Christine Nixon retires from public life

From a media spectacle to the privacy of retirement

The former Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon was admitted to hospital last weekend in acute abdominal pain. Whereas her gut ache has eased, the other pain -the one that went to her heart –caused by months of public scorn will not cease so quickly.

In April this year Nixon fronted the Bushfire Royal Commission and admitted that on the night of Black Saturday 2009, she abandoned the bushfire control centre and dined with friends. Meanwhile wild bushfires ravaged the state killing 173 people and rendering 5000 homeless.

The very public grilling of Christine Nixon at the hands of Rachel Doyle, counsel assisting the Bushfire Commission, was followed by weeks of public scrutiny and derision led by a horrible media campaign at the centre of which was 3AW’s Neil Mitchell. Mitchell and others such as the Victorian Police Association called for Nixon’s resignation from her current position as chief of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority.

Whether Nixon failed in her duty on the night of the bushfires is not the subject of this posting. This is about how the media represented the former police chief.

Between the 7th and the nineteenth of April the press published over one hundred and ten articles concerning Christine Nixon and included the worst possible photos of her it could possibly dig up.  Some of these went back many years -like the one showing a very large Christine Nixon enjoying a piece of birthday cake at a party. Nixon was hounded relentlessly over what she did or didn’t do on Black Saturday- and she was also crucified for being a woman who didn’t fit the mould.

The former police chief  is a big woman and the stories and photographs such as the one ‘shoving a piece of cake in her mouth’ depict a woman who is out of control. If she can’t control what she eats and what she looks like well then what else can’t she control. Off with her head-so to speak. The lynching mob is alive and well in the community today.

To understand the media representation of Christine Nixon we need to appreciate how women are conditioned in the broader society and how the spectacle of woman has been created and sustained in western culture.

Cyndi Tebbel is the author of The Body Snatchers- How the media shapes women. Tebbel asserts that when prominent women appear in the media, matters of attractiveness and clothing become the focus, whereas there is scant interest in the body shape or attire of the male counterpart. The image of Nixon as a large, middle-aged woman attracted a huge media interest that was as focused on how she looked and what she ate as any error of judgement she may have made on Black Saturday. We need to ask whether the head of the CFA, Russell Rees was subjected to such scrutiny over his image and attire.

We know that he was not and part of the problem for Christine is that she was also a feminist who was in charge of a very male police force. The media does not portray feminists positively and Nixon is cast as ‘bad’ in this debacle.  According to Clare Harvey 2010,  “Melbourne Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt saw Nixon’s strife as the police’s comeuppance for sending a girl to do a man’s job”.

Nixon was the first woman to become a Commissioner of an Australian Police force and regards her way of leading as doing it “not as a bloke and not as someone else – but as just a woman would.”

About her movements on Black Saturday, Nixon has said that in hindsight she would do things differently. She has been made the scapegoat and taken the rap. Happy retirement Christine.

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