000, there were another 584,000 people who were "under-utilised" in the labour market. Amazingly, well over one million are unemployed or under-employed in a country that only has a little over six million full-time employees.

The low level of Dole Army-like defiance is still more surprising in light of the poor performance of the Howard government in this area. Upon being first elected in 1996, the Coalition quickly dropped the Keating Labor government's aim of reducing unemployment to 5 per cent by 2000. The government also abolished the Commonwealth Employment Service, introducing the Job Network in its stead: a competitive system of job placement by private corporate and community agencies. Meanwhile, with the enthusiastic support of the tabloid media, the Coalition orchestrated an Orwellian-style public propaganda campaign around the idea of 'mutual obligation', which was designed to achieve the objective of shifting the government's responsibility for providing employment opportunities onto individual job seekers. To even the most world-weary, a shocking fact about the Howard government is that it has slashed public expenditure on employment assistance from the meagre 0.65 per cent of GDP allocated in 1995-96 to a mere 0.3 per cent in 1999-2000.

Not surprisingly, the Coalition's policies have failed dddismally, and, if you happen to be in the wrong place in the pecking order, catastrophically. In spite of the concurrent, if largely accidental, benefit of Australia's 'Miracle Economy', today there are 385,000 Australians who have been on the dole for more than a year, the same official number before the Coalition was elected.

When we think of the boldness of the Dole Army, then, we may cheer these black swans of trespass, and pray that they do continue to swim on alien waters. And should they again encounter the tabloid media, let's hope that, again, as Max Harris once believed that Ern Malley had written:

The hand that would clutch
Our substance finds that his rude touch
Runs through him a frightful spasm
And hurls him back against the opposite wall.


Christopher Sheil is a Fellow in the School of History at UNSW and the editor of the Evatt Foundation's new book, Globalisation: Australian Impacts (UNSW Press, 2001). The Dole Army's website can be found at: http://beam.to/dolearmy.


References

Ern Malley's story has been told in countless places, and can be found in most general history books on Australia. This account draws in particular on Michael Ackland, Damaged Men, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001, and the ABC-Radio feature narrated by John Thompson and published as an Appendix to Clement Semmler, For the Uncanny Man: Essays, Mainly Literary, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1963. Online sources, including links to Ern's complete works, can be found in Jacket 17, a free Internet review of new writing edited and published by John Tranter. For a wonderful recent essay on the development of Australian poetry containing, inter alia, a colourful account of James McAuley, see Clive James, "The Great Generation of Australian Poetry", in Peter Craven (ed), The Best Australian Essays: 2001, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2001.

In addition to its own website, sources for the Dole Army's encounter with tabloid TV include: Neer Korn, "Shooting the messenger - and loving every minute of it", Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February 2002; Nick O'Malley (ed), "Great Story, this, if you don't dig too deeply", Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 2002; Carol Nader, "Tabloid TV routed by 'Dole Army'", Age, 5 February 2002; Andrew Dodd, "Dole Army claims victory", The Australian, 6 February 2002. Audios of stories on the issue carried on 5 February 2001 by the World Today and FM radio programs can be found in the archives section of the ABC-Radio's current affairs website. An abbreviated transcript of the Today Tonight program can be found at the program's website, and IndyMedia carries a review of A Current Affair's treatment by Steven Stevenson.

For the Active Service Brigade, see Verity Burgmann, 'In our time': Socialism and the rise of Labor, 1885-1905, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1985 (the cited story is from page 80). For the Unemployed Workers Movement and other organisations in the Great Depression, see Stuart Macintyre, The Reds, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1998 (esp. pp. 190-8). Other sources include: Stuart Macintyre, Winners & losers: The pursuit of social justice in Australian history, Allen & Unwin, Sydney (esp. chs 4 & 5); Mark Davis, Gangland: Cultural elites and the new generationalism, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997 (esp. ch. 1, for an account of the Paxtons affair); Ross Gittins, "A helping hand for those we left behind", Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 2002; Australian Financial Review, 28 February 2002 (for the new ABS under-employment series); Mike Seccombe, "Carlton's 15 minutes a very sloppy sausage", Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 2002; Amanda Meade, "Sacked TV star wins big payout", Weekend Australian, 23 February 2002.

Also on the Evatt Site:

Suggested citation
Sheil, Christopher, 'Tabloid TV meets the ghost of Ern Malley', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 2002.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/tabloid-tv-meets-ghost-ern-malley.html>