Are we so prejudiced nowadays that any Aussie who is arrested for a misdemeanour in Asia is front page news? The beat-up about the Melbourne “beer mat mum”, Annice Smoel, suggests the Australian media will grab any chance it can to condemn the authorities — particularly the judiciary — of our Asian neighbours.

The Daily Telegraph’s headline on Tuesday summed up the tone with “Beer mat mum faces Thai jail hell.”

As we all now know, Smoel received a suspended sentence and a fine of just $40. She walked free from court and is reportedly on her way home this morning. The sentence was a mile away from the potential “five years in jail” mooted by the media over the last week.

So why did the media get so worked up about Annice Smoel?

Admittedly the story did have a few elements that the media was always going to find irresistible. The novelty beer mat angle was too cute to ignore. The fact that Smoel happened to be blonde was a bonus, as were her four doe-eyed kids. The media quickly adopted Smoel as a sort of everywoman. She became one of us, a fun loving Aussie, held captive to those merciless westerner-hating officials in one of those corrupt and dirty places in Asia and ergo she must be championed.

When the media discovered Smoel was speaking out and that what she was saying contained that wonderful blend of anger and vulnerability, she became a sensation and everyone started taking notice.

But it was the prank element that became the clincher. Not only was Smoel one of us, a mother, with her beer mat, tearful kids and quavering voice, she also happened to be innocent. At that point the media flicked the switch to outrage.

Politicians know how this works. Once an Aussie abroad becomes emblematic of our helplessness in a foreign land, and their cause is championed by the press, MPs, the Foreign Affairs Department and its consular staff know they have to be seen to be doing all they can to get her home. That’s why their radar is now finely tuned for just these sorts of cases. The Victorian Premier, John Brumby, was saying all the right stuff, as was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who even managed the perfunctory reminder that as Thailand is a sovereign nation, there is only so much that he and the Australian Government can do.

The elements of this story have been predictable from the start. The jail, in which Smoel spent two nights, was described by the media as “four metres by four metres”, as if that suggested a torture cell out of Apocalypse Now. The toilets were described in graphic detail, the food was condemned as inedible and the officials were described as heavy handed.

Even an instance of incorruptibility on the part of the Thai officials was twisted to suit the story. On Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph wrote “The family have admitted they offered Thai authorities money to secure her release but it was refused.” Written like this it is merely an indication of our beer mat mum’s desperation, and certainly not of the wrongdoing of offering what appeared to be a bribe.

When Smoel gets off the plane today it’ll be hugs with crying kids and tearful joy at being home in the best country on earth and, if all goes to script, a vow to never go back there again.

About the only line that suggested something other than the “innocent abroad” theme came in Karen Percy’s report from Phuket on ABC TV this morning which ended with this tag: “But (the whole affair) has also shone a spotlight on the way Australians behave abroad.”

Peter Fray

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