tip off

SBS channels Frontline, pokes ’50 psycho wogs’ for a laugh

Last week’s episode of Insight made a show of trying to understand the Islamic State and its Australian supporters. But all it really did, courtesy of some strategic edits, was stoke the flames of Islamophobia.

The media landscape has undergone seismic changes over the past two decades, but the ABC’s 1990s series Frontline remains one of the most relevant resources for media education that there is.

Certainly, lawyer Zali Burrows could usefully have watched the episode entitled “Divide the Community, Multiply the Ratings” before accepting Insight’s invitation to appear on the show’s “Joining the Fight” episode with her young client and Islamic State (also known as ISIS) supporter Abu Bakr. Burrows now says that she and her client were “duped” into appearing on the show, whose agenda was “the character assassination of a young Muslim.” Other guests also report that they were told that the show would focus on the proposed new anti-terrorism legislation rather than on “why Australians are being drawn to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq”.

But Insight’s producers were just following the formula set out by Frontline all those years ago. After a riot between Serbs and Croats on the streets of Sydney and a heated studio debate between two community leaders, Frontline’s producer noted, “What’s better than two psycho wogs in the one studio? Fifty psycho wogs.”

Insight regularly features “50 psycho wogs” episodes, and last week the SBS show got to feature everyone’s favourite psycho wogs — the Muslim psychos. Abu Bakr was the star, turning up at the studio wearing the IS logo on his sleeve, making predictably offensive and disturbing statements and walking out midway through the episode with his lawyer (or according to Fairfax’s description, “storming off”). It was so much fun — sorry, such an important story — that SBS gave it a repeat screening a few days later. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving, with news this morning that Abu Bakr was arrested over the weekend for a hate crime after abusing a cleaner at a shopping centre in Bankstown. 

Insight and Muslims have just got to steer clear of each other. Every time any of us appear, we end up thinking, ‘why didn’t we learn from our mistakes last time?’”

Of course, the show also included guests (both Muslim and non-Muslim) with contrasting points of view. But Burrows and Abu Bakr were not the only ones unhappy with their experience of the show. Dr Yassir Morsi from the University of South Australia notes that the show “positioned white people as experts and the brown Muslims as the problematic warring mass”. Greg Barton, then, was “Professor Greg Barton, Monash University”, while Morsi’s professional title was not provided — he was just a bearded young Muslim man. And his question to Jenny Brockie — “why are you doing this?” — was one of those that ended up on the edit room floor, along with numerous attempts by Abu Bakr to remain silent in the face of what Morsi describes as repeated goading. 

This is not the first time that Insight has been a source of serious discontent among Muslims. In 2012, after the program began approaching potential Muslim guests for an episode about polygamy, a statement was drafted expressing concerns about the episode and about the show’s previous coverage of Muslim-related issues:

“While we welcome representations that acknowledge the diversity of opinions among Muslims, Insight’s producers have manipulated this diversity to create an environment that produces on-air conflict among Muslim guests. The end result is not audience appreciation of Muslim diversity, but rather further misunderstanding, negative perceptions and alienation of Muslim communities in Australia.”

A meeting between Insight’s producers and lawyer Mariam Veiszadeh and myself failed to address these misgivings, and the result was a widespread boycott of that particular episode. From such a quarrelsome community, it was an impressive show of unity. 

Veiszadeh now says that she feels vindicated in her stance at that time. “Insight and Muslims have just got to steer clear of each other. Every time any of us appear, we end up thinking, ‘why didn’t we learn from our mistakes last time?’” The problem, she says, is the debate-based format. “It’s an impossible task for Insight to take on a Muslim topic and do it justice using that format.” 

With a plethora of material available online and via satellite broadcasting, culturally and linguistically diverse communities are far less reliant on SBS to provide content in languages other than English. However, the broadcaster still has an important role in providing three-dimensional representations of everyday multiculturalism within Australia, and providing a platform for voices that are otherwise excluded from public discourse.

Insight, however, undermines this mission. The hostility generated among viewers — especially Muslim viewers — risks escalating to disenchantment with the entire station at a time when its funding is under threat and it is in need of public support from its core demographic. It’s time for Insight and SBS to start focusing on uniting the community rather than multiplying the ratings.

