Category Archives: media

15 minutes of fame

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” (Andy Warhol)

Seems like it’s my turn to have 15 minutes of fame. On Sunday, The Age had an article about legal blogs, featuring a quote from yours truly at the end. The hard copy is even better because it has a picture of the banner from the blog (with the awesome eagle picture which Iain found for me). I’ll scan it in and put it on the blog when we get set up in the new house.

Moving day is tomorrow. Telstra cut our internet off a week early, hence my lack of blogging, commenting or anything else. I’m typing this before class starts…zounds, better get to class!

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Filed under blogging, blogs, law, media, Personal

Playing the race card

Last night when I was driving home, I saw a large group of boys standing on the pavement outside the Housing Commission flats. The boys were predominately of African descent. I was thinking about it when I got home. The boys had been dominating the footpath. Would I have felt nervous if I had been walking on the street and had to push past them? Yes, I would have. Was it because they were African? No, not at all. It was because they were male and blocking the footpath. Regardless of race, religion or class, as a lone woman, I would feel slightly worried about having to pass a large group of boys. I don’t think they were a gang, they were just a group of boys hanging out with nothing better to do, but that’s when boys get up to mischief. It made me think more deeply about the news of the last few days.

It was with a sinking heart that I watched the news the other night with stories of Sudanese gangs terrorising Noble Park and Dandenong. The news release dredged up the crimes committed by Sudanese refugees Taban Gany and Hakeem Hakeem. The implication seemed to be that all Sudanese refugees were lawless drunkards and rapists. Sudanese refugees had become an issue because a young Sudanese man, Liep Gony, was bashed to death at Noble Park railway station by two youths who were not of Sudanese descent. Sudanese people have been victims of crime too.

The response of the Federal government was to say that it had limited the intake of African refugees to Australia because of their difficulties in integrating. Various interest groups and Sudanese community groups then said that this was racist.

Neither response is going to resolve the problem. Just because some Sudanese refugees commit crimes does not mean that all Sudanese refugees have integration problems. On the other hand, if there are problems with a small section of the community, they should be faced and people’s concerns should not simply be dismissed as racist. That dismisses the concerns of people who may feel worried. It’s better to actually confront the concerns and see if there’s any valid points.

Sudan is a very troubled area of the world, to put it mildly. It has been involved in successive civil wars and conflicts with neighbouring countries. The conflicts have been partly on religious, ethnic and tribal grounds. Presently there is a terrible conflict in Dafur where it has been alleged that the Janjaweed militia have committed acts of genocide against rebel groups.

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees says that a refugee is a person who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

Refugee and asylum law only really developed after World War II, where there was a massive number of displaced persons. The idea is that blameless civilians should be granted asylum in other countries which are safe and in which people will be free from war and violence. My attitude toward refugee law is “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” If Australia were suddenly dragged into a civil war, and I escaped with my family, I would hope that another country would offer me refuge. Some of my dear friends came to Australia as refugees.

Clearly, there would be many Sudanese people who qualified as refugees. Many of those who arrived here would be traumatised and would have seen and suffered terrible things. Many Sudanese would have grown up in a war zone, with little or no laws. Obviously, there are going to be adjustment problems when people who are traumatised suddenly have to adapt to a totally new society. Sometimes, also, ethnic, religious and tribal conflict is also likely to have been brought across to the new country, especially if a person’s family has been killed by another group. That’s just a fact of life (I remember those Serbia-Croatia soccer matches when I was a kid – which turned into mini-civil wars in the stands). Some refugees may be both perpetrators and victims of violence. Furthermore, refugees may have grown up with little or no laws, a very different culture and a different language.

I should think that, given the above factors, it’s clear that at least some Sudanese refugees will have integration problems, and it does no one any good to deny it. It is also true that there are some “bad eggs” within the Sudanese community, as there are within every community. But does that mean the intake of African refugees should be limited? Aren’t integration problems part and parcel of taking in refugees, and to be expected? I don’t think we should exclude Sudanese or African refugees on a blanket basis. That would be unfair to those Sudanese and African people who genuinely wish to live here in peace and harmony with other Australians. It reminds me of times when teachers say “I’m going to give you all detentions because of the behaviour of one person in this class”. I really hated that. The expectation was that the group would discipline the individual as a result – but why should everyone be punished for the crimes of one or a few? I always felt angry, and as if the teacher was abrogating his or her responsibility.

