As the Sydney Lindt cafe siege began, Tim Duggan — who as Sound Allliance’s director of content is responsible for youth-focused websites like Junkee, InTheMix, FasterLouder and SameSame — told his editors to cease publishing.
“It’s normally our busiest time,” he told Crikey this morning. “But we wanted to feel what the vibe was. We’ve always prided ourselves on adding to the conversation and not to the noise.”
Ultimately, none of Sound Alliance’s websites published a piece of content after 10.30am, with one exception. Pop culture and politics title Junkee ran a piece by assistant editor Alex McKinnon urging for restraint in the use of social media during times of crisis. It earned 60,000 shares on Facebook alone, giving Sound Alliance one of its biggest traffic days of the month. But Duggan insists that wasn’t the point. “In a situation like that it’s not about creating click bait.”
Yesterday was, Duggan says, a day when the media showed its true colours. He pays tribute to online outlets like BuzzFeed and The Guardian, which he says excelled at factual reporting. They, along with several other outlets including The Australian, ran live blogs all day, providing an alternative to the usual media stars of such events, the broadcast news networks.
All Australia’s television stations ran rolling coverage for much of the day, and to varying degrees into the night.
The ABC suspended programming on its main channel (ABC1) and simulcasted News24’s coverage from 8pm, despite rolling coverage of this type being partly what News24 was created for. Some insiders were speculating this morning the decision was made because News24 is a high-definition channel, and not all televisions currently receive it. Wrapping up 7.30, host Leigh Sales didn’t seem to be aware her channel was about to turn into News24, telling viewers at the conclusion of the program to switch over for live coverage.
Channel Seven’s broadcast was thrown into disarray when it was forced to relocate away from its Martin Place headquarters close to the siege. The newsroom relocated to Pyrmont while the coverage continued and was hosted out of Melbourne for a while. TV insiders were this morning paying tribute to good decision-making on the run.
But in the rush to fill hours of airtime (and the decision to use rolling coverage instead of news updates within scheduled programming), some inaccurate and misleading reports were put to air. The farrago of misstatements and wrong-headed speculations from on-air commentators and hosts included “packages” found around the city, the Islamic State flag being displayed, Sydney airspace being closed, the Sydney Harbour Bridge being closed (despite pictures showing traffic on the bridge), and trains being stopped from running under the CBD (they were simply bypassing Martin Place). Once the IS flag story had been debunked, commentators and hosts struggled with the flag until “talent” started informing them and viewers. There was a rush to report, and a failure to pause, check and reflect and get it right.
Ray Hadley on 2GB was a key voice in the story, at one point taking a call from one of the hostages off-air. He refused to put it to air — a decision replicated by many other media outlets that also received requests for coverage of the gunman’s demands from the hostages.
In print, The Daily Telegraph rushed out a special 2pm edition. It was slammed for linking the siege to Islamic State with the headline: “IS takes 13 hostages in city cafe siege: Death Cult CBD attack” (it doesn’t appear the terrorist organisation had anything directly to do with the attack). This morning’s Tele seems to have doubled down in this interpretation. Its headline this morning does not mention Islamic State, but its opening paragraph does: “A self-styled sheik and preacher of Islamic State who was on bail for accessory to murder is the gunman who was last night holding 15 terrified hostages in Sydney’s Lindt cafe.”
Meanwhile, cross-town rival The Sydney Morning Herald devoted 12 pages of coverage to the siege in its print edition, under the headline, “Terror hits home”. Its main story begins: “A man brandishing a gun and an Islamic flag took customers and staff hostage at a cafe in Martin Place, sparking a terrifying standoff with police and desperate communications by hostages of the gunman’s purported demands.”
SMH stablemate The Australian Financial Review, however, mimicked the Daily Telegraph in its angle. Its headline: “Islamic State-linked terror grips Sydney”. The page 1 story began: “A gunman sympathetic to Islamic State last night was involved in an ongoing hostage siege in a Sydney city cafe.” This is similar to the language used by Tony Abbott in press conferences this morning.
The front page of The Australian led with the far more neutral “Hostages night of terror”. The opening paragraph of its top story was one of the few not to mention Islamic State in the opening, instead stating: “An Iranian self-styled sheikh who sent offensive letters to the families of dead diggers and is on bail for accessory to murder was last night holding 15 people hostage in a Sydney cafe.”
Most newspapers published several pages on the story, but much that went to print was superseded by the dramatic 2am conclusion of the siege.
In its rolling coverage online this morning, the Sydney Morning Herald published a piece based on video footage filmed by hostages inside the siege. It removed the piece from its website this morning “after feedback and consideration”, it told readers on Twitter.
The siege made the front pages of many of the world’s best-known papers. This was, in turn, the subject of further coverage in Australia.