It was always going to be a tough brief, but somehow, given their previous accomplishments, you just knew the curdled cream of Australia’s media would find a way to supply the requisite spin: A 15-year-old Muslim slips into his friendly neighbourhood mosque, there to don ISIS-style black smock and pants, before murdering an innocent stranger and shooting it out with cops, all the while shouting “Allah! Allah! Allah!”
And the reporting?
Why, this has nothing to do with Islam, not a damn thing! Or, rather, nothing to do with the Islam that the daily press is prepared to acknowledge. You have to give inmates of Australia’s newsrooms this: after two other Islamicist outrages – Endeavour Hills and the Lindt siege — the third such bloody eruption in less than twelve months was going to require a prodigious gift for ignoring the indisputable. Still, like their English antecedents, our homegrown editors and hacks once again have proven themselves entirely and eagerly equal to the task.
You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! The British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to
— Humbert Wolfe
It just took them the weekend to get the narrative straight. Yes, that narrative, the one which always begins by warning the less-enlightened not to notice a pattern. And if the oft-repeated link between scripturally ordained Muslim blood lust and dead innocents proves just too compelling for some to subsume in a fuzzy ball of nothing-to-see-here pap and crap, under no circumstances should that thought actually be given voice. We’re all part of multiculturalism’s gorgeous mosaic, don’t you know, so we must be – what’s the word? – ah, yes, “tolerant”. Chinese-Australians have a thing for parading their dragons and stalling traffic, while droning Scotsmen inflict their pipes on all comers. Gunning-down strangers or, for a little variety, setting about them with knives, well that is a regrettable by-product, apparently, of the cultural enrichment Australia needs to undergo.
Except — and here Australian journalists display their unique competence — after every latest Islamic murder, riot, bomb plot, drive-by shooting, gang rape, prosecution and sentencing, the Islam connection can never, ever be mentioned. If the same rule were to be applied other topics, it would be perfectly OK to report on, say, the decline of native mammal populations while neglecting to mention the predations of feral cats, dogs and foxes. That doesn’t happen, of course, because wild dogs lack a Twitter auxiliary tweeting #illbarkwithyou, nor are they sufficiently well organised and funded to file complaints with the Human Rights Commission, the Press Council and sundry ethnic affairs commissioners, not to mention cultivating useful contacts at the ABC. Just ask Zaky Mallah about the advantage in having friends open doors, not to mention provide a taxi shuttle to and from the studio.
The way in which the Parramatta narrative coalesced was very much of a piece. Within minutes of Mr Cheng’s murder the ABC was moving with remarkable efficiency to head off any unseemly two-plus-twoism.
“The ABC understands that the incident is not terror-related,” the first of its reporters on the scene intoned. How the national broadcaster could be so sure so soon can never be known, although it is fair to note that NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, the very model of a modern policeman, didn’t shed much light.
“At this stage we’ve got nothing to link this event to any terrorist-related activity but we could not say that that wasn’t the case,” he told the press late on Friday afternon. “So, clearly, you would understand we have officers from within the counter-terrorism command working alongside homicide, but this is a homicide investigation, led by homicide.”
“Clearly”? A man is shot dead in front of a police station by a gunman wearing classic Islamic combat garb, and the state’s top cop can’t quite bring himself to address the most obvious probability, not even as the first amongst equals on a longer list of possibile explanations.
Actually, Scipione went further in not going far enough. Asked to describe the killer’s garb he would say only that it was “a flowing gown”. Quick, calling all cars: Be on the lookout for Maggie Tabberer and other ladies of a certain age given to tent-like mumus! The subject of clothing soon faded, which was a pity because Scipione’s own regalia presented another wonderment: Should he add a second epaullette to each shoulder, as the broad acreage of braid on his cap’s peak leaves little room to embroider further signifiers of his job as the state’s chief protector of public safety?
Like Sciopine’s plumage, one didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to notice the killer’s Islamic uniform. The Guardian’s Calla Wahlquist certainly did, which must be why she was at pains not to share with anyone else the information gleaned in her capacity as a reporter, but presumably not of the old-fashioned just-the-facts variety.
“I won’t go into reports about what the man identified by eyewitnesses as carrying a gun was wearing or what he looked like…”
That quote, just by the way, would soon be squirted down the memory hole. Check The Guardian’s minute-by-minute account of Friday’s murder and you will no longer find it. Ms Wahlquist, not too many years out of her cadetship, might still have a bit to learn about the art and practice of journalism, but the excision of that remarkably bare-faced statement of intent to abrogate professional responsibility is clearly one lesson mastered: When a hack quite deliberately chooses not to report that which is germane, it is a good idea not to let the punters know as much. Otherwise they might not trust your publication as an agent of unvarnished, unbiased truth.
Tracking the evolving narrative over the two days that followed Friday’s slaying was almost fun, albeit when viewed through the twisted, fatalist eye that regards so much reporting not as journalism but advocacy. If you accept that modern newsrooms are no longer devoted to relating what actually happened so much as framing the way the less-informed need to think about what happened, then the conspicuous cluelessness of commentators was neo-professionalism on stilts. Such is their commitment to the authorised narrative they would prefer to be seen as dills than questioners of hollow nostrums.
