Last Tuesday during Question Time, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith solemnly informed the House of Representatives that an aircraft had disappeared in Papua New Guinea en route to Kokoda airport. Given the destination, he said, it was likely that Australians were among the thirteen people feared dead. By Thursday it was confirmed that nine Australians had been on board the plane and a nation — or more specifically, a nation’s press — had gone into patriotic mourning overdrive.

Let me first be totally up front: when any person dies before their time, be it in an accident, at the hands of mother nature, or due to foul play, it is a tragedy. When multiple people die in a single incident it certainly makes that incident more tragic. The deaths of these thirteen people in Papua New Guinea is a terrible thing, and I can’t begin to imagine the suffering of their families and friends, but thousands upon thousands of people die around the world each day, some of them in the most terrible circumstances, and rarely does anyone outside those victims’ immediate networks mourn their deaths.

Sometimes we grieve for people we’ve never met in our lives but who we’ve come to know as if we had; millions cried when Princess Diana was killed and millions cried when Michael Jackson passed away unexpectedly. Sometimes we grieve for people we don’t know at all but for whom we feel empathy or some other connection; we might have spent time at the location of a natural disaster or have experienced something similar. Sometimes we grieve for people who have made such a notable contribution to the world that their passing symbolises something more than just the ending of a life; many people stop to remember sacrifice when a centenarian war veteran finds his final peace.

While it’s admirable that these nine Australians wanted to walk the Kokoda Track as a tribute to their countrymen who fought and died there, we shouldn’t get carried away. But carried away the media got, playing the story for all it was worth, surely with one or both eyes on circulation figures. Always generous with concepts such as heroism and patriotism, watering them down until they mean nothing at all, the tabloid papers filled six or seven pages each with solemn tributes to these pilgrims who died trying to honour Australia and her past heroes. On Thursday Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey shockingly suggested that the dead Australians had made “the ultimate sacrifice”. I’d be interested to know how Hockey (or the Punch editor who wrote the headline) plans to justify that one to a veteran who’s watched his mates die in battle.

Far more touching were the simple and genuine tributes from the victims’ family members; they were good people who meant the world to their families and they would be sorely missed. Had anyone bothered to survey ordinary Australians’ feelings about the tragedy it’s unlikely that anything close to the newspapers’ levels of patriotic and sympathetic fervour would’ve been discovered. So why then did the media go so patriotism crazy?

There has been an obvious rise in public patriotism in Australia over the past decade, and this has surely not escaped the notice of newspaper editors and television producers who see benefit in tapping into this mood. Dr Jeremy Sammut of the Centre for Independent Studies says that patriotism is important “because appeals to patriotic sentiment can unite otherwise diverse individuals into cohesive constituencies.” Unfortunately for those people who are perceived to be dismissive of overt shows of patriotism, the opposite to patriotism, according to Dr Sammut, is a specialty of the Left: junking the past and reconstructing the future. “This is the reason why comrades across a spectrum of disciplines have spent the last forty years telling their fellow Australians how racist, sexist, and unjust their country is,” he says.

It’s this kind of patriotism-as-a-possession-of-the-Right thinking that made it very dangerous for anyone to fail to concur with the mob’s grief last week. Those who did refuse to take part in the hysteria had either their Australian-ness or their humanity questioned, and were explicitly or implicitly consigned to the naughty corner reserved for uncaring Leftists. But there are many ways to love your country, and shouting it the loudest doesn’t make your love the strongest. Just as there are many ways to react to news — applicable both to those who report it or consume it.

Last week there were earthquakes, hurricanes and catastrophic floods in Japan, China and across south east Asia; car bombs in the Middle East. Hundreds of people died and millions were left homeless, yet it was almost impossible to find any sort of mention of these human disasters in the Australian media. Now I’m not for a minute suggesting that any journalist believes one Australian life to be worth more than one life of any other nationality, and what’s more, I completely understand and accept our focus on nine Aussie deaths at the expense of many more in another part of the world. All I’m suggesting is that perhaps in future the conspicuous compassion and rampant nationalism should be pulled back a peg or two and a little bit of perspective sought.

(This is an edited version of this piece.)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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