The media landscape has undergone seismic changes over the past two decades, but the ABC’s 1990s series Frontline remains one of the most relevant resources for media education that there is.
Certainly, lawyer Zali Burrows could usefully have watched the episode entitled “Divide the Community, Multiply the Ratings” before accepting Insight‘s invitation to appear on the show’s “Joining the Fight” episode with her young client and Islamic State (also known as ISIS) supporter Abu Bakr. Burrows now says that she and her client were “duped” into appearing on the show, whose agenda was “the character assassination of a young Muslim.” Other guests also report that they were told that the show would focus on the proposed new anti-terrorism legislation rather than on “why Australians are being drawn to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq”.
But Insight‘s producers were just following the formula set out by Frontline all those years ago. After a riot between Serbs and Croats on the streets of Sydney and a heated studio debate between two community leaders, Frontline‘s producer noted, “What’s better than two psycho wogs in the one studio? Fifty psycho wogs.”
Insight regularly features “50 psycho wogs” episodes, and last week the SBS show got to feature everyone’s favourite psycho wogs — the Muslim psychos. Abu Bakr was the star, turning up at the studio wearing the IS logo on his sleeve, making predictably offensive and disturbing statements and walking out midway through the episode with his lawyer (or according to Fairfax’s description, “storming off”). It was so much fun — sorry, such an important story — that SBS gave it a repeat screening a few days later. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving, with news this morning that Abu Bakr was arrested over the weekend for a hate crime after abusing a cleaner at a shopping centre in Bankstown.
“Insight and Muslims have just got to steer clear of each other. Every time any of us appear, we end up thinking, ‘why didn’t we learn from our mistakes last time?'”
Of course, the show also included guests (both Muslim and non-Muslim) with contrasting points of view. But Burrows and Abu Bakr were not the only ones unhappy with their experience of the show. Dr Yassir Morsi from the University of South Australia notes that the show “positioned white people as experts and the brown Muslims as the problematic warring mass”. Greg Barton, then, was “Professor Greg Barton, Monash University”, while Morsi’s professional title was not provided — he was just a bearded young Muslim man. And his question to Jenny Brockie — “why are you doing this?” — was one of those that ended up on the edit room floor, along with numerous attempts by Abu Bakr to remain silent in the face of what Morsi describes as repeated goading.
This is not the first time that Insight has been a source of serious discontent among Muslims. In 2012, after the program began approaching potential Muslim guests for an episode about polygamy, a statement was drafted expressing concerns about the episode and about the show’s previous coverage of Muslim-related issues:
“While we welcome representations that acknowledge the diversity of opinions among Muslims, Insight’s producers have manipulated this diversity to create an environment that produces on-air conflict among Muslim guests. The end result is not audience appreciation of Muslim diversity, but rather further misunderstanding, negative perceptions and alienation of Muslim communities in Australia.”
A meeting between Insight’s producers and lawyer Mariam Veiszadeh and myself failed to address these misgivings, and the result was a widespread boycott of that particular episode. From such a quarrelsome community, it was an impressive show of unity.
Veiszadeh now says that she feels vindicated in her stance at that time. “Insight and Muslims have just got to steer clear of each other. Every time any of us appear, we end up thinking, ‘why didn’t we learn from our mistakes last time?’” The problem, she says, is the debate-based format. “It’s an impossible task for Insight to take on a Muslim topic and do it justice using that format.”
With a plethora of material available online and via satellite broadcasting, culturally and linguistically diverse communities are far less reliant on SBS to provide content in languages other than English. However, the broadcaster still has an important role in providing three-dimensional representations of everyday multiculturalism within Australia, and providing a platform for voices that are otherwise excluded from public discourse.
Insight, however, undermines this mission. The hostility generated among viewers — especially Muslim viewers — risks escalating to disenchantment with the entire station at a time when its funding is under threat and it is in need of public support from its core demographic. It’s time for Insight and SBS to start focusing on uniting the community rather than multiplying the ratings.