It must be ensured that refugees are given proper support and counselling, as well as education in English language and Australian laws and culture. I have heard of some refugees being dumped in rural towns, with little or no support, and it is hardly surprising that problems then arise. As the UNHCR says, refugees are required to comply with the law of the country which has given them asylum. Refugees must be made aware of our laws and customs (but certainly not in the manner of that really stupid citizenship test). It must also be ensured that community leaders communicate with their members and say that ethnic violence, tribal violence and violent crime are not acceptable in this country.

Also the concerns of shopkeepers and the like in Noble Park should be addressed. They obviously perceive a problem, and while it’s easy just to write them off as “racist”, I think that this actually makes the problem worse and increases resentment. People have a right to feel safe, and there should be a swift response to crime which gives a message that it is not acceptable. I tend to think no excuses should be made on the basis that someone is a refugee.

Thinking back to that group of boys on the pavement yesterday, perhaps boys should be made aware that congregating in a large group can sometimes be intimidating and scary to others, whatever one’s ethnicity or religion. But I suspect it’s just something that naughty, bored boys do, wherever they are from and whatever their culture. And I also suspect that some boys enjoy and cultivate the intimidation factor.

It’s a problem that can’t just be fixed by one side alone. The refugee communities, the police, the government, the social workers and schools have to all work together. And there’s always going to be a few bad eggs. It is a fact of life that there will always be negative aspects to granting asylum to refugees. Some people will have difficulty adapting or will be undesirable or criminal. But there are also immense positives. I think of my dear friend, who came here as a two year old, a stateless refugee. She’s now a success story: a businesswoman with two degrees, a mother and wife, an Australian citizen, an Aussie Rules footy fan (far more than me) and an all-round great person. I couldn’t think of a better addition to Australian society. It’s not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some common sense from all sides would not go amiss.

Finally, I wish the press would show some restraint as well. Sensationalised reporting creates the sense of a crisis and inflames tension. I’m sure there are genuine problems, but sensationalising them helps nobody. Let’s look at this logically and calmly. What am I saying? It’s election time – no one can look at anything sensibly during election time… Sigh!

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Filed under human rights, immigration, law, media, politics, racism, refugees, society, tolerance

Portrayal of accused and the law

Dave Bath at Balneus has an interesting post comparing the court sketches of Dr Haneef, noting that the sketches in the Murdoch press make Dr Haneef look somewhat like a Neanderthal.

Now it could just be a matter of personal interpretation. I must confess that when I worked in and around the court system, I used to occasionally do sketches of people (witnesses, barristers etc). Some sketches were better than others. Some people might have been a bit offended had they seen some of my renditions. Sometimes a sketch took on the character of a parody, even when I hadn’t intended it to do so. Perhaps that’s what happened to the Court artist.

But Dave makes another interesting point in a later post – is it legal to present a defendant in a way which is unflattering and may lead members of the public to draw adverse conclusions about that person?

This area of the law is called “contempt of court by publication”, and it is a somewhat byzantine jurisdiction. There is an inherent jurisdiction in the court, and also legislative provisions preventing contempt of court. Contempt by publication covers the publication of material which might tend to adversely influence a jury before trial. There is of course a balance between freedom of speech and the right of a defendant to a fair trial. The question is also how far media representations do actually influence jury members. According to the WA Law Reform Commission Report on Contempt, a study (M Chesterman, J Chan and S Hampton, Managing Prejudicial Publicity (2001)) found:

1. Jurors often believed that newspaper coverage of their trial was inaccurate and/or inadequate.

2. Juries were equally successful in identifying the relevant issues regardless of whether the publicity was negative or positive towards the accused. Also, the quantity of negative publicity did not seem to make a difference to the proportion of verdicts that were ‘safe’.

3. In trials where the evidence was equivocal [that is, not strong in favour of guilt or clearly insufficient]…there was greater reason to believe that publicity may have affected the verdict.

As a lawyer who has seen cases that she has worked on reported in the press, I would agree that you really can’t trust press reports, and that it is quite a different thing to sit in court and watch witnesses testifying to reading about it in the paper. Also, seeing someone in the flesh is very different to seeing them in a photograph or even on television. Personally, I discounted much of what I had read or seen in the press in favour of my own first-hand impressions. But I don’t know if I was influenced subconsciously in any way.

