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 story. Overt racism is now frequently replaced by more subtle forms, or by the demonisation of prominent individuals, frequently involving racial stereotyping. 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 Australia. "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 'Islamophobia'." 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 seekers." 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."