Thursday, September 28, 2006

Media ethics: Who was to blame for Cronulla?

This essay will examine the events surrounding the Cronulla riots of 11 December 2005. It will discuss how the story broke and demonstrate the media chain reaction that made the riot inevitable. It will then examine the role of the media in the immediate aftermath of the riot. While there were many media reporting on Cronulla (TV, radio, press, internet news, weblogs) the essay will concentrate on the key roles played by Sydney’s highest-rating radio breakfast announcer and Sydney’s highest-selling newspaper. This essay will show how these media hid behind their public sources to implicitly encourage the events that followed. The conclusion will show that poor ethical practices in both media were justified to further commercial interests.

The sequence of events were caused by a crime. On Sunday 4 December 2005, two surf lifesavers were attacked and injured on Sydney’s North Cronulla beach. The wire service AAP broke the story. Their initial report was that “two young surf lifesavers have been bashed in an attack by a large group at a beach near Sydney” (AAP 5 December 2005). Other than conflating “large group” with “four people”, the report was a model of ethical hard news journalism. There was no unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics. An attack on lifesavers, the iconic symbol of Australian beaches, was itself an angle for a major story. But there was a second angle. The four men the police were looking for were Lebanese Australians.

It was Alan Jones who exposed the second angle. Jones does the influential breakfast slot on 2GB radio where he gets 16.4% of the radio audience. That amounts to 182,000 radios tuned to his program in the Sydney region every day. That Monday a caller “Bill” rang to say he had seen the news on Channel Nine about the “horrendous bashing”. “Bill” continued, “…gang acts on the beach at Cronulla yesterday. I mean, what type of grubs do we have in this...?” Jones finished the sentence for him:
“What kind of grubs? Well, I'll tell you what kind of grubs this lot were. This lot were Middle Eastern grubs. And you're not allowed to say it. But I'm saying it.”

The “you” Jones mentions, are journalists whose second commitment of their code of ethics forbids them to emphasise “race, ethnicity, (and) nationality”. Jones put himself outside the pale as he knew it would mean the angle could now be open spoken about. And it was the only real angle on offer - the lifesavers were not on duty at the time of the attack. That fact was buried as the media frenzy grew in the week that followed. Now that Jones had done their dirty work for them and named the “Middle Eastern grubs”, the Daily Telegraph could now join in.

The Murdoch owned Telegraph is Sydney’s biggest selling daily newspaper. It sold 403,000 copies in the first six months of 2004. They missed the story entirely on Monday but on Tuesday they splashed the headline “Fight for Cronulla: we want our beach back”. The article described the attackers as a “group of thugs” but also quotes surf lifesaving Sydney rescue services manager Stephen Leahy who said it was common for Middle Eastern men from Western Sydney to taunt Cronulla surf lifesavers. This disingenuous quote left readers in no doubt as to the identity of the “thugs”.

By Wednesday, the Telegraph had posted Luke McIlveen on the job. His prior front page exclusives on both Schapelle Corby and Ivan Milat were exposed by Media Watch as foundless. Although the quality of McIlveen’s reporting may be suspect, his sensationalism is a major weapon in their circulation war. This is the Janus view of news media. The media have both business and public utility aspects. McIlveen was brought in for the business aspect. Immediately he uncovered a history of beach thuggery and found one interviewee who was “harassed and assaulted by thugs of Middle Eastern descent”. The article concluded with a plea from the newspaper for follow-up information from the public. “Have you been harassed at the beach? Tell us at…” (McIlveen and Jones 2005). The newspaper was not interested in good news about Cronulla.

By Thursday the Telegraph was in full flight. There were reports of a second incident on the beach on the Wednesday and the newspaper printed six Cronulla articles on the day. They offered the “grim possibility” of future ethic based attacks and quoted a “disturbing” SMS which advocated “Leb and wog bashing day”. In each article the Telegraph reporters used the third journalistic ethical commitment (“aim to attribute information to its source”) as a way of avoiding conflict with the second commitment on ethnicity. They pushed the story hard on Friday and Saturday, setting the scene for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unlike journalists, the newspaper is not bound by the code of ethics. Its quest for healthy circulation figures breeds a desire to publish stories that have “sensational impact that titillates readers”.

