Did you hear the one about how Vegemite was going to be banned in some alcohol-free remote communities because it was being used to make homebrew?
This wasn’t satire, this was a widely reported story in the mainstream press. It ticked all the right boxes for successful click bait, but there was just one problem: it was bullshit. The source for these claims? The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion.
In an exclusive interview with the minister, Brisbane’s Sunday Times broke the story on August 9. Scullion was quoted as saying: “Wouldn’t it be terrible to ban Vegemite? Well it’s a precursor to misery in some communities.”
To give credence the Sunday Times also quoted the Queensland Police Union president Ian Leavers, who appeared to corroborate the claim when he said: “In Indigenous communities I have seen alcohol brewed from many things, such as Vegemite”.
From there, the story went viral globally. Prime Minister Tony Abbott had to intervene to hose down suggestions that Vegemite was in danger of being banned.
Had any of the other news outlets that ran with the story performed even a small amount of due diligence in researching the story, either by contacting the manufacturer of Vegemite or someone who works in food science, they would have found that the claims were complete hokum. The only two mainstream news organisations that actually did this were the National Indigenous TV (NITV) and ABC’sMedia Watch.
Media Watch contacted Vegemite’s manufacturer for comment. Its response was: “Recent reports suggesting Vegemite can be used to brew alcohol are incorrect ... the autolysis process and subsequent yeast processing in the manufacture of Vegemite kills the yeast. As sugar and active yeast are two elements required in the brewing process, Vegemite cannot be fermented into alcohol.”
When asked about the story by Media Watch, a spokesperson for the minister tried to claim that Scullion had been misquoted — until Media Watch produced the original recording from the interview, which proved he had indeed made the “precursor to misery” quote among others.
However, what is more concerning, as Media Watch noted, even after the story had been debunked, only the ABC and SBS ran corrections. That media companies’ shrinking and stretched newsrooms are passing off hearsay without verification is not news; sadly it is increasingly the norm.
That the only voices against this came from the publicly funded broadcasters, ABC and SBS, which the government clearly has it in for, shows why we need a media independent from the for-profit corporate interests and government interference.
This is why supporting independent media — whether publicly funded broadcasters or grassroots media like Green Left Weekly — is so important.
The struggle for justice for Australia's first peoples is part of the wider struggle for a more socially just and equitable Australia. That is why we proudly cover and support the grassroots struggles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for campaigns against the Intervention, against nuclear waste dumps being built on sacred lands and for land rights, to name a few.
You can help us with this by donating to the GLW Fighting Fund on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia). Donations can also be made to Green Left Weekly, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account no. 00901992. Otherwise you can send a cheque or money order to PO Box 394, Broadway NSW 2007.