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Byron Shire
April 18, 2021

The day Australian media lost its credibility

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The abhorrent wrap-around 'souvenir' cover of Murdoch's Daily Telegraph 'special afternoon edition on Monday (December 15).
The abhorrent wrap-around ‘souvenir’ cover of Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph ‘special afternoon edition on Monday (December 15).

Bernard Keane, Crikey politics editor

There’s one phrase that guarantees anyone who uses it in relation to a tragic event is either a fool or the most vilely cynical manipulator: ‘the day Australia lost its innocence’ – or Monday’s variant, ‘the day Sydney lost its innocence’. The people inclined to use that phrase regularly deploy it in association with tragedies. The Bali bombings were, according to politicians and the media, ‘the day Australia lost its innocence’. But then, so was the Hilton bombing, and it was used about the string of gun massacres in the 1980s and 1990s that John Howard brought to an end with his gun laws. Australia losing its innocence has thus become a constantly repeated process, as if somehow we regain it between tragedies, only to be deprived of it next time.

That the media would be able to resist its use proved a forlorn hope, although the first mainstream media offender turned out to be Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News; Murdoch’s Sydney rag, in its repulsive ‘afternoon edition’, complete with commemorative wraparound (something to show the grandkids!), settled for the variant ‘the instant we changed forever’. But having erroneously described a mentally ill violent criminal, who had been a Shia for almost his entire life, as ‘IS takes 13 hostages’ – a statement wrong in every possible way – the Telegraph had already set a new low, at least until its geriatric reactionary owner tweeted his delight at his employees’ caperings this morning.

Meantime, Fairfax, where the Financial Review also went with an Islamic State connection despite having longer to realise it didn’t exist, was today running the absurd typing of an American journalist who insisted Monday was Australia’s ‘9/11 moment’ – and 9/11 of course was famously the day America lost its innocence, a description that requires almost complete historical ignorance, or at least a healthy sense of sarcasm, for use.

The assumptions loaded into such ‘lost its innocence’ statements merit entire theses; indeed, many have doubtless already been written. That Australia, established as a prison colony and forged in dispossession, genocide and gleeful participation in the long wars of imperialism throughout the 20th century, could be ‘innocent’; that it is such a fragile culture that a single moment of violence, however atypical, could comprehensively alter its very nature. There’s almost a sense of pride in it, the sort of pride that welcomed the casualties of Gallipoli as a proper ‘blooding’ of the young nation, pride that Australia has now joined the big league of nations targeted by terrorists. It’s a sentiment that underpins the visible, fawning delight of much of the media that events in Sydney have merited global media coverage. The cultural cringe may have long been replaced with reflexive nationalism, but we still love it when them sophisticated furreners pay us attention.

But that was merely one of the cliches that journalists, hosts and commentators reached for Monday. With a dearth of information from police about such basics as how many gunmen or hostages there were and nothing happening across the day, the rolling media coverage quickly surrendered to hackneyed phrases, rampant, ill-informed speculation and rumour-spreading, exactly like social media. Terrorism experts were hastily summoned to explain what was happening, or not happening, that this was a lone wolf or part of a bigger attack, that this had been carefully planned or badly bungled. Blatant inaccuracies were peddled. Sydney airspace had been shut down, outlets reported, when it hadn’t. A precautionary evacuation of the Opera House became an ‘incident’ there, with suspicious packages being reported. The ‘National Art Gallery’ had been evacuated, one journalist tweeted, possibly alarming the staff of Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, the gallery with the nearest name to the apparently deserted, but fictional, institution.

And above all, there was the hysterical tone, the claim of a ‘city under siege’, as if Sydney had never witnessed such things before – events like the Hilton bombing (thank you, ASIO) or 1984’s bank hostage drama, in which Hakki Atahan emerged from a George Street bank surrounded by hostages, walking in close formation to a getaway car to begin a pursuit that ended in a shoot-out on the Spit Bridge.

Not all of the coverage was irresponsible, certainly. The Guardian’s live blog was sensibly circumspect and avoided the trap of recycling what other outlets were claiming as ‘unconfirmed reports’. Most outlets, including News Corporation, refused to disclose information communicated to them from the perpetrator via hostages, although that led to some bizarre tweets, in which journalists declared they knew information but would not be disclosing it at the request of police, and they hoped others wouldn’t either. The much-maligned Ray Hadley wisely rejected efforts by the perpetrator to go on air. But the identity of interests between the mass media and terrorists (assuming for a moment Man Monis was engaged in terrorism, despite having no explicit ideological agenda in his acts of violence Monday) was on vivid display throughout the hours and hours of ‘rolling coverage’ that sought to keep viewers and readers glued to their screens despite the lack of anything happening or new information.