For example, the ABC’s nightly TV news on Friday decided that the most compelling story was not Parramatta but the AFL Grand Final, to be played the following day. Mr Cheng’s murder? That wasn’t mentioned until well into the bulletin and, when it came, the word “Muslim” was still not heard.
On the Sydney Morning Herald and Age websites, the purveyors of officially endorsed truth found refuge from acumen, initiative and responsibility throughout Saturday and Sunday in an inspired and communal bafflement. There was no telling what led the killer to pull that trigger, the purported news organisation swore, so those given to annoying curiosity would simply have to accept that he had taken his secret motivation to the grave. This was said, mind you, of a young man all gussied up in jihadi drag and shouting “Allah! Allah! Allah!”
By the SMH’s politically correct reckoning, that war cry was – wait for it – no more indicative of creed affiliation than a generic “religious slogan.” If readers jumped to the conclusion that the teenage terror was an overly energetic exponent of Catharism, an advocate of the Arian heresy, or had taken sides in the various disagreements between Lubavitchers and Satmars, the Fairfax rags appear to believe they would be perfectly acceptable misconceptions under which the public might best be left to labour. Could there be another possible reason why “Allah! Allah! Allah!” was suppressed in favour of a deliberately bland and uninformative bowdlerising?
Even that wouldn’t do, however, for the SMH, whose lousy job of reporting this and other news may well owe something to the indulgent oversight of an editor recently identified in a judge’s ruling as printing his paper’s posters with the ink of malice. If the boss can’t wield a straight bat, and the board thinks such partisanship is just fine, why should garden-variety reporters harken unto a higher standard? Perhaps, after hyping something that wasn’t true about Joe Hockey, the editor felt obliged to make amends by burying something that is. If so, Tim Dick’s expansion on Monday’s opinion page of the weekend’s mystery-motivation theme must have filled the newsroom with pride and delight, for seldom have so many words said so little at such length.
“We may discover why he killed, but we may not,” writes Dick, who must be considered a poor bet to lead any journalistic effort to validate the former possibility. “It is possible the only person who knew why a child took an innocent life lies in the morgue.”
The “only person”, eh? What about whoever it was who provided the gun, not to mention the indoctrination? That still-unknown (or unnamed) individual might bring no small amount of insight to the question that has Dick and so many others thoroughly stumped.
Through those two days of framing Parramatta in a media telescope pressed to the blind eye, and amid all the contortions and the ducking and weaving, the really big question remained to be answered: How, exactly, would guilt be lifted from the gunman and dropped at Tony Abbott’s feet? The ABC’s Insiders provided a hint when guest and Fairfax chief political correspondent Mark Kenny referred to the killer as “a dude” and observed that “the rhetoric of the government before the change of leadership was actually counter-productive, in a sense, that there was a pulling-back by the Islamic community, which felt that it was being vilified a bit by the previous prime minister.” Off to his left, fellow guest Fran Kelly burbled something to the effect that the security agencies appreciated the new Prime Minister was so much better than the useless unit he replaced.
Kenny’s thinking must have evolved overnight because it had grown from the haphazard thought bubble of Insiders to a fully argued case, by Fairfax standards. It seems that while he might not have been holding the gun it was Abbott’s two-fisted ineptitude that equipped its adolescent user with a hair trigger. Writing of PM Turnbull’s phone call to Muslim leaders – the very same leaders who spurned Abbott’s invitation to join Team Australia – Kenny waxes rhapsodic about the wunderkind from Wentworth, this epitome of leadership whose monumental intelligence has allowed him to absorb the accumulated and practical political wisdom of Hawke, Keating and Howard.
At a time when social cohesion and public confidence in multiculturalism could be expected to come under renewed strain, Turnbull emphasised its value, and went further, issuing a public plea for even greater solidarity with Australians of Islamic faith.
It was, he continued,
… just one of the ways in which Turnbull, as Liberal leader 2.0 and as prime minister, is opting for inclusion rather than division and drawing on the lessons from those before him.
Somewhere on the internet it might be possible to find a greater example of gushing, but you would need to plumb the postings of some lovetruck tween-ager’s declarations of her all-consuming passion for Justin Beiber. Fairfax stockholders should be happy, though. At least Kenny did not accuse Abbott of selling himself and his divisive talent to campaign contributors, so there will be no defamation costs accruing this time.
Another road to “inclusion”, just in passing, might have been for Turnbull to place a phone call to the Cheng family. If he has done so, that particular example of outreach is one more thing that has yet to be reported.
Finally, also in the Fairfax papers, the ultimate conformation of the narrative being back on track, the proof that hackdom has risen to the challenge of normalising a tally that currently stands at three Islamist attacks in under year. Also to be found on the SMH opinion page, it is a piece by Joseph Wakim, founder of the Australian Arabic Council, who knows just where the real blame belongs: Islamophobia.
Our self-appointed vigilantes should stop giving oxygen to these lethal messages online and on talkback. Stop pushing people over the edge. Stop pushing people to denounce every crime committed by Muslims. Stop pushing people to feel that they are collectively guilty until proven innocent. Stop pushing people towards radicalisation and towards the Islamic State recruitment propaganda. If we treat people as outsiders, they become outsiders.
Bear that insight in mind the next time some Islamist nut job does what he deems the Prophet’s bloody bidding. It won’t be his fault, it will be yours because, well, it always is.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online. He still lists his occupation as ‘journalist” but these days with a growing sense of shame