Human Rights in the Media: November – Mid-Week Review

By Pia White

This article is part of our November-December focus on Cultural Shift. For more on this theme, click here.

By Pia White

Following on from October’s focus on institutions and human rights, November’s theme of ‘Cultural Shift’ has invited examination of the nature of cultural and social change with regard to human rights.

Deconstructing the interaction between law, policy and society in relation to change is an undeniably difficult undertaking and will generally involve neither mutually exclusive, nor mutually reinforcing relationships.

Boats and the cultural tide

The Australian asylum seeker debate neatly encompasses this puzzle; does our policy reflect Australian sentiment, or is public opinion shaped by our laws and political discourse?

Asylum seeker policy was a particularly prevalent fixture in the media over the last month; thanks in part to the fragility of the cooperation between Australia and Indonesia on the issue following revelations of phone tapping.

Media coverage throughout November also included developments in the implementation of the government’s ‘stop the boats’ agenda; namely the denial of migration assistance to individuals in detention and the separation of a mother from her newborn child in hospital. Further, condemnation of these policies by the UNHCR and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s dismissive response was also examined.

Given the heavy media focus on the issue of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, the question raised is whether such reporting is doing enough to challenge the government’s hardline position.

On November 25, Julian Burnside appeared on Q&A and discussed the cost of policy and discourse that paints asylum seekers as criminals; an issue touched on in last month’s media review. With the government so clearly resolved to further entrench the transformation of asylum seeker policy from a human rights issue to one of security policy, and their resolve to control and limit the parameters of the debate, the necessity of the media to provide a challenge is significant.

Whether or not the cultural tide in Australia on this issue is shifting towards or away from the government’s line is not yet clear, however it is arguable that more critical media discussion of the issue is required to combat the government’s agenda.

Who is to blame?

The importance of society in relation to cultural change and human rights is also particularly evident when discussing issues of gender. Certainly there has been incredible progress made in improving formal equality between genders in Australia, however a number of news reports this month suggest that cultural change is lagging behind.

The Sydney Morning Herald republished a piece from The Telegraph speculating that an incident where Charles Saatchi was photographed with his hands around his wife Nigella Lawson’s throat was perhaps misinterpreted. It questioned whether Saatchi was attempting to “save his destructive wife from herself,” (following allegations of drug use on her part) and postured Saatchi as a “victim of an injustice” in reference to initial reporting of the incident.

A similar discourse arose relating to the Simon Gittany murder trial verdict.  Some commentators saw fit to question how Lisa Harnun and Gittany’s current girlfriend Rachelle Louise could find themselves in a relationship with such a person.

These incidents – along with reports of defence force terminations over “production or distribution of highly inappropriate material demeaning women”, and the case in New Zealand of the “Roast busters” group and their alleged rape and pubic humiliation of underage girls over Facebook – would appear to betray enduring and pervasive cultural attitudes regarding gendered violence and its victims.

Clementine Ford responded to the piece on Lawson by discussing the problems with justifying this sort of violence, particularly through reliance on actions or conduct of the victim. Similarly, Louise Taylor questioned why the responsibility to end instances of domestic abuse continues to be placed on the shoulders of the victims, while another piece called for more active participation by men in shifting accountability for rape and gender violence away from victims and on to perpetrators.

While it is discouraging that incidents of gender violence continue to be rife and that attitudes of victim blaming endure, an optimistic argument can be made that the volume of discussion and criticism in response is symptomatic of a cultural shift in towards better recognising and protecting the rights of women.