By Sam Ryan.
Welcome to our first monthly review of human rights in the media – what’s being reported and how? To kick off we take a look at coverage of children self-harming in detention and Geert Wilders’ visit, as well as minority representation on Australian TV.
Children self-harming in detention
On 18 February the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support Advocacy Network released documents obtained via a Freedom of Information request that listed 26 cases of children self-harming in Darwin detention centres between August 2010 and November 2011. The details are nothing short of disturbing.
The newspapers were awash with poll analysis and leadership speculation … without a trace of this important, tragic story.
Given the current political climate, with a media pack eager for embarrassing revelations, this report was a legitimate opportunity to put the heat on the government’s handling of asylum seekers. In any other social context, surely a subset of children self-harming – particularly in some kind of government care – would be a scandal worthy of follow up reports, editorials and serious questions of ministers.
Unfortunately, the release of the report coincided with the release of fresh polling figures that were even worse news for the government.
The ABC’s Lateline covered the story that night in relative detail, but were seemingly the only major news source to do so. Channel Seven gave it passing mention late in Sunrise news updates the next morning and used ABC content online, not rating it worthy of a reporter. Whether it was covered by other channels at all is hard to tell, there don’t seem to be any traces online.
The newspapers were awash with poll analysis and leadership speculation on 19 February without a trace of this important, tragic story.
The front pages of the Melbourne metros did carry serious news, with fires threatening Melbourne’s fringe, but seeing priority given to stories like the reinvention of the Neighbours theme – page three news in The Age and page two in the Herald Sun – seems, well, incomprehensible. Online, News Limited outlets The Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph and The Australian ran the short AAP news feed on their website, yet seemingly found no column inches in any of the papers at any stage. The Daily Telegraph did, however, run a story on training being undertaken by NSW police to help them “manage mental illness situations involving new arrivals, many of whom come from violent backgrounds and do not speak English,” which was sensitively titled “When asylum seekers snap”.
Thankfully, Fairfax syndicates finally took the report a little more seriously, even dedicating a reporter to the story, which made it to page three in The Age and page four in the Sydney Morning Herald and, of course, online on 20 February.
It quickly disappeared from the news, though, despite popping up briefly on popular blog Mamamia, which ran probably the most thoughtful piece on the issue, more than a week after the report’s release. The fact the author has to assume most readers would be unaware of the findings demonstrates the poor coverage it received in the news (and even then, a commenter laments the amount of time Mamamia spends “campaigning about asylum seekers”).
Asylum seekers were in the spotlight a week or so later, however, after Shadow Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison commented on a Sri Lankan asylum seeker charged with alleged indecent assault. Whether it was a ‘better story’ or just pushed along by the politicians involved on both sides, this one had enough life to see out the week, with even News Limited taking an active interest.
Geert Wilders’ tour of Australia
One arrival that did capture significant media attention was that of Dutch politician, and founder and leader of the Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders.
On a speaking tour “to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam,” his presence stirred up debate not only about the right to freedom of religion, but also to free speech, with many commentators standing firm on one of the two platforms to criticise those campaigning on the other.
… with protests loud but minimal, (Tim Soutphommasane suggested) we should view Wilders’ visit as a demonstration of Australian tolerance.
On the one hand, there was protest at the attention given to such extreme messages – particularly by the ABC, which had its website hacked in response to airing an interview with the controversial figure on Lateline. Then there was the likes of Andrew Bolt, who pointed to the hypocrisy of the cowardly critics who “shamed” Australia in the Herald Sun, and 3AW’s newest talent, Tom Elliott, who argued a similar line citing free speech. Paul Sheehan wrote a somewhat more obtuse article for the Sydney Morning Herald, which concluded that perhaps the fringe view was that of “the political-media class that shunned him”.
Yet no one in the mainstream media seemed quite prepared to go so far as to outwardly endorse the controversial views of the Dutch politician.
Somewhere in the middle perhaps – in the aftermath of the shouting from both sides – was a thoughtful piece in the Fairfax press by Tim Soutphommasane, suggesting that, in the end, with protests loud but minimal, we should view Wilders’ visit as as a demonstration of Australian tolerance.
Representation and reality
It seems like everyone (else) has been watching My Kitchen Rules lately, and while most were salivating at the mix of food and tension, The Age’s Craig Mathieson wondered last week whether the hit show – and others – was perpetuating, and/or intentionally tapping into, racist sentiments in the audience.
“(ethnic minorities) tend to occupy peripheral roles, and where they are allowed a central role, it is usually to be shown as threatening and menacing to the Anglo mainstream”
Not having seen a single minute of the show, it is difficult to comment, though Australian television hardly holds a mirror up to the celebrated and often talked about multicultural society we are. Just consider how many newsreaders and reporters, hosts and panelists, and characters in locally produced TV shows are not Anglo-Saxon – not counting SBS. Not many, certainly a distinctly low proportion.
A 2011 study from Murdoch University contended that ethnic minorities, when featured, “tend to occupy peripheral roles, and where they are allowed a central role, it is usually to be shown as threatening and menacing to the Anglo mainstream,” and that only the public broadcaster followed industry codes of practice relating to representations of diversity.
And that is just ethnic diversity.
The question is, why? Why is the Australia TV producers think we want to see on the TV different to the one almost all of us see out in the real world?
Although, it’s not like we haven’t had this discussion before. This time last year in fact, almost to the day, when former Home and Away actor Jay Laga’aia accused the show’s writers of being unable to “write two ethnics that weren’t together”.
Has nothing changed, or is the change just too slow to recognise?