Sitting on stage in front of an eager Sydney Writers’ Festival audience, journalist and author, Stan Grant, described the past couple of weeks in which he stepped away from the media and hosting duties at ABC’s Q+A as “bewildering and bruising.”
Mr Grant, who was participating in the event at Carriageworks to promote his new book “The Queen is Dead,” made the decision to quit the media due to the relentless racial abuse and threats aimed at him and his family.
After reading an excerpt from his book, Mr Grant engaged in a frank and open conversation with UNSW constitutional law expert, Professor George Williams, and reflected on how words fail us.
“Sometimes words just hold us apart from each other…,” he said. “I’ve tried to talk about truth. I’m trying to talk about justice, and I am trying to talk about those things with love and respect. People hear love and they respond with hate. People might see the word respect, but they respond with spite. Words are not enough.”
Mr Grant drew on a metaphor from African American novelist Toni Morrison who said, ‘evil always has a top hat and a cape, and good is over there in the corner’, to describe how the media has played a role in creating a world where hate speaks louder than goodness.
“That’s what has bruised me the most,” Mr Grant said. “Because I know working in the media that I am complicit. That’s why I say sorry to even the people that bombard me and my family with the most filthy, vile, racist abuse, and even threaten our lives… We cannot just be responsible for ourselves. We are responsible for the worst that others do as well because we created a world where those things are possible.”
Still, Mr Grant said he is optimistic that future generations – including his own children – will be able to rise above the hate and find love again. Mr Grant was moved to tears as he read a letter written to him by his youngest son.
“You fought every day for yourself, for us as your family and for this country and have done so without complaint or even as much as a second thought,” Mr Grant read from the letter. “It hurts me to see how this country, the world, and even us at times have abused your strength and mistreated you. But with this letter, I want to make a promise to you that you won’t have to fight much longer. I will use the lessons you have taught and shown me to begin carrying more weight and begin fighting.”
Mr Grant received the letter from his son on the same day as his last appearance as host of Q+A. He addressed the turmoil that lead to his decision to step down, specifically the backlash from the coronation panel discussion with Liberal MP Julian Leeser.
“We had a really respectful conversation, and I said specifically, please don’t take this as an attack. I say this with love. I say this with respect but there is another story here about what the crown represents,” Mr Grant said. “No one shouted over anyone. No one abused anybody. And then to hear, day after day, people say hateful things, that this was a hate-filled hour of television, that I hated Australians and maligned the good-working Australians.”
Mr Grant called the attack on him a “cultural violation” and the consequence of racism.
“If a white person had been on air and they talked about martial law being declared in the War of Bathurst, which led to what was considered at the time, the extermination of the Wiradjuri people. If they talked about the invasion of the land, they would not have been abused in the way I was,” he said. “But race crowded out everything. It wasn’t just what I was saying, it was the fact that I was saying it. The racial abuse and the attacks began before I had even uttered a word.”
Professor Williams agreed with Mr Grant and acknowledged a double standard.
“I think there are some things that we’re not meant to say and there are some people who are not meant to say certain things,” Professor Williams said. “Yet, on the other hand, we tolerate other things being said that can be vile racism.”
Professor Williams said he connected with the stories and the history in The Queen is Dead, but said he was also struck by the concept of “whiteness,” a concept that orders the society in which we live that is a myth.
“We have not become a white country. We live in a world where the rise of China and other developments that you speak about speak of a different world order where most of this globe is not white,” Professor Williams said. “And yet ‘the Queen is dead; long live the King.’ There is an enduring sense of perpetuity and whiteness. Why is it so difficult to get to the truth, why is it so hard to get past the façade?”
In his response, Mr Grant referred to whiteness as an organising principle.
“I think people hear the language of race and the first thing it does, and it is designed to do this, is it separates us,” Mr Grant said. “That’s what it is designed to do. There is no such thing as race. There are peoples, and I belong broadly to the First Nations Peoples of this land… Whiteness is an organising principle, a way of ordering our world. But it is not a white people.”
The issue of race spilled over into a discussion on the Voice to Parliament. Professor Williams, who has written widely on constitutional law and public policy, including a recent book Everything You Need to Know About the Uluru Statement from the Heart with UNSW Professor Megan Davis, asked what it would take to insert the Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.
Mr Grant said the media has turned it into a political process by focusing on justiciability, and whether it will clog up the Supreme Court, and not enough focus on justice.
“We’ve spent more time talking about the Constitution and not enough time talking about the people for whom the Constitution is written,” Mr Grant said. “I fear whenever we get too close to politics, we lose the ability to talk to each other and think that’s part of what we’ve seen in this. I entirely understand in a democracy, and it is welcomed, the need for vigorous debate. Ideas are important and the wrong ideas can destroy a nation and we can vote for the wrong ideas. Adolf Hitler was elected. We can vote for the wrong ideas. We should debate them but not with lies, not with people who want to bring hatred with it.”
Asked if he thought Australians, particularly the media, could ever openly, truthfully and honestly discuss race, Mr Grant said he wasn’t sure the media would be up for it.
“I am sorry I am part of a media that has so utterly failed us. And we have failed. We are far too often the poison in the bloodstream,” he said. “You see it all the time.”
He spoke about the pretence of “balance” in the media and how debates take one person from one extreme and a person from another extreme and they yell at each other.
“I am not sure the media is capable of it. I don’t know that I am capable of doing it in the media either,” he said.