Sydney Siege: Reporting the Right Way

As I am currently living and working on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, the recent Lindt Café siege really hit home with me. It has dominated the dinner table conversations of most Australians all month, and the tragedy has invoked a great deal of empathy, compassion and solidarity with the families of the victims. Martin’s Place has become a humbling memorial site; flowers, messages of love and care, and people paying their respects, stretch as far as the eye can see, and even Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations included touching tributes to the victims. The first thing that must be said when discussing the subject is that our hearts go out to the friends and families of those heroic victims, Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson. Their deeply saddening deaths are a scar on the Australian consciousness, but the national response to the fall of citizens and to the siege as a whole, has been for the most part, a glowing reflection of Australian unity and tolerance, as well as a leading example to the rest of the world as how to respond to a terror-provoking event, not just in terms of a public reaction that Australians can be proud of, but also in terms of media presentation and journalistic integrity.

It cannot remain unmentioned that there were some exceptions, most notably the reckless front page of The Daily Telegraph printed during the siege with the headline ‘Death Cult CBD Siege’ leading a scandalous article of unverified information crediting the Islamic State with the attack, in face of countless opposing statements from the New South Wales Police, and effectively every other media outlet in the country. Likewise on social media there have been some inevitably distasteful revenge messages – most poignant of all perhaps was the proposition of an impending ‘Bash a Burka Day’ – but these were made by a consistently noisy minority, whose extreme views were drowned by the wave of support for the impromptu ‘I’ll Ride With You’ campaign that flooded social media networks across the country. Looking beyond these indefensible but limited displays of recklessness and malice, it is fair to draw some noteworthy contrasts between Australian and British media presentation, as well as to look upon the national response with admirable recognition.

British media outlets, increasingly tabloids and broadsheets alike, are all too often guilty of sensationalising national tragedies. While this may be the work of a desperate print industry trying to stay afloat in a new digital age, the fact remains that in cases of terror, or terror-related incidents, this sensationalising plays into the hands of the perpetrators of terror at the expense of its victims. Take the case of the unthinkable murder of Lee Rigby for example. While it is undeniable that terms such as ‘barbaric’ and ‘butchery’ that were used by so many media sources in Britain at the time may have been fair reflections of the sickening nature of Rigby’s death, by immediately placing the actions of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the context of international terrorism, as opposed to individual mental instability and insanity, the press whipped the public into more of a frenzy than was otherwise foreseeable, and thus succeeded in facilitating an environment of terror. Likewise television news coverage repeatedly aired highly graphic videos of the blood-covered killer in the wake of the murder, spreading panic and enabling a fear that traumatised the public to the extent that some extreme elements took to attacking mosques across the country. The responsibility of the media is to inform the public, not to scare-monger, and in recent years the British press has been increasingly guilty of the latter. From warning of innumerable waves of criminal migrants entering Britain, to overt examples of Islamaphobia, the British media has all too often been implicit in furthering the aim of terrorism by distributing fear and panic throughout the population.

Contrastingly, the Australian media coverage of the siege and subsequent killings of Man Horan Monis was distinctly measured, describing him as a ‘lone gunman’, and cautiously avoiding labelling the attack as an act of terror. While many would dispute that the Rigby killing and the Martin’s Place killings warrant comparison, there are many parallels to be drawn. Both Man Horan Monis, and Michael Adebolajo – described by his sentencing judge as leader of the ‘joint enterprise’ with Michael Adebowale – likely acted without coordination with foreign terrorist agents. Their violent and ruthless acts may have been premeditated, but there is insufficient evidence to suggest that their crimes were planned by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or Islamic State. In America, mass shootings such Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and most recently the Pennsylvania killing spree which saw the murder of six civilians, were equally distressing as the Woolwich and Martin’s Place attacks, but were of course treated as isolated incidents of individual brutality rather than organised terrorism. The likes of Adam Lanza and James Holmes are comparable to the likes of Adebolajo and Monis because they were all mentally unstable individuals. Monis had a criminal history of violence, and was on bail for his involvement in the planned murder of his ex-wife. The main difference between Monis and Abedolajo and the others was that these two found an outlet for their insanity. Islamic flags and rhetoric of a war against the west gave these men a megaphone that caught the attention of the world and spread more fear. Where the British media contributed to this in the case of Abedolajo was to treat him as an international terrorist rather than a lone mentally troubled man, and thus played into the hands of the propagators of terrorism. Terrorism succeeds when populations are driven to fear, driven to live out their daily lives differently, and driven to resent outsiders. The British media too often help this cause with their reckless reporting, and thus the Australian media response to the Sydney Siege has offered Britain lessons worth taking note of.

Throughout the rolling coverage on Channel 7 (the news channel whose headquarters were directly opposite the Lindt Café) on that tragic day, was cautiously restrained and responsible. Newscasters reiterated the term ‘lone gunman’ again and again, and were conscious not to use the word ‘terrorist’ so as not to spread further panic unnecessarily before all the facts were known. When Monis used social media as his method of communicating his demands it became clearer that this was a lone actor aiming for maximum publicity and attention, and the Australian press shone again when it refused to reveal his most – presumably – callous demand, in the name of ‘journalistic integrity’. Even Tony Abbott’s message to the country, calling for people to go about their daily lives as usual, as opposed to adding fuel to the fire, was an example of a level-headed and rational response that mirrored that of the media and the statements from the NSW Police.

On the 16th of December, 2014, Australia suffered from a national tragedy, and its victims shall never be forgotten. But what will remain equally ingrained in memory is the way the country responded, and has come out of it stronger. Britain would do well to learn the lessons Australia has taught us in the wake of a catastrophe, not just those lessons of tolerance and unity, but also particularly those of media presentation, and how not to further the aims of terrorism, but to defy them, with rational reporting and consistently measured broadcasting.

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