While the Telegraph reported that police and political leaders were calling for calm, they also reported NSW State Opposition leader Peter Debnam on the Friday. He was not advocating calm: “Debnam called for police to be given permission to take a zero-tolerance approach to youths who threatened to turn Cronulla into a battleground. These thugs need to be arrested and locked up," he said.” Debnam was indulging in wedge politics. Wedge politics preys on prejudice and fear and involves so-called ‘dog-whistle’ messages using outwardly reasonable language that nonetheless carries a very specific message to the target audience. The Telegraph was tacitly approving the transformation of a fight among youths into a ethnic battleground.

Jones too was firing up his audience to gain radio ratings. After feeding them with Middle Eastern grubs on the Monday, he warmed to the topic in the days that followed. On the Tuesday, a caller rang in to recommend vigilante action and Jones did not demur. He told his listeners he "understood" why the offensive SMS text went out and he read it on air. This form of empathy is known as a schema theory. People form stereotypical models of their world to help them cope with the flood of new information they receive on a daily basis. These models are called schemas. While schemas are beneficial in handling vast quantities of new data, they are negative when over-generalised and lead to stereotyping and prejudice. Jones’s schema was coming home to roost. By Thursday he was reading out anonymous emails detailing how Cronulla’s beaches were “taken over by scum” and although he carefully cautioned his listeners not to take the law into their own hands, he warmed to listeners who had exactly that intention. Jones was in breach of the first item of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) ethical code “(do not) give distorting emphasis”. As a result there were three complaints to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in the week before the riots. However the ACMA has not acted on these complaints. Their website states “The primary responsibility for ensuring that programs reflect community standards rests with radio and television stations”. The Australian Press Council is also an ineffective watchdog and frequently seen as a captive of the industry. Internal MEAA disciplines are also weak and application is limited to its members. Its procedures are secret and the ultimate sanction is dismissal from the union. Such a threat would be idle for a wealthy broadcaster like Jones given his consistently scant regard for the ethical code.

Unsurprisingly, given the encouragement of the media, events transpired as dismally predicted on the Sunday, December 11. There were 10 arrests on the day and a small number of injuries. The riot provided a rich diet of stories for the Telegraph for the entire following week before tapering off when the violence was not repeated. Journalists’ role in the communication process has fundamentally shifted in the modern era. They no longer decide what information the public should know but instead help audiences make sense of it. They function as “forum leaders”. The forum leaders at the Telegraph gave full warts-and-all coverage of the riot on the Monday. It deemed the day “a national disgrace”. They blamed alcohol and hate but did not point to any media failings. Instead it turned the temperature up: “youths of Middle Eastern descent have warned of pay-back” (Daily Telegraph, 12 December 2005).

And as gangs looked to pick out innocent victims on the train, Jones’ pre-riot suggestion seemed eerily prescient, “invite one of the biker gangs to be present in numbers at Cronulla railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, it would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs”. Jones himself was not around to face the consequences of his actions. He had scurried back to his lair by going on holidays commencing Monday 12 December. That left 2GB picking up the pieces left by their star broadcaster. They claimed that two thirds of calls coming into station supported “what happened” in Cronulla. But it was the absent Jones’s on-air exhortations that turned a mild dispute into an explosive issue.

The Telegraph too shares the blame. It had a vested commercial interest in making the story bigger. And its journalism never looked at the root causes. There are three levels in construction of journalism. Level 1 is reactive (observation and fact). Level 2 is reflective; dealing with the how and why of events. Level 3 is analytical and involves the identification of trends and possible underlying causes. It is only at these higher levels of inquiry do journalists challenge initially “authoritative” accounts of events. The Telegraph Cronulla coverage rarely operated at level 2 and never at level 3. Two questions they never asked: 1. Are the beachside communities of Sydney’s south some kind of cultural tinderbox? and 2. How are we to manage public behaviour and etiquette in contested public spaces to allow respect for all? These are level 3 questions. But the Janus view is unlikely to allow Telegraph journalists the space and time to aspire to that level. They are among the sections of the news media that thrive on shock, horror and human drama. Circulation pressures will drive the market and journalists will face increasing pressure to shape their product to information-and-technology rich elites with the possible consequence of a general downgrading of news involving the poorer sections of the population unless they happen to have an impact on the wealthy.

Both the Telegraph and Jones’s employer 2GB will continue to shape their product according to their audiences. Both shaped the outcome of the Cronulla riots with their practices and neither are signatories of the MEAA code of ethics. Nor were the ACMA or Press Council effective in issuing sanctions against their actions. Arguably the most effective regulator is the one with the least powers – ABC’s Media Watch. Its power lies in the fact that ethical breaches are screened on national TV when journalists know their colleagues are watching. It will be needed. Ethical standards are likely to remain contested ground in whatever future holds for the media.

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