Tabloid TV meets the ghost of Ern Malley

Struggle Street & the Dole Army

Christopher Sheil

It was a great victory for struggle street. The Nine Network's A Current Affair and the Seven Network's Today Tonight programs featured competing stories exposing a group of dole bludgers who lived in Melbourne's drains, surfacing in balaclavas to scavenge food and use a website to cheat unemployment benefits.

"And now to a group that don't work", announced the lead-in on Nine's A Current Affair : "they don't believe in working or paying taxes; instead, they rort the system so they can live off the taxes everybody else pays." "They call themselves the Dole Army", boomed the program's anchor over drumbeats, "and they say they are on the march". Meanwhile, two channels down, the Seven Network's Today Tonight announced "one of the country's best kept secrets: a rebel army working deep beneath the city". "They live in drainage tunnels under Melbourne", Seven's reporter, Norm Beaman, told his viewers, "and their goal is to teach people how to rip-off the welfare system". "If it wasn't true", boomed Beaman, "it would be almost comical."

As widely noted the next morning, Beaman was half-right. The story wasn't true, but it was funny. In a hoax reminiscent of the famous wartime Ern Malley stunt, a group of activists doing voluntary work on behalf of Australia's unemployed had fooled the two giant networks. The so-called 'Dole Army' had emailed A Current Affair with a two-line story, parodying the program's stereotyped attitude toward the unemployed, and the producers swallowed the bait. No sooner had Channel Nine's promos gone to air than the Army ensnared Today Tonight, which paid $1000 for the same story. Going to air almost simultaneously in prime time on Monday 4 February, according to a review article in the Sydney Morning Herald, both programs did their work "in a manner befitting their trademark outrage".

The Dole Army exposed the hoax the next day. "Last night the big guns of Tabloid TV fell victim to their own sleazy set-up tactics", announced the Army's press release. "We presented them with exactly the kind of story they love and they lapped it up like dogs. They enjoy nothing more than victimising the poor and unemployed". Ern returns

Like the Ern Malley hoax of 1944, the stunt was an inspired, irreverent, reverse heckle, and a striking social criticism. Just as the perpetrators of the legendary literary hoax had served up fake poems by an imaginary 'Ern Malley' to show how publishers had become "insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination"; so the Dole Army fictionalised the drain-dwelling dole bludger story to highlight the shamelessly superficial way that tabloid TV operates, particularly in relation to the unemployed. "We've proved that there are a lot of people that get paid a lot of money to make really bad media with very little integrity", explained the Army's "Agent Koala" in The Australian.

As with Ern Malley, the perpetrators of the drain-dwelling hoax had imbibed the anarchist spirit. As with Ern, they also set out to have a good deal of fun: "Taking the Mickey" read the caption beneath The Australian's photograph of the Army, the members shown wearing Micky Mouse masks. And just as over 50 years ago Ern's publishers had continued to insist that their poems were valid long after they had been exposed as a joke, so the television spokesmen continued to insist that their stories were valid. The incredulousness that had been so scarce in the making