Police reporting—a catalogue of the worst crime, murders and personal tragedies occupying our underworld—was big in the 1980s. So I knew I was being given a break when told I’d be spending a couple of months covering the round. But I’d been ABC Radio’s roundsman for less than a week when I was called over to see the chief sub-editor.
‘This is wrong’, he said, pointing to my copy. ‘Utterly unsuitable. Useless. Unacceptable’. He employed alliteration with effective enthusiasm. ‘Don’t you know anything?’
I was inexperienced (I’d been working for less than a year), but I still thought his assessment harsh. I re-read my story. A woman had committed suicide publicly, on the street. However, I’d chosen to leave out the most gruesome details and I thought—all things considered—the report was composed about as tastefully as possible. What was the problem? Did he really want more?
‘Suicide’, he said, looking at me as if I was a complete idiot. Yet I obviously still didn’t get it, so he repeated the word slowly. ‘Suicide. Nobody commits suicide on the ABC. Now, go and re-write it’.
I returned to my desk and later submitted a reworked version, bland and undoubtedly completely mystifying to our audience. I’d effectively removed any hint of how the person had come to die. The sub, however, nodded with approval. ‘That’s better’. He looked at me severely. ‘Don’t ever mention suicide again’.
So I didn’t. Others, however, did. Gradually, suicide has become an accepted part of our human and social condition, catalogued and explained on the news. Today you’ll hear stories studded with extraneous details (even on the ABC) that I, even then, wouldn’t have dreamed of mentioning.
At ASPI’s recent seminar on the first hundred days of the campaign against ISIL the Executive Director brought up an interesting question. Peter Jennings asked where the editorial line should be drawn when it comes to the ‘information’ terrorists are propagating. Should ISIL, for example, be able to distribute over the internet graphic videos of executioners decapitating people?
By the time the kids running American blog-sites decided (possibly simply because of public outrage) to pull the video, ISIL itself had already begun censoring itself. New videos didn’t show the moment of death itself. The terrorists had made their point. They’d already presented a challenge to the democracies that the ‘new media’ had clearly failed.
Eventually—although it took a long time—social media outlets prevented people viewing this particular outrage. Notice, however, that it’s only the deaths of US citizens that have been pulled; other horrific executions can easily be viewed on the net. But this is the social media we’re talking about. Traditional media editors already know such stuff shouldn’t be broadcast. In the recent Martin Place siege only Channel 10 (briefly) reported the deranged man’s demands. But old media’s irrelevant now and the game’s moved on—out of the hands of the few and into the hands of everyone. And today, everyone has their own standards.
There’s still no clear agreement about what should, or shouldn’t, be available over the net; let alone an understanding of how that might be enforced. The new media is young. It’s operated by people who, by-and-large, aren’t the same type who’d seek steady work at a traditional media organisation. They certainly don’t share the same restraints and views of what’s appropriate to view as those attracted to work as, for example, civil servants, diplomats, soldiers or others in the security industry. So whose standards should apply?
Yet this is just one aspect of a massive issue—one that’s now as big a challenge to the West’s response as the military campaign against ISIL.
We pay obligatory lip-service to the shibboleth that this is a ‘war of ideas’. If that’s the case, who’s fighting on our side? Where are the voices articulating the democratic cause in an intellectual way? Well, here on The Strategist of course, but where else in the media?
It’s the responsibility of the politicians to wage this particular war. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to know how because they certainly haven’t accepted the task. ISIL’s well and truly outmanoeuvring our own commanders.
Public broadcasters are also to blame for us losing this war. The same day as the Martin Place siege began 95 people, including 82 children, were killed in yet another terrorist attack in Peshawar. Who’s drawing this together? And where is the detail and nuance in our reporting of the war?
Nobody could assert that ISIL’s tactics are anything other than horrific, its ideology abhorrent. Destroying it is vital. Yet why is the Baghdad government arming and equipping Shia militia rather than accepting US assistance to train Sunnis to combat ISIL? The air war is going well, but this conflict will be decided on the ground and in the mind.
I think we’re being defeated.
Nic Stuart is a columnist with The Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Flickr user Dmitry Ryzhkov.