The apology: TV captured it best

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Media Practice | 15/02/2008
The two-week run up on television to the ‘Sorry Day’ was marked by discussions on whether the apology was indeed necessary.
MAYA RANGANATHAN on Australia’s emotional moment.

Melbourne: Watching history-in-the-making comes but rarely in one’s lifetime and on Wednesday, Feb 13, 2008 Australians got to participate in a rare and proud moment thanks to the electronic media Their new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised in Parliament for all the acts of commissions and omissions done by successive Commonwealth Governments to the Aboriginals,


The commercial television channels that are usually castigated for its wrong priorities rose magnificently to the occasion by going ‘live’ when the Prime Minister stepped into Parliament on ‘Sorry day’ to read out a most moving and touching apology for the policies of the successive Commonwealth governments that have caused "loss, pain and misery" to the ‘First Australians.’


As people gathered in front of giant screens telecasting the ‘live recording’ in public places such as the Federation Square in Melbourne and in University lecture halls, it was clear for all to see what the nation thought of the apology. While some wiped away tears, others sobbed when Rudd narrated the pain that aboriginal children who were ‘stolen’ from their parents had had to go through.  And etched in memory along with Rudd’s emotional and clearly-enunciated apology will remain images of the thousands gathered outside television screens across the country sharing in the emotion, holding aloft banners proclaiming ‘sorry’ and turning their backs on the screens when Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson attempted to justify his party’s stand on the issue.


But surprisingly, the import of the event or the overwhelming emotion that would go with it was seemingly lost on the electronic media till a day before the apology, when the text of the apology was tabled in Parliament.


The two-week run up on television to the ‘Sorry Day’ was marked by discussions on whether the apology was indeed necessary and what had prompted the past actions against the Aboriginals that in retrospect proved disastrous and what more needed to be done to improve their plight. While the electronic media filled the audiences in with the intellectual and political debates, what escaped an ordinary viewer, who was not well-versed with Australian history or the politics of the apology, was what the common man thought about it all.


Although it was clear that the Labor party had won the recent elections on a commitment to tender an apology to the Aboriginal people, among other things, one could not help wonder if the Australian people truly backed the apology. On Tuesday, two news items, one in Channel 7 and Channel 9 each, added to the confusion. The one in Channel 7 was about an online poll which stated that about 64 per cent of the voters thought that an apology was unnecessary and the one in Channel 9 about an Anglo-Saxon widow with her four children, being evicted out of a predominantly Aboriginal settlement in Bundoora near Melbourne, on the death of her Aboriginal husband.


It was also around the same time that the viewer caught a whiff of the significance of the event. The prime time news showed people thronging the national capital of Canberra to hear the apology ‘live’ on the screens placed outside the Parliament.  And all doubts vanished as people crowded around TV sets the next morning. The 8000-strong crowd that gathered in front of the giant screen in Federation Square in Melbourne city listened to the Prime Minister’s speech in rapt attention and cheered in unison and jeered the Opposition leader’s support to the motion that contained references to compensation and the ills that continued to plague the Aboriginal communities.


Perhaps, attempting to strike balance was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) which in its evening news showed interviews with a couple of welfare workers who defended the good intentions behind the decision to remove Aboriginal children from their families and community. Interestingly, hours after the telecast of the ‘Sorry day’ proceedings in Parliament, the national broadcaster seemed to be getting embroiled in a controversy with news items appearing that it was refusing to repeat the telecast and was asking viewers to instead purchase tapes of the event. But hours later, the ABC made an announcement that the telecast would be repeated on Saturday noon for all those people at work who missed it on Wednesday.


In the face of such overwhelming support to the apology, dissenters were left to voice their disagreement in message boards under fictitious names or call up sympathetic radio stations to air their views in talk back radio. Clearly the Internet has its uses, but it cannot quite capture the magic of television.


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