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  • 1
    mikeb
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    No doubt Abu Bakr was unhappy at being exposed for what he is - a racist loose cannon that the Muslim population in Aust could well do without.

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Sacrificing credibility at the Altar of Ratings (to attract commercial sponsorship)?

    I lost interest a few years back when Brockie thanked an elderly Indigenous woman for “coming down to be on the program” - and ignored her “husband” standing next to her?
    I reckon she tends to “walk with a Right limp”?

    I still maintain - if “journalists” in this country want to learn “How it’s done” they should watch another SBS program, the PBS produced News Hour?

  • 3
    bushby jane
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Muslim leadership in Australia needs to be more vocal telling us about their message of Islam being a peace loving religion.

  • 4
    Kent Williams
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    The Insight program is a farce. It is fairly obvious that reasonable statements are edited out, and only the cherry-picked out-of-context ones ar left in. It is clearly tabloid pseudo-journalism, and should not be taken seriously.

    I mostly stopped watching SBS years ago when the Howard Government started messing with it; too many ads, world news given a ruinous format, and sleazy tabloid shows appearing.

    It is about time SBS was given the axe. A complete waste of money!

  • 5
    fractious
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    I missed this episode (I’ll have to see if it’s on the web) so I can’t comment on the issues raised. But I have noticed (I thought it was just me for a while, till others voiced criticisms) the way the programme is run has changed in recent times, and not for the better. Brockie is an experienced journalist and presenter, with a (deserved) high reputation, which makes the way she hosts Insight these days all the more baffling - cutting people off mid-stream, frequently pursuing some narrow aspect of a broader issue that either goes nowhere or is of no significance, abandoning a theme just as it gets to the core of the matter. And, IMO, often pushing a deliberately provocative interpretation of a theme, to the detriment of both clarity and context.

    Very little of this is because of the format - Insight is based on similar shows elsewhere, and the format does a much better job of exploring complex subjects than the typical talking heads programme, let alone the superficial tripe that Q&A serves up. That said, it’s not long enough - 50 minutes minus the ever-increasing encroachment of ads leaves just over half an hour, which is nowhere near enough.

    So if it’s not the format and the presenter isn’t out of their depth, I can only conclude someone in SBS has decided the show needs more “spunk” in it so it makes the headlines more often and thus drags in “viewers”, because ratings (and ad$$$) innit. That approach might work for some, but it’s reducing one of the few programmes that tries to tackle serious subjects to the sort of deliberately slanted, provocative bilge that you can get on any shoutback radio station (or Their ABC for that matter).

    Little wonder more and more disaffected viewers are abandoning FTA TV and going online.

  • 6
    StefanL
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    The problem, she says, is the debate-based format.“ ‘It’s an impossible task for Insight to take on a Muslim topic and do it justice using that format.’

    So what format would she like ?
    In a debate people are able to state their views openly but must accept that those views can also be challenged openly. Apparently some people can’t handle any form of criticism or dissension from their world-view.

  • 7
    Pamela
    Posted Wednesday, 20 August 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Inexperienced participants don’t realise the setup until too late. Many of us think that it is an opportunity for real community debate. Forget it.
    The voices Insight wants heard are individually miked up so that they can respond instantly. If a Minister is present he gets open slather. The people who are there to fill out the visuals have to rely on being chosen to be heard.
    Insight is filmed for more time than needed and then the voices which do not fit the desired format are cut out.

    This show is set up and scripted- the unwary are there to create an illusion of debate.

  • 8
    Eva Cox
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    If we want to avoid alienating young people because of anti-Muslim prejudice, we need to look at public exposure of our prejudices. This program was not fair and its location on SBS makes it more damaging than the same crap via shock jocks etc. We need to recognise that Team Australia is not a term that makes us want to belong but sets in place ways of excluding those not deemed part of the majority culture

  • 9
    mikeb
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Blimey - the elephant in the room is trumpeting but a lot of people are pretending it’s not there.

  • 10
    Irfan Yusuf
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    You and Mariam were vindicated. Which raises the question: Why did Morsi & co go on the show? Surely they should have known from past episodes that Insight is the closest thing SBS has to FoxNews.

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