They are a dangerous unpredictable
gang, their weapon of choice the text message and the mobile phone, and
they are capable of joining up at a moment’s notice and beating
selected victims half to death. I speak, of course, of the
commentariat, both left and right, who have responded to the Cronulla
riots with such a sustained barrage of interpretation that you’d
imagine the topic of violence and racial and cultural tension on
Sydney’s northern beaches could be stretched out for years.

In the Telegraph, Piers Akerman argued that it signalled the failure of multiculturalism; in the SMH Gerard Henderson argued that it was a result of its absence. In The Australian
Peter Ryan said that it proved Geoffrey Blainey was right all along,
while that paper’s editorial writers – fresh from blaming the Paris
riots of a month ago on the failure of France to open its economy and
society to migrants as is done in places like, erm, Australia – were
being more circumspect.

In The Age Tony Parkinson said
that there had been trouble brewing on the northern beaches of Sydney
for years, and this was a consequence of etc etc and on it went. The
one thing that was missing in all of this was any sustained
investigation of the facts – as opposed to various mood-piece articles
based on post-riot vox-pops. What we never really got was answers to,
or even the asking of, the following questions:

  • What was the ratio of hard-core ultra-rightists to ordinary
    punters? Were there two neo-nazis there? Ten? Fifty? How many people
    brought Australian flags? How many of them were singing the national
  • What was the ratio of actively violent people – whether as part of
    ultra-right groups, or just as part of the crowd – to those who were
    just milling about, or who were caught up in the melee? Was it
    fifty-fifty? Twenty-eighty?

Answering those and other questions would have given us a better
picture of what was going on. Instead we got twenty-twenty hindsight –
everyone seemed to know that this had been coming for ages, tensions
rising, showdown on the glittering northern beaches etc. Funny then,
that they never mentioned it – there’s almost no record in the news
archive of either Fairfax or News Ltd which indicate any coverage of
tensions on the northern beaches prior to the alleged assault of a
lifesaver in the week preceding the riot.

course, digital archives are imperfect tools, but various searches
using a variety of keywords (Cronulla/northern beaches/tensions/gangs/
Middle eastern) etc, for both major and relevant local newspapers yield
only two pre-riot season stories about the beach at all – one about the
leasing of a new kiosk, and the other about Maroubra in the south,
where the Bra Boys gang were complaining about parking meters.

I’ve missed a rich vein of reportage and commentary, but I suspect not.
I suspect that this event took everyone by surprise and is more
spontaneous and produced by a complex interaction of media and
communications (the war on terror multiplied by SMS) than many barrow
pushers are willing to admit.

It would be good, in the cloud
of interpretation, if the papers would put a little more effort into
sorting fact from fiction. If we knew what actually occurred we’d be better