In fact, this is not the first time issues like these have arisen in a high profile case. My mind went back to the media coverage of that terrible event, the Port Arthur massacre, perpetrated by Martin Bryant. Some of the papers, including The Australian, ran a picture where the Bryant’s eyes had apparently been digitally altered in order to emphasise the whites of his eyes, which gave him a crazed look. The then Director of Public Prosecutions, Damian Bugg, issued writs against various media outlets for contempt of court in the light of concern that the sensationalised media reporting would prejudice the defendant’s chance of getting a fair trial (and thus make Mr Bugg’s job much harder).

However, the then chair of Australian Press Council, David Flint, argued that Australian newspapers regularly ignored contempt-of-court provisions, indicating that the law needed to change, rather than the newspapers.

Clearly it’s not a straightforward question. I will be very interested to see what Dr Haneef looks like in a photo, and whether the Murdoch press’ portrayal is fair or not.

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Filed under courts, criminal law, freedom of speech, judges, juries, law, media, Uncategorized

The entrepreneurial downfall

I wrote a post on the entrepreneurial personality a few months ago now. Anyway, Conrad Black has been found guilty of some (not all) of the charges that the US government brought against him in relation to the operations of Hollinger Inc. He faces at least 25 years in gaol. He also looks set to be stripped of his peerage and his spot in the House of Lords.

Truly an illustration of how the Wheel of Fortune turns.

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Filed under courts, criminal law, media, USA

The unpalatable truth

I was interested to read about a recent High Court decision, John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd v Gacic [2007] HCA 28, concerning an allegation that a restaurant review was defamatory. A majority has found that a September 2003 review of Sydney habourside restaurant Coco Roco was defamatory. The restaurateurs claimed they lost 2700 customers immediately after the story, with most citing the review as the reason why. Shortly afterwards, Coco Roco was in liquidation.

Of course, the first thing I wanted to do after hearing that was to read the review. Here are some choice extracts:

If a restaurant serves good as well as bad food, do you give it the benefit of the doubt? I wouldn’t do that with a three chef’s hat restaurant, so why should I do it here? Especially when more than half the dishes I’ve tried at Coco Roco are simply unpalatable.

Coco Roco is the swank new eatery at King Street Wharf. The opening was touted as ‘Sydney’s most glamorous restaurant’. If glamour peaked at about 1985, then perhaps they’re right. Something about the polished stainless steel around the open kitchen and the black reflector tiles in the bathroom make me feel I should be wearing a pink shirt and a thin leather tie. Maybe it’s just me.

What isn’t disputable is that this place has had a $3 million fitout, has views westwards over the water and scored Sarah O’Hare as its official guest at the opening. It has set itself up as a flash restaurant with big-end-of-town prices. Its business card even boasts that ‘A new level of dining comes to Sydney’s King Street Wharf.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Coco Roco is actually two restaurants: Coco, the posh place upstairs off Lime Street, and sibling Roco, also smartly fitted out on the foreshore. Forever in pursuit of excellence, we chose the more expensive option.

Expensive is right. Mains skid dizzily from a vegetarian dish at just under $30 and crash over the $50 mark. It’s a brave restaurateur who tries that without the goods to back it up.

A degustation of oysters ($28 for six/$40 for 12) arrives as different flavoured bivalves, rather than as oysters from various regions. There’s a saffron infused gin one. There’s a seafood foam which looks like it’s been piped on top. The texture is scary and, let’s be polite, not to my tastes. The limoncello, however, is worse – flavours jangle like a car crash; all at once it’s sickly sweet, overtly alcoholic, slippery, salty and bitter.

On a side dish, three house-made mustards – milk, Guinness and lavender – prove that some things are better left alone.

I’ve never had pork belly that could almost be described as dry. Until tonight. A generous square of pig’s paunch ($33) is snuggled into a mass of starchy lentils. The meat is unevenly spiced with Moorish flavours and the lentils are poor. Texturally, it brings to mind the porcine equal of a parched weetbix.

In a city where harbourside dining has improved out of sight in recent years, Coco Roco is a bleak spot on the culinary landscape.

Whew! Yep, that’s pretty full on. If I had a booking there (unlikely, I think the concept of a $50 main is ridiculous), I would cancel it after reading that review.

Prior to trial, it was held that there were four potentially defamatory imputations that could be drawn from the review:

(a) The respondents sell unpalatable food at Coco Roco.

