September 22nd 2001

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Articles from this issue:

STOP PRESS: Who has declared war on the United States?

COVER STORY: Canberra to blame for Ansett's demise

CANBERRA: Asylum seekers bring ill tidings for Beazley and the ALP

COMMENT: Boat people reaction - echoes of the 1970s

NEW ZEALAND: Army caught in political imbroglio

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Send in the counsellors / Good morning, Vietnam

MEDIA: Out of touch with majority sentiment

LETTERS: Tristar: another view

Letter: Poor reception

Letter: Let them stay

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Why East Timor chose Portuguese

TRADE: Lamb exports: where to now?

BUSINESS: Selling wholesome food to Australia's homes

FAMILY: Well-being of families and nation intertwined

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Out of touch with majority sentiment

by John Styles

News Weekly, September 22, 2001

There was good; there was bad; there was ugly. There was even the bizarre and much that went way over the top. The media coverage of the would-be "illegal immigrants", the "queue jumpers" aboard the Tampa, had it all. It recalled the first couple of years of the Hanson phenomenon.

Once again the ABC, the Melbourne Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, demonstrated how out of touch their journalists, their audience and readership are with majority sentiment in this country.

Not that being in the majority necessarily means you are right. But on this issue the facts appeared to justify the Prime Minister's response, particularly when the Australian sense of fair play was invoked: that those who quit their Indonesian refuge in an attempt to evade Australian law should gain entry ahead of those seeking asylum by legitimate means.

Another aspect of this affair was the readiness with which some journalists and commentators venomously laid into their country and their fellow Australians.

ABC Radio's The World Today on August 29 described the situation inside Afghanistan. The program included an interview with Mahmoud Saikal, Honorary Consul for Afghanistan in Australia, who declared that "a considerable percentage of those on board the ship are genuine refugees".

That was not the point. We know the situation in Afghanistan is dangerous. But the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa had already found a haven outside Afghanistan. They were attempting to re-settle illegally in an economically more attractive country. Nowhere in the ABC background package was that perspective presented.


Interestingly, in that World Today background item, the ABC's Philippa McDonald told how the Soviets in 1979 had "intervened" in Afghanistan. Of course they did; just as they once intervened in Hungary, intervened in Czechoslovakia and as Germany intervened in Poland in 1939.

ABC presenters and journalists discounted the value of tabloid newspaper telephone polls and the strength of talkback radio support for the Howard Government's handling of the issue. Quite right. Phone-in polls are unscientific and open to manipulation, even though, on this occasion, the very high number of responses indicated the issue had aroused intense feeling.

E-mail campaigns fall into the same dubious category. However, the ABC was less inclined to doubt the credibility of random e-mail. Skewed? Unreliable? The ABC would only offer a "perhaps".

Perhaps that was because the e-mail in question, received by The Norway Post, was running against Howard. In other words, it fitted the ABC's Howard-bashing agenda.

The Norway Post is an English-language online newspaper. It does not produce a print edition. But the editor was prepared to dump on Australia, so that was good enough for the ABC.

Only in a postscript to its lengthy interview with the Norway Post editor did the ABC reveal that Norway's biggest daily newspaper, Aftenposten, also had a selection of e-mail correspondence on its site, "pretty much equally for and against the Howard Government", the journalist admitted.

If Australians were not prepared to embrace the would-be illegals, they just had to be, well, plain ignorant.

When the chairman of the Australian Arabic Council, Roland Jabbour, told Virginia Trioli on Melbourne ABC radio that xenophobia and bigotry were on the rise, his ABC host appeared to accept what he said. She offered to have him back in the studio to educate all of those ignorant Aussies out there.

"Perhaps you can think creatively about this," she suggested. "Let's get you in [with] some other members of the Arabic community and talk about their culture, the background, the politics, the religion, and perhaps try and dispel a few of the myths, or, at least, talk about these people as people rather than figures, rather than illegals, rather than asylum seekers, reject all the terms and try and get down to tin tacks in relation to them as people."

If there was any racism or bigotry around, The Sydney Morning Herald's Adele Horin just knew who the culprits had to be.

"Countless numbers of Australians, judging from talkback radio and my own conversations in recent weeks, feel a new freedom to slander Muslims, Lebanese, Afghans. Well-to-do Anglos in million-dollar pads declare their way of life is threatened," she declared in her September 8 column.

Now, to single out Anglos like that, based only on personally collected anecdotes, seems extremely self-indulgent and just plain wrong. Even discriminatory. Especially when it had been widely reported that the Howard Government's stance was supported by Australians from many ethnic backgrounds.

The bizarre and over-the-top category winner was Sydney Morning Herald online forum host Margo Kingston who seemed to think there was a possibility that Australia might declare war on Norway (or vice versa).

"I obviously haven't seen a declaration of war in my lifetime, but, I mean, this whole thing is completely out of control," she told Phillip Adams on the August 29 edition of Late Night Live. Settle down, Margo.

The good? On the September 4 edition of his ABC Radio National program, Phillip Adams raised the prospect of his personal migration - to New Zealand. We're still waiting.


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