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Jan 17, 2014

Where the Tele and SMH agree: violence and media beat-ups

The Sydney Morning Herald andThe Daily Telegraph agree that Sydney needs stronger measures to combat alcohol-fuelled violence. But is their campaign worth the paper it's printed on?

Matthew Knott

Former Crikey media reporter

For more than a century, Sydney’s two dominant newspapers have been fierce rivals — despite stark differences in their world views and target audiences. Reporters at The Sydney Morning Herald, a fixture on Sydney’s affluent north shore and eastern suburbs, have long looked down at their Daily Telegraph competitors as ethically dubious beat-up merchants. At the Tele, which dominates Sydney’s sprawling west, Fairfax types have been dismissed as smug and self-important.

But since teenager Daniel Christie was struck down in Kings Cross by a one-punch assault on New Year’s Eve, the papers have marched in lockstep by campaigning for the New South Wales government and wider community to get tough on alcohol-fuelled violence. For 17 days straight, the cry has rung out from the front pages and editorial columns: something must be done. Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed in last week with a front-page column for the Tele; today, the Governor-General attended Christie’s funeral service.

Such sustained campaigning by both papers on a single issue is unprecedented in recent times, according to former SMH editor Peter Fray. “Campaigning is easier for the tabloids — they’re virtually on a permanent campaign footing,” he said. “The really interesting thing about this is that the Herald is matching the Tele blow-for-blow.”

The coverage is heaping enormous pressure on Premier Barry O’Farrell to act — which he has seemed extremely reluctant to do.

The SMH‘s Safer Sydney campaign is calling for 1am lockouts and 3am closing times in trouble spot areas such as Kings Cross. The paper is also offering $2500 to the reader who can create the best advertising campaign against alcohol-fuelled violence. Meanwhile, the Tele‘s Enough campaign is calling for the following:

  1. Be a real mate — take responsibility for each other and stop violence
  2. Mandatory minimum jail terms for punches that cause death or serious injury
  3. 1am lockouts across the Sydney CBD
  4. More trains to get people home quicker
  5. Review liquor licences annually, and charge on a risk basis
  6. Ban the sale of alcohol 30 minutes before the venue closes.

The Tele upped the ante today with a story headlined “Lock these grubs up”, showing 93% of respondents to a survey want minimum sentencing for one-punch crimes causing death.

Meanwhile over 140,000 people have signed a petition created by the parents of Thomas Kelly — who died after a similar one-punch incident in Kings Cross in 2012 — calling for alcohol and drug abuse to be considered an “aggravating factor” in all crimes. And public health campaigners have revived calls for increased taxation of alcohol to discourage drinkers from “pre-loading”.

While Peter Fray is not opposed to newspaper campaigns, he has some concerns with the current media onslaught. “It is the silly season, and there have been a couple of times I’ve wondered if the story is really there,” he said. “There is always a risk in campaigning that you pick your facts to suit the campaign, and there’s an element of that in some of the stories about safety in Sydney.”

A problem for the papers is that there is no quantitative evidence of increased violence in the Kings Cross area. Assaults within licensed venues have dropped by an average of 19.6% over two years; on the streets, the rate of assault is stable. These figures are countered by hospital workers and police officers, who insist the severity of assaults is increasing, if not their frequency. The view of the papers — and it seems, much of the public — is that the current numbers are simply too high and need to be driven down.

Former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery is alarmed at the prospect of isolated tragic incidents leading to mandatory jail terms and longer sentences. “I think that media-driven law reform is a bad thing — it really produces less-than-satisfactory results,” he told Crikey.

“Increased penalties won’t make a blind bit of difference and are really just populist nonsense … I have great sympathy for the families, but we have laws sufficient to deal with these offences and I don’t see the need to rush to change the law.”

But Cowdery does support a trial of 1am lockouts and 3am closing times (known as the “Newcastle Solution”, following the success of such measures in the Newcastle CBD: “If it was effective in Newcactle, why can’t it be effective in a place like Kings Cross? It should be trialled. I think the reluctance of the government to implement strong and serious measures comes from the relationship between the government and the AHA [Australian Hotels Asssociation].”

Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore told Crikey the “Newcastle Solution” could only work if it was applied across the entire inner-metropolitan area. “Otherwise people would simply move on to areas not affected by the changes — shifting the problem, rather than solving it,” she said.

“The current measures to reduce late-night violence are clearly not sufficient, which is why our staff have been carefully researching other options, and we’ve been asking the NSW government for more co-operation.

“Our research shows that Sydney needs renewable liquor licences reviewed annually — rather than the current system of giving a licence in perpetuity; that councils need to be given the power to refuse development applications when areas like the Cross have reached ‘saturation point’ and can’t cope with any more venues; and we need more frequent late-night public transport to get people home safely.”

The real power, of course, lies with O’Farrell. In a scene reminiscent of Yes Minister, he fronted the media yesterday to announce that he would have something to announce next week. He knows he can expect the media bollocking to continue unless he introduces sweeping changes — regardless of whether he thinks they are necessary. Is that a risk he’s willing to take?

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9 thoughts on “Where the Tele and SMH agree: violence and media beat-ups

  1. klewso

    “You tacitly promote belligerence, intolerance and intemperance as acceptable de rigueur, then complain when it’s taken too far”?

  2. Itsarort

    The irony here is that the real culprits of intentional violence on our Friday and Saturday nights are, on any given day, more likely to be found in the gym, not the pub.

  3. MJPC

    Plus of these campaigns, seeing O’Farrell squirm in interviews when questioned about alcohol sponsorship of the LNP (plus some really biting cartoons in the SMH);
    Negative, they will come to nothing for 2 reasons: the AHA (Australia’s equivalent of the NRA when it comes to political clout) would crucify any political party that suggested harsher measures needed, such as no alcohol advertising etc (they have done it in Canada). One only needs to look at the Pokie reforms to see how the mis-information campaign would be fought. O’Farrell is in the pocket of the AHA so far any comments to reform the process will be lies!
    2: The papers won’t go too radical when those juicy liquor adverts are threatened. Notice that their campaign is against pubs, not liquor outlets (most owned by Woolies/Coles). Best not bite the hand that feeds their advertising revenues. Capitalism = corruption (social and moral).

  4. Pete from Sydney

    MJPC, most people who buy booze at liquor outlets take it home, not to Kings Cross to consume

  5. AR

    Klewy – for a moment I thought you were referring to TT’s ‘bop the stoats” axiom as it fits both foreground 7 inevitable result.
    I cringe when I see the magic word “drugs” sliding into the alcohol violence slogans. The main drug causing the violence, apart from good ole booze, is steroids closely followed by speed.
    Yet, as any tabloid consumer (one can hardly call them ‘readers’) knows, “DRUGS” mean.. errr.. dope, that well known precursor of mayhem.

  6. Bill Hilliger

    The AHA won’t like any campaigns that point to alcohol related violence. the media won’t either, if it affects advertising income. MJPC is right on the mark.

  7. klewso

    Who got in the mud and validated and endorsed Toady Abbott’s “whatever it takes/winner take-all” m.o. more than Murdoch’s Limited News?

  8. Thteribl

    Has the full-page advertising by the liquor giants dropped off over January ? Just considering the advertising revenue.

  9. poppy41

    Check out Saturdays Illawarra Mercury for information re the programme running successfully in this area re alcohol fueled violence.