(b) The respondents charge excessive prices at Coco Roco.

(c) The respondents provide some bad service at Coco Roco.

(d) The respondents are incompetent as restaurant owners because she/he employs a chef at Coco Roco who makes poor quality food.

The trial of the proceeding was conducted pursuant to s 7A of the Defamation Act 1974 (NSW) which applied at that time. According to s 7A(3), if the court decided that the defamatory material was capable of holding the alleged imputations, and that the imputations were defamatory, then the jury was to decide whether this was in fact the case. Only imputations (a) and (c) were considered before the High Court. A majority of the High Court found that the review did carry the imputations that the respondents sold unpalatable food and that the respondents provided bad service, and that these imputations were defamatory.

The defamation in question was said to be “business defamation”. Gleeson CJ and Crennan J explain this concept as follows at paragraph [2]:

Suppose someone says: “X is a thoroughly decent person, but he is showing signs of age; his eyesight is poor, and his hands tremble.” That would not be a reflection on X’s character. It would be likely to evoke sympathy rather than hatred, ridicule or contempt. If, however, X were a surgeon, the statement could be damaging. To say that someone is a good person, but a dangerously incompetent surgeon, is clearly likely to injure the person’s professional reputation.

The issue which was the subject of the appeal was the test put to the jury. Ordinarily, the test for finding whether material is defamatory is whether that it would lower a person in the eyes of ordinary, right-thinking members of the community. However, because the case concerned business defamation, the test was different. It was whether the material would be likely to injure a person in his or her trade or profession by reason of suggesting unfitness or incompetence or something of that nature.

The jury found that imputations (a) and (c) were conveyed but were not defamatory, and that imputations (b) and (d) were not conveyed. Judgment was entered for the appellants. The plaintiffs (the restaurateurs) then appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal held that the trial judge’s direction was not adequate, in that she failed to draw the necessary distinction between business defamation and personal defamation. The tests were entirely different. The Court of Appeal found that no reasonable, properly directed jury could have decided that the imputations in (a) and (c) were not defamatory, having regard to the test for business defamation.

The defendants (the newspaper) then appealed to the High Court. There were a number of matters which were at issue before the High Court. First, there was the question of whether the Court of Appeal was entitled to substitute its judgment of fact for the judgment of the jury. The High Court concluded that it was entitled to do so pursuant to s 108(3) of the Supreme Court Act 1970 (NSW). Secondly, there was a question of whether the jury were entitled to take community standards into account when deciding whether imputations (a) and (c) were defamatory. The majority rejected this submission. For example, at [190], Callinan and Heydon JJ concluded:

Business capacity and reputation are different from personal reputation. Harm to the former can be, as here, inflicted more directly and narrowly than harm to a person’s reputation. A person who does not have an admirable character may be a very good restaurateur. It might be possible to say things about him or her personally that are not defamatory, but not about that person as a restaurateur in relation to the conduct of the restaurant. Restaurant standards rather than community ones are the relevant standards in that situation. No community standard or value could obliterate or alter the defamatory meaning of the imputations in this case. It is unimaginable, in any event, that the estimation of the respondents in the mind of any adult person, let alone a reasonable reader, would not be lowered by a statement that they sold unpalatable food and provided bad service at their restaurant, and did so for considerable sums of money.

Kirby J dissented on both questions. The nub of his dissent, at [143], is worth reading:

Moreover, on subjects such as a criticism of a restaurant’s food and service, lay jurors are much more likely to reflect community standards than judges, many of whom, like myself, have no special interest in culinary matters, expensive restaurants or cuisine generally. Astonishing as it may seem, judges may occasionally lack a sense of irony or humour. Some may undervalue “free speech” or sometimes even feel hostility to a “free press”. In such matters, therefore, there is safety in the numbers of a jury. It was an error of the Court of Appeal to consider that community standards were insignificant in judging the suggested defamatory character of the review of the respondents’ restaurant. With all respect, such an attitude contradicts the legislative preservation by s 7A(3) of the function of a jury. That function is not unreviewable. It does not exclude a proper role for the Court of Appeal. But the jury’s function is still very important. Because Parliament exceptionally provided for it, it is to be respected in defamation actions.

