It’s not often that journalists get to live on top of the consequences of media misreporting, but today is such a day for me. The mood in the main street is sullen, and I can see why.

The Age today repeats the allegation that there were riot charges over an incident in Flemington a year ago. (The Age incorrectly says Kensington, but that is the least of concerns).

This whole pretend controversy — a classic case of the media creating trouble in a universe disassociated from the facts — was kicked off by the Herald Sun, which has run numerous stories containing the claim there was a riot. I wrote about that last week.

Suffice to say there was no riot, nor have the police ever officially claimed there was a riot, no matter what some disgruntled coppers may be saying to their journo mates.

The Age’s chief mistake this morning — in what starts as a positive article about Victoria’s Australian of the Year candidate, Berhan Ahmed — is repeating, apparently without checking, the Herald Sun allegation that riot charges were dropped. This is in a paragraph about concern over African representation in crime statistics.

But there never were riot charges over this incident, or anything approaching them. Nor have police ever officially claimed there was a riot. This “riot” claim is a creation of a toxic relationship between police reporters and their very much involved police sources. Journalists, please note. THERE WAS NO RIOT.

The charges over this incident were against three youths and one young man, and the most serious were resisting arrest and assaulting police.

My understanding of why these charges were dropped is as follows: the whole incident was provoked by the cops getting the wrong man, there were numerous witnesses to the police response to the incident, the Flemington-Kensington Community Legal Service planned to contest the charges, brief senior counsel and apply for costs, there was evidence of injuries inflicted on the African youths by police, and the resulting court case would likely have been massively embarrassing for police, at a time when real attempts are being made to connect with the African community.

The Herald Sun, Andrew Bolt and today The Age also make much of former Minister for Immigration Kevin Andrew’s comments about African integration, with Andrew Bolt suggesting he has been unfairly reviled, that Africans are a problem, and that the Flemington “riot” is partial evidence for this.

Well here is what the top cop in Flemington, Inspector Nigel Howard of the Moonee Valley Police, reckoned about the helpfulness of Andrew’s comments when I interviewed him about what happened at Flemington for an article in Griffith Review, published last May. Inspector Howard thought the Andrews’ comments had helped to make police work more difficult in Flemington in the lead up to the incident.

I don’t think those comments were helpful at all, but that’s just Nigel Howard’s opinion. You and I might say, (he makes a dismissive gesture), but [the African community] brews on those things. You have to go back to the conditions [African migrants] have come from, the things they’ve seen. And they are trying to start a new life, they are trying to get their families out here and that comes out from the government, and it’s not helpful.

(He pauses) I have enormous respect for these people, and when you sit down with them and talk to them about what they have seen and experienced, well, we live in a lucky country. If you want to look for blame, the blame here lies fairly and squarely with the federal government. They take all these people in, and they just displace them and dump them. They don’t give the community the opportunity to understand all the issues they bring with them.

This continual media misreporting — all without a single phone call to the young men involved or their legal representatives — may seem like a trivial matter, but it is far from trivial if you live, as I do, alongside a community full of men, women and children who repeatedly see themselves unfairly described as rioters who attacked police.

What exactly are we trying to achieve here? Integration, peaceful settlement and harmony? From Flemington, it looks more like demonization.

I resent what is being done to my neighbours.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey