Go West, Young Media, Find the Facts – You are Joking, Right?

There’s a cycle in Australia’s media that is unbreakable when it comes to reporting crime in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. It creates the impression amongst the comfortably off white middle class that the outer suburbs are full of non-white criminals. This impression is fuelled by cynical politicians and abetted by media outlets that never provide an accurate depiction of life in such areas. There’s a circle of ignorance that is perpetual.

Here is the process:

  1. A Crime or small set of unconnected crimes happen in a suburb outside the inner ring of the cities
  2. Fairfax and News report said crime, more likely to report it if it involves someone of Middle Eastern Appearance or these days in Melbourne, African
  3. A conservative politician goes on a conservative radio show and makes a statement based on anecdata that Lebanese / African / Vietnamese gangs are roaming the streets, making them unsafe
  4. Fairfax and News report the conservative politician’s feels, virtually verbatim, making the statement the story, with counterfactuals and contradictory stats quoted well down the article.   Then, the more recent step –
  5. Journalists on Twitter patronise critics of the article, responding with any or all of these types of responses:
    1. The critics haven’t read the whole article
    2. They don’t understand the “bigger story”
    3. They don’t have knowledge of the inside political dynamics
    4. Everything said by “powerful” politicians is worth reporting, no matter what
    5. “Have you seen the stats? There is a problem” (even if those stats show only a generalised picture)
    6. “We put stats and quotes from others in the article” (buried well down)
    7. “Mate”, “Champ”

It’s all colour and light. These “there’s fear gripping the streets of the outer suburbs” are never a real story. They never reflect the reality of life in those suburbs.  Just an easy way to continue to demonise the areas of Sydney and Melbourne not populated by Anglo Celts.   But why does it continue to happen?

There’s a pretty simple answer – the journalists who write these articles almost never live in areas mentioned in these articles, or ever lived in them.  As most of them are from a comfortable middle class Anglo Celtic background, able to study journalism at a nice inner city university, these places are “the other”.   Hence, it’s easy for them to cherry pick one off crimes, such as the recent Airbnb party gone wrong in Tarneit and assert it’s part of a bigger, more menacing problem.  This is easy enough if you and your audience don’t have any connection to or knowledge of the area involved.   There’s been parties that go wrong in the inner parts of cities as well – here’s one example in comfortably middle class Ryde in Sydney, but one never sees them used as a way of demonising entire groups of people.

So when this deliberate ignorance goes a step further, and a cynical politician starts to talk in vague terms about “[Insert people from a city / state here] not wanting to eat / go out in (unnamed) Danger Zones”, then it’s easy for journalists to quote them verbatim, and then back up these generalised statements about areas they don’t know or care much about with cherry picked events and statistics.   The politician in question has then achieved their aim – to whip up comfortably middle class racist troops into a frenzy of fear of these “danger zones”.   This time it was Dutton. Before, it’s been Tony Abbott and John Howard, amongst others.  We have experienced this for decades.  In Sydney, the pattern has been continually used with Lakemba, Cabramatta, Auburn and Granville.  It is for this reason that Anglo Celts in areas like Penrith and Camden can read about these areas and say “phew, I’m glad I don’t live there”.  It is something Frontline covered in its excellent episode from Season 1, “City of Fear”. In 1994.  It is this same reason why a cynical ex politician seeking a new revenue stream like Mark Latham can pick up a dog whistle and blow it as hard as he can.  The reality of these politicians – even the Mt Hunter Hermit – who is seen more in Glebe than he is in the outer west – is that they are equally ignorant of modern life in these areas.

The other phase of this circle of ignorance is when journalists will make a trip out to such an area and feign an interest in the people of the areas in order to get the story you want. This is what I called the Miranda Trip, named for Miranda Devine, one of the most cynical of all journalists – put on a headscarf and troop out to a mosque.  Only in Miranda’s case, she got no negative story, unlike Aaron Langmaid from the Herald Sun.


The solution to this circle of ignorant coverage? There isn’t one.

Journalists from all media outlets – whether it be Fairfax, News, the Guardian, the ABC, SBS, Junkee, Pedestrian, Buzzfeed – all live and work in the inner cities and don’t commute from the outer suburbs and treat trips out to those areas as if they are going on an African safari. If they happened to come from these areas, that knowledge has quickly dissipated.  And none of them take kindly to criticism, whether that be emailed or on Twitter. There is no way of having the coverage of outer suburbs improving anytime soon.  I’m not suggesting that all of these outlets are negative about the outer west – they’re not – but they all write in the same vague generalised terms about the areas and the groups of people who live there.

Social media! No, that is not a solution. Most of the big social media political sources and freelancers are also in that same bubble.  In addition, most on social media have this  happy knack of making this kind of thing all about them and their lifestyle. For example, we will see many get on the hashtags and tweet about themselves eating out in Melbourne – but guaranteed almost all of them will be in inner city Melbourne restaurants.  They won’t get on the trains out west. They never do.  And why would they? They have little genuine interest in life in those areas.

There is no solution because there continues to be no profit or clicks in providing a factual, unpatronising and worthwhile coverage of life in the outer suburbs. No-one has or will start an independent news service for outer suburban areas – there’s no money in such a project and there’s not the people interested in writing for such a hub. This is because people who could be good at such writing are either too busy with full time jobs or have been turned off by a lack of encouragement through social media channels.

Having engaged in this space for 7 and a half years, I can safely say there is no point in bothering to have a hope that there ever will be such a thing as good coverage of issues in the outer west.  Dutton and politicians like him will get away with these swipes because of the lack of meaningful coverage of life in that area means that audiences will just feel that their comments are correct.  On this occasion, it will mean that there won’t be nuanced articles about youth crime and its relationship to unemployment and cultural displacement in the outer suburbs.  There’s more money and interest in articles about lockout laws and new pop up burger joints.

Addendum – January 7. The ever increasing evidence of the false claims of the Walter Mitty-esque Nelly Yoa is further demonstration of the amount of superficiality in this space. Whoever it was from The Age who decided it was a good idea to publish a contrarian piece by Yoa should have gone to the lengths of consulting people in the South Sudanese diaspora to check his credentials. But such is the disconnect between outlets like The Age and these foreign parts of society, they didn’t, which should be so embarrassing that it could trigger greater engagement. But, based on past behaviours and attitudes, there won’t be any change from that source.

This piece from the Guardian’s Calla Wahlquist is one good piece to come from this terrible situation – we have not seen anything near its equal from The Age or the Herald Sun – but I can’t see the Guardian being able to have the ability to sustain a greater regional engagement.

Also of note in these last few days is the lack of coverage of this violent confrontation involving youths in wealthy Torquay. That it only attracted coverage in the Geelong Advertiser reveals that unless violent youths have an African background, they aren’t of much news worth – even if that violence was more dangerous, took hours to control and involved physical assault of a police officer.