I rest my case: Kirby J is a hip cat. It is, as his Honour suggests, a instance where Parliament has required that the lawyers refer a matter to the general public to see what they think of a matter. The general public answers in a way which leads lawyers to think, “That’s not the right answer!”, and then proceed to argue that the “right (lawyerly) answer” should be substituted.

What, then, is the point of asking a jury what it thinks about a matter if judges are just going to overrule the jury when they don’t come up with the answer that a lawyer would come up with? Isn’t that the whole point of a jury? I understand that it is scary for lawyers to put things in the hands of the hoi polloi, but for goodness sakes’, sometimes we lawyers need a reality check. I have described in a previous post how lawyers see things quite differently to the rest of humanity. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes, it means that we are “out of touch”. We can make the illogical seem perfectly illogical.

I’m going to try to take off my wig and gown here and put on my “foodie” hat. I’ll try to think with my stomach. Speaking as someone who loves her food, I would like food critics to be able to write honestly about restaurants. Who wants to read a review where the reviewer pussyfoots around because he is worried about making a defamatory comment? What about an unfavourable review of a book? Or a CD? Where do we draw the line? Aren’t we entitled to make public criticisms of someone’s work when they put it out there for us to judge?

Of course, it has to be noted that the trial isn’t over yet. The defendant newspaper still has to file its defences. Perhaps it will be able to establish a defence on the basis that the review was truthful, or that freedom of speech requires that the review be published.

Still, the decision represents a worrying tendency for lawyers to presume that we know better than anyone else, even when we ask ordinary people to make a judgment for us.

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Filed under courts, defamation, food, freedom of speech, high court, judges, law, media, society

Some people are just pathetic

A reader has sent me a link to this story from The Guardian about the latest antics of Rush Limbaugh, a US conservative shock jock. Apparently, Limbaugh has been playing a song on his show called “Barack the Magic Negro“, referring to Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. Obama hopes to become the first African-American president of the US.

I can’t help being shocked and horrified by the title of the song. The term “Magical Negro” was coined by Spike Lee to describe a stock Hollywood movie character who appears out of nowhere to help the white protagonist. African-American commentator David Ehrenstein first used the term in conjunction with Barack Obama in an article in the Los Angeles Times. Ehrenstein explains the “Magical Negro” as follows:

He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

Ehrenstein’s argument was that Obama is a “Magical Negro” – he is a benign and polite figure who presents no danger to white American sensibilities. Sounds like a modern take on the “Noble Savage“. If I read it correctly, Ehrenstein’s argument is that it is too good to be true, and of course, being an ordinary human being, Obama has flaws and shortcomings just like the rest of us. By idealising Obama in this fashion rather than treating him as a real person, once he behaves like an ordinary person and falls from grace, the public cannot help but be disappointed. Secondly, Ehrenstein seems to suggest that Obama is sidestepping a whole heap of issues which affect African-American people because he is concentrating on being “safe”. In this way, white voters feel that their guilt is assuaged and that everything is hunky-dory in terms of race relations.

Ehrenstein’s column is at least intelligent. The same can’t be said for Rush Limbaugh’s song. Apparently the singer is parodying black activist and politician Al Sharpton. (For a bit of context: relations between Sharpton and Obama have been rumoured to be tense, although Sharpton has categorically denied this.) I’m not exactly sure what the point is. Humour is culturally relative, so perhaps I’m missed the humour of the song because I’m Australian, but it just seems stupid, racist and offensive to me. I thought about listening to it again to try and work out whether I’d missed a funny bit somewhere. But then I decided not to bother. First, the though of listening to the song again made me feel dejected. Secondly, I suspected that I hadn’t missed any funny bits. So I didn’t waste my time.

Things like this raises difficult questions of freedom of speech and tolerance. How far does one have to tolerate offensive and intolerant points of view? Should people be allowed to parody and criticise politicians on the basis of their personal characteristics? How is parodying Obama for being African-American different from suggesting John Howard shares a marked similarity with Penfold the Hamster from DangerMouse? In both cases, each politician is being singled out because personal characteristics. But when a parody is racially based, it is not just about a physical characteristic. It is potentially a slur against a whole group of people. It is particularly vexed because of the history of slavery, oppression and segregation of African-Americans, and the way in which racial characteristics were used to perpetrate and justify that unfairness. Limbaugh has attempted to justify his use of the term by saying “Well, Ehrington said it first” – but I think Ehrington’s use of the term was quite different to Limbaugh’s use. The song is patronising towards Obama and Sharpton, inviting the audience to laugh these “uppity” men who think that they can play a white man’s political game.

