The Guardian March 26, 2003

Anti-Discrimination Board slams media racism

by Peter Mac

Media coverage of the infamous "Children overboard" affair allegedly showed 
asylum seekers threatening to throw their children overboard, so as to 
force the Howard Government into granting them asylum.

Howard immediately declared in outraged tones that Australians wouldn't 
want "people like that" here. Although a subsequent Senate enquiry revealed 
the asylum seekers were actually abandoning their sinking ship, newspapers 
such as Sydney's Daily Telegraph dropped further serious coverage of the 

Overt racism is now frequently replaced by more subtle forms, or by the 
demonisation of prominent individuals, frequently involving racial 

Thus media depiction of Osama bin Laden (a former ally of the US), 
invariably emphasised cultural and racial differences. His alleged 
involvement in the S11 attack and his presence in Afghanistan, were 
subsequently used by the US to justify a war aimed at facilitating 
transport of Caspian Sea oil across Afghanistan to a Pakistan port.

(Doubtless if the policy of the Pakistani leadership were to threaten the 
pipeline, the US would "discover" that Pakistan's Musharaf Government is a 
ruthless military dictatorship, and Muslim to boot.)

In the light of all of these developments a new study, Race for Headlines, 
by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board is very timely. The report expresses 
deep concern about racism in reporting.

It notes that media coverage of September 11, the Bali bombing, the 
international "war on terror", the prospect of US-led attacks on Iraq, the 
Tampa dispute, Australia's policies regarding asylum seekers, and the 
ongoing debates about law and order have generated a "moral panic" in 

"The central feature linking . and blurring these debates is race, 
encompassing ethnicity, culture, religion and nationality", often with 
blatant racially inflammatory reporting, racist reactions, and 

The study comments that media "debates . about asylum seekers, terrorism 
and local crime became linked . and led to a damaging environment of anti-
Arabic and anti-Muslim sentiment. Australians perceived to be 'Arabic' or 
'Middle Eastern' and Muslim in particular have experienced abuse, 
harassment and vilification ...."

Overt racism is now avoided by most Western governments, and much of the 
media, as counter-productive. However, the study pointed out that ". with 
multi-culturalism replacing assimilation as government policy in Australia, 
discourse. (This) has led to the emergence of a 'new' racism . which 
distinguishes between groups of people not on visible racial 
characteristics, but . on actual or perceived cultural beliefs and values."

With regard to asylum seekers, the study noted that within Australia "over 
the past 18 months, asylum seekers were constantly referred to as 'illegal 
immigrants', 'human cargo', 'boat people' and 'queue jumpers' .This drew on 
fear of racial, cultural and religious differences, and provided (media) 
justification for . mandatory detention and harsh treatment of asylum 

The Board's study also criticised media coverage of the recent horrific 
rape of seven young Sydney women.

It noted that ". allegations that the rapists were Lebanese Muslim 
Australians and their targets . 'Australian' women received particular 
(media) attention", even though the backgrounds of two of the victims were 
Italian, another two Greek, and another Aboriginal.

The Board has now made a number of recommendations concerning the conduct 
of the media and police in dealing with racism and discrimination.

These recommendations mostly involve incentives, rather than penalties for 
non-compliance with the guidelines suggested. Nevertheless, Sydney's Daily 
Telegraph has, predictably, rejected the recommendations, saying that the 
Board ignored racial aspects of the assailants' behaviour in the rape case.

This is incorrect. In fact, the Board chose to look at this crime, and 
other examples of racism, in relation to not only the terrible experiences 
of the victims and their families, but also the media's responsibilities in 
reporting issues of race-related violence and discrimination.

The Telegraph justified its reporting of the case with loud, 
salacious and grossly insensitive repetitions of statements made by the 
assailants when committing the crime. Its rejection of the broader 
implications of media responsibility in reporting race-related matters 
effectively confirmed the case made against it by the Board.

As the study notes: ". negative views of certain groups in our community 
succeed when the media either facilitate or promote such characterisations, 
or at the very least do nothing to challenge or refute them."

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