'they Still Had Tails'

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PACIFIC ISLANDS [image, unknown]

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'They still had tails'
Ross Stevens examines the media image of the 'South Seas'.

For the journalist who 'never lets the facts spoil a good story', the Pacific is paradise. An early flight of fancy is recorded in New Guinea's Rabaul Record during 1916:

The further inland you travel, the further you get from civilisation, until at length you get to the fierce Bua tribes. Only one man who has visited these tribes has returned. He related how he was once captured by a tribe so far back in the scheme of evolution that they still had tails ...

In January this year, Bernard Boucher wrote in Perth's West Australian:

'You number one fat fella,' said the cannibal on my left, appraising my bulbous body with a voracious betel stained grin. He had just finished performing the same dance they used to do when the missionaries were in the pot...'

Savage stuff, all right - on the part of the writers. But perhaps, just to be on the safe side, we assure readers that both stories are incorrect.

The exploits of Britain's own boys' hero, Lieutenant-Colonel John Blashford-Snell, and his Operation Drake, did nothing to dispel the 'savage Pacific' image. The once revered Times of London in January 1980 reported 'Blashers' as 'enthusiastically telling tales of "stone age" tribes, giant lizards and steaming jungles'. (The Pacific's jungle always seems to 'steam'; its tribes are always 'stone age'; its rivers 'infested' by crocodiles - some even say alligators. Operation Drake once found a tribe 'living entirely in the stone age apart from a few metal hunting axes...')

And when the Pacific is not 'savage' it is usually 'sensuous', littered with dusky maidens combing their hair on white beaches waiting for the sun to set so they can share their favours in the scent-laden air...

The Tahitian dancer who scolded an aggressive American photo journalist at last year's South Pacific Festival of Arts - 'We're not all tits and bums, you know' - was not widely reported. But her hips were.

Dramatic crises in Islanders' lives are often reported flippantly. Much of the copy filed from Vanuatu during the US France-inspired Espiritu Santo rebellion which threatened the first days of the country's independence last year made the conflict look like a comic book war.

Australia's national weekly magazine, The Bulletin, served up a flood of paternalistic rubbish which would have had yesterday's great white planters rolling around in delight, spilling pink gin all over their verandahs. Boys Own has nothing on some of the Islands' visiting writers.

Two international news agencies have correspondents in the Islands. The Australian Associated Press, owned by Australian newspaper interests with other agency links, has a full time correspondent in Port Moresby. Agence France Presse has correspondents in the French strongholds of New Caledonia and Tahiti and in Vanuatu.

A student at the University of Papua New Guinea, seeing a cutting on a noticeboard, was angry. 'Rape trial' was the heading on a story in the authoritative British daily, The Guardian. The story was about a government minister on a rape charge and had been filed through Reuter. 'Who is this Reuter?' the student demanded. 'Why does he want to give my country a bad name?'

Ross Stevens is lecturer in journalism at the University of Papua New Guinea.

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New Internationalist issue 101 magazine cover This article is from the July 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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