But does suppressing comment such as this help? Clearly, shock-jocks such as Limbaugh and Imus are tapping into a certain pre-existing feeling within the community, and getting rid of them is not going to stop that feeling. However, my concern with radio demagogues is that they have immense influence, and can ratchet people’s feelings up to a dangerous level (see previous post on Alan Jones, Sydney shock jock). On the other hand, preventing someone like Limbaugh from playing his song might cause him to garner more sympathy.

I can’t help hoping that Limbaugh will get in trouble in the same way Imus did, but I can’t see it happening unless, as in Imus’ case, radio sponsors pull the pin. Evidently, Obama and his team have played the whole thing very coolly, refusing to get upset, but gently suggesting the song was dumb anyway. Perhaps that’s the best way to play it.

I can’t help thinking that in the end, the song says far more about Rush Limbaugh than it does about Barack Obama. Limbaugh is a pathetic idiot if that’s what he finds funny.

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Filed under freedom of speech, humour, media, politics, racism, tolerance, USA

Shock jocks and the politics of fear…

A recent report by ACMA found that Alan Jones had encouraged violence and brutality and engaged in racial vilification of people from a Lebanese Muslim background. I must confess that I didn’t know who Jones was until a few years back. In Melbourne, he doesn’t have any influence (at least, as far as I’m aware). It’s scary to think that he has a lot of influence in Sydney. Jones’ influence can be seen from the responses of John Howard and Kevin Rudd to the finding: each said they had no problem with Jones’ conduct, and would continue to appear on the program if requested.

The history preceding the findings against Jones should be set out before looking at the allegations in detail.

On 4 December 2005, two or three off-duty volunteer lifesavers were reported to have been assaulted by a group of Lebanese men at Cronulla beach. Jones mentioned the issue on his program on from Monday 5 – Friday 9 December 2005. It was alleged was that gangs of Lebanese men had been harassing beachgoers over a number of years, that it was a persistent problem and that the State government and the police were unwilling or unable to do anything about the matter.

On 7 December 2005, Jones read out a letter from a listener:

‘J’ has a good answer, he says police and the council are impotent here; all rhetoric and no action: “My suggestion is to invite the biker gangs to be present at Cronulla Railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, the biker gangs have been much maligned but they do a lot of good things – it would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs…and wouldn’t it be brilliant if the whole event was captured on TV cameras and featured on the evening news so that we, their parents, family and friends can see who these bastards are…Australians old and new should not have to put up with this scum…

[offending statement emphasised]

On 8 December 2005, Jones mentioned a text message which was being sent around which stated, “This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and Wog bashing day, bring your mates, let’s show them that this is our beach and they’re never welcome.” He then said:

“And I say to all those young – hey, you’re not in charge of law and order, we do have law and order people. Boys, don’t get down there and come at this nonsense, this will only make things worse. The police are genuinely concerned now that the SMS is going to inflame things even further and we’ll – we’re talking about vigilante retribution.”

A caller, ‘B’, contacted Jones on 8 December expressed concern that the issue was not as one-sided as it had been portrayed, and that both sides were egging each other on. Jones responded as follows:

“Yeah, let’s not get too carried away ‘B’, we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney. So let’s not get carried away with all this mealy-mouthed talk about there being two sides. I can tell you, because my correspondence here from mums and dads I am inundated, and I don’t hear people complaining about Catholics and Protestants and Anglicans, I’m sorry, but there’s this religious element in all of this and we’ve got to make sure that we welcome people into our community but we welcome them in on certain terms and certain standards and those standards are not being met. So let’s not have this mealy mouth talk about oh well, everyone’s to blame. All across Sydney there is a universal concern that there are gangs, the gangs are of one ethnic composition, and they have one thing in mind and I’ve read some of the correspondence from here…”

[offending statement emphasised]

On 11 December 2005, there was a gathering of people at Cronulla beach to “reclaim the beach”. Although the event started off peacefully, the demonstrators began to assault people of a “Middle Eastern appearance”. They also threw cans at and attacked police and ambulance personnel. On the evening of 11 December and the following day, there were retaliatory attacks by groups of youths of “Middle Eastern appearance”, in which vehicles and shops were vandalised, some people were assaulted and one man was stabbed. This event later became known as the 2005 Cronulla Riots.