In contrast, both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Mike Baird conducted themselves entirely appropriately – calm, unwilling to engage in speculation, leader-like. Abbott correctly judged the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook release should proceed – having urged Australians to go about business as normal, the best way to encourage that was to show that the business of government would go on. It’s rare that the Prime Minister can provide a lesson in communication to the media, but he did so Monday, in spades.

It wasn’t the day Australia lost its innocence, or changed forever. It was a day that much of Australia’s media again demonstrated it’s not up to the challenge of providing mature coverage of terrorism.

 


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10 COMMENTS

  1. Well noted . But what puzzles me is with only three people shot why do we not get told who shot who ? Surly its as easy as looking at the bullets in each body and identifying which gun they came out of ? THIS simple fact seems so hard to share . Probably just as well it was not in Queensland as there could have been a many more ‘ friendly fire victims ‘ , if indeed that turns out to be the case here ?

  2. Good on you ECHO for calling the media out for the miserable sods they are at exploitation of events. Even ABC couldn’t help itself from turning a sorry and tragic crime into something akin to an invasion. People ask why wasn’t the perpetrator allowed bail but one might also ask why is Murdoch allowed to be a publisher.

  3. While Bernard Keane is mostly right in his take on the Australian media and it’s coverage of the Sydney hostage tragedy, his comment that Tony Abbott was ‘unwilling to engage in speculation, leader-like’ does not hold water.

    See Abbott’s interview in this segment of Russell Brand’s Trews:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZ8ZYAvWTxo

    Abbott will use this incident to justify his own brand of ‘terror’ against the Australian people via mass surveillance and draconian police powers and, indeed, get himself off the hook as a social and environmental vandal and the worst PM in Australian history.

  4. I would also describe the ABC’s television coverage as absolute overkill. They ran the story non stop all day and into the night on not one, but two of their four channels.Whilst they may have resisted making sweeping and inciteful headlines, they are still complicit in contributing to the fear and paranoia which is the ultimate end result of such voyeuristic indulgence.

  5. No Harsha,
    He will never get himself off that hook, in spite of the dismal records of Howard, Holt and a long list of bad jokes since Gough!
    On a lighter note, this drama has been long expected , or why all the draconian antisocial laws ? Sure this means of course this will be used ,as in the case of the Port Arthur nutter, to introduce harsh and unreasonable laws ( the prime motivation of all “Liberal/ National” minority governments) even when its proven that all the deaths in Martin Place were due to our dearly beloved police force, acting in it’s usual, brawn before brains, mode.
    In my experience the only reason that nothing is said in these circumstances is that they know nothing or don’t want us to know anything, at least not until the lawyers have given it a savage tweak !
    G”)

    • Yep, notwithstanding the apparent universal acceptance by experts that the police had no option but to storm the building following the shooting of one of the hostages by the hostage taker, world renowned hostage negotiator Ken (above) has the situation summed up with “our dearly beloved police force, acting in it’s usual, brawn before brains, mode”.
      But then again, no doubt Ken had already developed an ingenious rescue plan after in-depth consultation with his technical advisers: Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
      <> <>

      Also, in response to Armchair Expert, Guy’s query “Why do we not get told who shot who?” (above, Comment Number 2) – two words: “Coronial Inquest”.

  6. Good insight this. I too, was extremely irritated by the overkill media coverage the other night. Trying to find something to watch on TV with the ABC TV constantly running information that was already known and repeating the obvious. Thank God ABC 3 was running Rage.

  7. where are the flowers & grief for the 141 women & children shot overnight by the uncontrollable Taliban?
    I thought the greed read: “all men are equal”. Doesn’t that apply to innocent women & children.
    The day Australia lost it’s innocence – what crap:
    Sheraton Hotel bombings
    Bali bombings
    I lay the blame directly at the feat of TA!

  8. Australian media lost its credibility in the 70’s over the end of the Vietnam War and has been going lower into the abyss ever since.

    The old adage ” Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” has been its motto for years, It’s no wonder journalists are second from the bottom of the ladder in the poll of people’s respect for a career, only beaten for bottom spot by newspaper editors/owners.

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