Matthew Knott, Crikey media editor
For more than a century, Sydney’s two dominant newspapers have been fierce rivals, despite stark differences in their world views and target audiences.
Reporters at The Sydney Morning Herald, a fixture on Sydney’s affluent north shore and eastern suburbs, have long looked down at their Daily Telegraph competitors as ethically dubious beat-up merchants.
At the Tele, which dominates Sydney’s sprawling west, Fairfax types have been dismissed as smug and self-important.
But since teenager Daniel Christie was struck down in Kings Cross by a one-punch assault on New Years Eve, the papers have marched in lockstep by campaigning for the New South Wales government and wider community to get tough on alcohol-fuelled violence.
For 17 days straight, the cry has rung out from the front pages and editorial columns: something must be done. Prime minister Tony Abbott weighed in last week with a front-page column for the Tele; on Thursday, the governor-general attended Christie’s funeral service.
Such sustained campaigning by both papers on a single issue is unprecedented in recent times, according to former SMH editor Peter Fray.
‘Campaigning is easier for the tabloids; they’re virtually on a permanent campaign footing,’ he said.
‘The really interesting thing about this is that the Herald is matching the Tele blow for blow.’
The coverage is heaping enormous pressure on premier Barry O’Farrell to act, which he has seemed extremely reluctant to do.
The SMH’s Safer Sydney campaign is calling for 1am lockouts and 3am closing times in trouble spot areas such as Kings Cross.
The paper is also offering $2,500 to the reader who can create the best advertising campaign against alcohol-fuelled violence.
Meanwhile, the Tele’s Enough campaign is calling for the following:
1. be a real mate – take responsibility for each other and stop violence
2. Mandatory minimum jail terms for punches that cause death or serious injury
3. 1am lockouts across the Sydney CBD
4. more trains to get people home quicker
5. review liquor licences annually, and charge on a risk basis
6. ban the sale of alcohol 30 minutes before the venue closes.
The Tele upped the ante today with a story headlined ‘Lock these grubs up’, showing 93 per cent of respondents to a survey want minimum sentencing for one-punch crimes causing death.
Meanwhile more than 140,000 people have signed a petition created by the parents of Thomas Kelly, who died after a similar one-punch incident in Kings Cross in 2012, calling for alcohol and drug abuse to be considered an ‘aggravating factor’ in all crimes.
And public health campaigners have revived calls for increased taxation of alcohol to discourage drinkers from ‘pre-loading’.
While Peter Fray is not opposed to newspaper campaigns, he has some concerns with the current media onslaught.
‘It is the silly season, and there have been a couple of times I’ve wondered if the story is really there,’ he said.
‘There is always a risk in campaigning that you pick your facts to suit the campaign, and there’s an element of that in some of the stories about safety in Sydney.’
A problem for the papers is that there is no quantitative evidence of increased violence in the Kings Cross area.
Assaults within licensed venues have dropped by an average of 19.6 per cent over two years; on the streets, the rate of assault is stable.
These figures are countered by hospital workers and police officers, who insist the severity of assaults is increasing, if not their frequency.
The view of the papers and, it seems, much of the public, is that the current numbers are simply too high and need to be driven down.
Former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery is alarmed at the prospect of isolated tragic incidents leading to mandatory jail terms and longer sentences.
‘I think that media-driven law reform is a bad thing; it really produces less-than-satisfactory results,’ he told Crikey.
‘Increased penalties won’t make a blind bit of difference and are really just populist nonsense. I have great sympathy for the families, but we have laws sufficient to deal with these offences and I don’t see the need to rush to change the law.’
But Cowdery does support a trial of 1am lockouts and 3am closing times (known as the ‘Newcastle Solution’, following the success of such measures in the Newcastle CBD).
‘If it was effective in Newcastle, why can’t it be effective in a place like Kings Cross?’ he said.
‘It should be trialled. I think the reluctance of the government to implement strong and serious measures comes from the relationship between the government and the AHA [Australian Hotels Association].’
Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore told Crikey she was open to the Newcastle Solution, but only if applied across the entire inner-metropolitan area.
‘Otherwise people would simply move on to areas not affected by the changes, shifting the problem, rather than solving it,’ she said.
‘The current measures to reduce late-night violence are clearly not sufficient, which is why our staff have been carefully researching other options, and we’ve been asking the NSW government for more co-operation.
‘Our research shows that Sydney needs renewable liquor licences reviewed annually, rather than the current system of giving a licence in perpetuity; that councils need to be given the power to refuse development applications when areas like the Cross have reached ‘saturation point’ and can’t cope with any more venues; and we need more frequent late-night public transport to get people home safely.’
The real power, of course, lies with O’Farrell.
In a scene reminiscent of Yes Minister, he fronted the media yesterday to announce that he would have something to announce next week.
He knows he can expect the media bollocking to continue unless he introduces sweeping changes, regardless of whether he thinks they are necessary.
Is that a risk he’s willing to take?