Wildside: articles

How the ABC'S Wildside disgraced itself over Hanson

I would not have thought anything I saw on television could make me think Pauline Hanson was maligned but last Wednesday night it happened on Wildside, in my book far and away the best Australian drama series on television.

This has happened not long after the Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston - quite wrongly I think - accused the ABC of political bias over coverage of the maritime dispute, and at a time when he is busily placating Brian Harradine's moral conservatism in a way that makes me fearful for Wildside, with its frank and brutal depiction of hard drugs and prostitution, a world of sleaze and sorrow.

Last week's episode was appalling. We were presented with a far-right political leader with an anti-Aboriginal and anti-Asian agenda whose political adviser has her young son kidnapped in order to arouse sympathy for Carol Wilson (as she is called) in the byelection she is fighting. At the end it is left ambiguous whether the Hanson-like politician has colluded in this criminal abuse of her son but there is absolutely no doubt that she has gained from it politically.

The script for this episode was not written by one of the series' regular writers but by Bob Ellis, and it was both crude and simplistic. The offensiveness was heightened at every point by the writer's attempt not simply to depict a figure who was loosely like Hanson in policies but to ram home the actual identification in the minds of an audience who are extraordinarily familiar with her.

The very name Carol Wilson is a Frank Hardy-like emulation of the original's name: Anglo-Saxon given name and surname, two syllables in each. And so it goes with the criminal political adviser who is not only bald, in the manner of Hanson's former adviser, John Pasquarelli, but has a non-Anglo-Saxon (Polish) surname.

Particular details may not seem to mean a great deal in themselves but the cumulative effect suggests that Ellis deliberately worked to make the picture as compulsively offensive as possible in its unmistakable portrait of the Hanson figure.

One of the piquancies of Hanson's life is that this scourge of multiculturalism was at one point married to a European. It's hard not to imagine this having prompted Ellis to equip Carol Wilson with a former Jewish husband and to present her highly sympathetic mother-in-law saying, persuasively, that she was a bad mother with no interest in her child until he could be exploited as part of her political campaign. Ellis' episode of Wildside displays a naive, left liberal self-righteousness, and concomitant naiveté. Not only does the crooked, bald-headed adviser fake an Aboriginal-sounding voice while leaving threatening messages, but an Aboriginal activist is actually arrested, on very slender evidence, largely because of preposterously out-of-date and corny Black Power rhetoric.

Everything in the script is subordinated to nailing the figure whose adviser, in the TV show, says is a "drongo" (like Pasquarelli, he sees himself as the manager manipulating the dumb star). I find it sadder than I can say that a series that has created such a moody and atmospheric image of inner-urban Sydney, which has presented the complex human face of all manner of addictions and degradations, and has at the same time had a likeable, moody group of central figures rendered in the most impressive "improvisational" acting style in the history of Australian television should sink to this hackneyed, melodramatic, calumniating cartoon of a politician.

It is a profoundly illiberal and unhelpful piece of propaganda done in the name of liberalism.

ABC programming did not allow the episode to be shown before the Queensland election.

There was also pressure in the opposite direction: reportedly Aaron Pedersen, who plays the young, part-black lawyer, Vince, resigned from the show because of the ban and was persuaded to stay only because producer Ben Gannon intervened.

The mistake was to show this episode at all. The impression it would give any middling shrewd One Nation supporter is that the ABC (and the kind of people who are maintained by it as writers and actors and producers) are sufficiently unscrupulous and contemptuous of the electorate that they will use any level of character assassination to damage a political foe.

I don't doubt that there is everything to be feared politically from Hanson, but the Ellis episode of Wildside told viewers they can feel totally satisfied in hating people such as Hanson and Pasquarelli. The most disturbing thing about it is that it makes one wonder if we have any instinctive respect for free speech, or whether a stupid and sentimental conformism doesn't harm our every try.

By Peter Craven
July 01, 1998
The Age