Yesterday the broadcasting regulator released a series of findings on the way our commercial free to air broadcasters reported the issue of Sudanese crime. Reading the investigation reports leaves me feeling  I need a good shower.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority reports are couched in the normal dry language of administrative regulation, but they paint a very nasty picture indeed.

The guts of it is that in October 2007, at the same time as reporting then Minister for Immigration Kevin Andrews’ inflammatory statements about the need to cut back on African immigration, all three of our commercial free to air television channels put to air inaccurate news that distorted and inflated the facts on crime by Sudanese youth. Read ACMA’s media release, with links to the actual reports, here

All three channels used security camera footage of an incident in a bottle shop in the Melbourne suburb of Noble Park in programs where the main topic was crime by Sudanese youth. The problem was that none of the youths in the footage were Sudanese, or even African.

Yet Channel Seven introduced the segment with these words:

“Tonight we can show you the terror experienced by a Noble Park shopkeeper at the hands of an ethnic  gang. They’ve been identified by police as predominantly Sudanese youths.” And the reporter’s statements included the words “police forced to use capsicum spray after a gang of Sudanese youths decide to take over a bottle shop.”

Channel Ten used the same footage and the words:

“Angry locals in Melbourne…have welcomed the Federal Governments move to ban African refugees. They blame Sudanese gangs for an outbreak of violence” and “A Noble Park Bottle shop keeper is set upon as shocked customers look on.”

And as for Channel Nine, it was:

“…new footage has emerged showing Sudanese gangs terrorising shopkeepers in Noble Park. Business owners are demanding more protection from local authorities while the Federal Government has announced it’s shutting the door to African refugees.”

The television stations also mentioned that the main man in the footage was later murdered, as Channel Seven put it “after being savagely bashed by rival gang members last week”, but neglected to say explicitly that his attackers were white – although Channel Seven, at least,  did make this clear with court artists’ pictures.

Channels Nine and Ten were found to have breached the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice on two counts – factual accuracy and fairness and impartiality. A slightly less inflammable mix of material meant that Channel Seven was found to have breached the code only on factual accuracy.

But what really turns my stomach is the excuses the broadcasters served up in their vigorous self defence to ACMA.

Cop this from Channel Ten:

“…the focus of the news story was the concerns whether “undue” or not, of local community members that Sudanese/African people were committing criminal acts in the area…the news story was not reporting whether these opinions were accurate or justified, rather reporting they existed.”

There are similar weasel words from all three broadcasters. It is true, and ACMA acknowledged, that there were some attempts to balance the material by presenting other points of view – although in the cases of Nine and Ten, this was clearly inadequate and not enough to get them over the bar on fairness and impartiality.

Wouldn’t it be better if they simply admitted error, and apologised? Is there no recognition that on issues of race there is a very particular responsibility to get it right, and to be fair? Does it not occur to the reporters or their bosses that if there are problems with Sudanese integration, being demonised like this in the media might be part of that problem?

But since when did ever occur to major media organisations that apology, let alone shame, might be the appropriate response.

The other issue, beyond ACMA’s reach, but I would have thought in need of examination, is the conduct of the police in this matter. Who gave the stations the footage? Who told them it was of Sudanese youths?

The “solution” imposed by ACMA in these three cases is that the staff of the television stations will have to undergo increased training. Hardly likely to make them shake in their boots – but that is a matter of the inadequacy of ACMA’s powers.

So all we can do is make sure that these findings are widely known. As the tabloid tv shows might put it, name and shame.

More about this issue on my blog.

Peter Fray

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