Hey Hey It’s International Incident Day

My first reaction on seeing this clip on Thursday was that horrible sinking feeling of knowing that I was going to have to explain to everyone around me that no, not all Australians are as blinkered as the ones who’ve said they don’t see a problem with it; the rest were crawling under a chair hoping it was a bad dream. Australian TV may once have been guilty of airing the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show, but anyone under the age of ninety knows why it’s been off our screens for thirty years.

Some are now claiming that there’s nothing offensive in the Hey Hey performance because no offense was intended, and that anything said to the contrary is political correctness gone mad. But for crying out loud, putting a bunch of guys in shoe polish on a high-profile show on national television is not on a par with telling a racist joke to your mates and telling the one who says “steady on” to lighten up. The latter is bad enough, but it’s a personal failing; this was an institutional one.

Does that make it a national failing? Australia does have an entrenched strain of racism, which has been at the heart of some bitter political battles right up to the present day. But like America, Britain, France and anywhere else, it’s divided on such matters, and the battle for control of the cultural debate ain’t over by a long shot. John Howard ushered in a disturbing shift in the national mood during his eleven years as prime minister, but his brand of ’50s nostalgia never convinced everyone. The golden age of Australian conservatism was just as contested at the time: Menzies only narrowly won the 1954 and 1961 elections, and for the sake of a few seats each time our account of that era would have been quite different.

To put it into perspective, this isn’t as disturbing as the Tampa affair, which was a national shame that nevertheless got Howard re-elected (and a national shame because it did), but it’s still plenty embarassing. The worst of it? That it was sparked by a show that was an embarassment twenty years ago, whether or not it featured guys in blackface. If the BBC can tie itself in knots over two radio announcers leaving lewd jokes on a fellow comedian’s answering machine, Channel Nine should be shutting its doors and taking down its broadcast antenna.

It won’t, of course, but it’ll be extremely interesting to see if Hey Hey gets a full series after this.

10 October 2009 · Events