Jimmy Bartel’s Message of Courage, and My Beef with the Herald Sun

Jimmy Bartel really is a gutsy man to have shared his story yesterday in Melbourne’s The Herald Sun. The article details the AFL player’s experience with the domestic violence his father perpetrated against him, his siblings, and his mother growing up.

 

jimy bartel
Picture courtesy of the Herald Sun

The article’s pros are that it raises awareness about the insidiousness of domestic violence and the trauma it causes. It centres on a man discussing his recollections of domestic violence as a child. This is not the typical narrative we hear about domestic violence either in the media or in the community. Women are the victims, men are the perpetrators, and that’s that. By circulating the article, a grey area in an already complicated issue is revealed, and a typical narrative is challenged. And that’s a good thing. Further, children are rarely spoken of as perhaps the biggest victims of this type of violence. Children don’t choose the relationships they’re exposed to, but they nevertheless adapt to them, and it’s in their adaptation that their developmental needs are thwarted.

Those are the pros, not necessarily negated by the cons discussed below. So, what are the cons? First, I take issue with the Herald Sun referring to a person’s addictions as their “evils”. Trauma begets trauma, and Jimmy’s father clearly had his demons. By the grace of God, as they say, Jimmy Bartel did not become the man his father was.  This could be due to the difference in socio-economic status between the two men, as well as the changing views on masculinity, male and female sex roles, and on the awareness we have around appropriate child-rearing practices. In any case, children learn vicariously, which means they emulate what they see. Thus, we know both from a plethora of research and intrinsically that a person exposed to such violence is far more inclined to perpetuate such behaviour than not. Upon closer inspection, perhaps the article is celebrating Jimmy’s luck as much as his courage.

Jimmy Bartel also makes it clear that his father had gambling and drinking addictions. This makes his father an addict, and addicts are characteristically shame-based people. But people are not inherently shameful; they learn it from their own caregivers, for better or worse. In many ways, addicts are our community’s most vulnerable people. The article thus demonises and victimises people with addictions – vulnerable people – and I take issue with this Us versus Them mentality. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Jimmy Bartel suffers from his own, perhaps less “traditional”, more socially accepted addictions, such as sex, love, food, or approval (codependence) addiction. Or perhaps his own mental health problems, such as issues surrounding body image or low self-esteem, which he arguably alludes to. How could he not have his own issues given the upbringing he describes?

Understandably, such addictions are still too taboo or poorly defined, collectively less understood, to discuss openly and without reprise. This is unfortunate. But it does raise the question: Would the Herald Sun demonise Jimmy Bartel if we were to learn that he has his own addictions? How swift would his fall from grace be if he were to step out of the lines this newspaper has painted him in to? To take a more compassionate view of addicts, and of the people who perpetrate violence, would probably betray the moral boundaries the Herald Sun has decided should be the norm for its readers, and I take issue with this too.

Another con of this article is that the Herald Sun has historically, notoriously and often shamelessly touted its very own interests to the detriment of what can arguably be ‘objectively true’ – as much as something can be – and this, to me, lessens its credibility. A media organisation should strive for objectivity, and while all media organisations fall short of this objective by virtue of the fact that they’re run by humans who are fallible, the Herald Sun doesn’t appear to ever really strive for this objectivity to begin with. This makes it difficult to take seriously anything it produces. Its reputation precedes it, regardless of how altruistic-seeming its articles are.
Dustin+Martin
The Herald Sun also has a history of subtly and overtly objectifying its readership. Woman and men are portrayed in traditional ways, with women as sex objects and victims, and men as offenders who are then just as quickly demonised for falling short of some constantly shifting ideal. Just look at the public beating and shaming that Richmond football club’s Dustin Martin took in the media for his violent behaviour towards a woman in a restaurant. What’s the bet he was the victim of domestic violence and emotional neglect too? Should we take an all-or-nothing view of him because of his actions and cast him out also?  Do we negate this possibility and just label him a troublemaker, as the Herald Sun did? Issues surrounding the perpetration of violence are usually complex, and the Herald Sun seems to ignore this complexity in what could be seen as the latest in a series of moral crusades. The message the Herald Sun provides is thus inconsistent, and seems a broader exercise in black-or-white thinking. If the article were a stand alone one not associated with the Herald Sun, perhaps it would carry more weight, but it’s not, and it doesn’t.
No doubt, Jimmy Bartel was brave to share his story. And the article does indeed give coverage to an issue that’s close to my heart and my experience. But it’s hard not to be cynical about the paper that gives him his platform to do so. I take such articles with a grain of salt, but am happy to see that the issue of domestic violence is being pushed in to public consciousness from the perspective of the biggest and most vulnerable victim – the child, who in turn may become the perpetrator ((Jimmy Bartel’s father, perhaps) of such violence. Such people are destined to become the misunderstood, offending, addicted and victimised adult so long as newspapers like the Herald Sun opt for a simple take on a complex issue.

Indeed, in order for change to occur both at a grassroots and systemic level, people need concrete examples of how one thing affects another, and this article perhaps offers us this. When the Herald Sun and other media outlets responsibly convey the inherent complexity of issues such as domestic violence, then our society can move toward a more compassionate view of the vulnerable groups that comprise addicts, prostitutes, and those we might consider ‘disenfranchised’. This in turn will force governments to create policy that reflects this reality, which can only be a good thing. But we might be waiting a while for that to happen so long as newspapers like the Herald Sun abuse their power rather than use it to educate the public.