There was a perception that the NSW State government trod very lightly on this issue because of fears that they could alienate a certain sector of the voting public. It is worth noting that Lakemba is in Premier Iemma’s electorate. But this does no one any favours. In the long run, it increases tension and resentment. Jones was able to pick up the perception of preferential treatment, and use it to his advantage. If there is a problem with ethnic gangs in Sydney, it should be faced openly by all (police, government, Lebanese-Australians and other Australians). Gang members should be treated equally by police and the government, regardless of their ethnicity. It is not good to try and suppress concerns on the basis of “political correctness”.

I think it is a mistake to simply write off the Cronulla riots as “racist”. As caller ‘B’ said to Jones, there are two sides to every story. On the one hand, groups of young men (seemingly of predominantly Lebanese extraction) were coming to Cronulla beach to make trouble. But on the other hand, it is not fair if innocent people (Lebanese, Middle Eastern or just “of Middle Eastern appearance”) are prevented from coming to Cronulla beach or are abused because of their appearance. As I have always said on this blog, people should not be judged on the basis of their ethnic background or their religion, but by their behaviour. Each group needs to take a long hard look at violent, racist behaviour within their own community, and make it clear that there is no excuse for picking fights or harassing innocent beach goers.

It seems clear, also, that there was a failure by the State government to take the problem seriously until matters had escalated. If there had been more police available to patrol the beaches before the riots occurred, and to nip any fights in the bud, it may be that the riots would not have happened.

It seems to me that Jones’ comments were very ill-considered indeed, and he certainly inflamed tensions. The comment that really gets my goat is “we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney.” This suggests that Anglo-Saxon men do not commit rape, but Middle Eastern and Lebanese men do. Anyone who looks at criminal law cases involving rape will know that rapists come from all ethnicities and backgrounds. One only has to look at this report about two recent rapes to establish this (one rapist appears to have been an Anglo-Australian man, born and bred here; the other appears to have been a dark-skinned man who originated from another country.)

To my mind, Alan Jones is no better than the Mufti, Sheik Hillaly. The Mufti suggests Australian women are asking for it; Jones suggests that all Lebanese Muslim men are rapists. Both comments are utterly irresponsible. Both pander to popular stereotypes held by their respective audiences, and do not admit any moderation. I believe that Jones should resign, just as I believe that the Mufti should resign. Rape is not about how much clothing the victim is wearing. Nor is it about the ethnicity of the perpetrator. Both of these things are excuses. Rape is about power, and a desire to degrade the victim.

The comment about “we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney” refers to the Sydney gang rapes committed by the Skaf brothers and their associates. The perpetrators were of a Lebanese background. This underlying issue contributed greatly to the tension leading to the Cronulla riots. Bilal Skaf was alleged to have taunted his victims about their Australian background. He is said to have called one rape victim an “Aussie pig”, asked her if “Leb cock tasted better than Aussie cock” and explained to her that she would now be raped “Leb-style”. Another victim was said to have been told by a perpetrator, “You deserve it because you’re an Australian”. Although I apologise for the offensive nature of these comments, I have set them out in full to show that a passing reference by Jones to the matter was capable of creating great anger and distress in listeners.

As I have discussed before, if there was not a racist element to the crime, the background of the perpetrators would be irrelevant. But because of the racial motive, the ethnic background of the perpetrators should be mentioned, because otherwise the crime cannot be fully understood.

However, the media has to be responsible about the way in which it reports and deals with these problems. People who hold a great deal of power to sway public opinion should be very careful. Just because some Muslim Lebanese people are thugs does not mean all Muslim Lebanese people are bad. By the same token, just because some Australian people are thugs does not mean all Australians are bad. While one should not be bound by “political correctness”, and should be able to say that particular people within a group are behaving badly, it is irresponsible to suggest that an entire community is bad. To suggest that the problem only comes from one group or the other does not help matters at all. It just inflames tensions further, and increases resentment between the two groups. But I suspect that is how a demagogue like Jones gets his jollies.

I really dislike the politics of fear. It results in bad decisions. It allows an angry mob to jump to conclusions. It is difficult to control once released. I am very wary of appeals to mass prejudice – that way lies immense evil. I wish our political leaders had had the courage of their convictions to reject the siren call of people like Jones.

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Filed under Alan Jones, Cronulla riots, islam, media, racism