Australia’s media outlets have reacted to the news of the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran with a mixture of sadness, sympathy and anger. But it wasn’t always so.

In February 2006, the Daily Telegraph splashed with the news the Australians had been sentenced to death. “No sympathy: Their drug operation would have destroyed thousands of lives — now they’re paying with theirs,” the front page read.

That coverage wasn’t out of character for much of the Australian media, which took a very long time to become sympathetic to the plight of Chan and Sukumaran. Last month, BuzzFeed contrasted front pages from 2006 with the ones in recent weeks. The piece highlights the extraordinary shift in tone in many parts of the Australian media.

The shift extends to the language used to describe the two. For a very long time, they were referred to as “kingpins”. Sukumaran was known as the “enforcer”. The coverage was a sore point in artist Ben Quilty’s public farewell to the duo yesterday.

“I hope that in the future, in this country, no young man is victimised by the media the way Myu and Andrew were,” he wrote on Facebook. Others have made similar references to the early coverage.

In a 2010 Dateline interview with the two, the men joked about the way they had been covered.

“I did three months of training, and I became a martial arts expert,” Sukumaran said.

Chan said: “Here I am living with my parents … how many ‘Godfathers’ do you know living with their parents? I probably have a few thousand in savings and things. Had a car, had a bike. That’s about it.”

Sukumaran’s sister Brintha said: “The media was pretty much telling everyone who he was, and they’re so loud that whatever we said meant nothing. I felt like people have already judged Myuran and made a judgment about our family.”

But by the men’s execution in the early hours of this morning, no media outlet was anything but highly sympathetic to their plight. The Courier-Mail depicted the Indonesia President with blood on his hands. Their families’ desperate pleas for mercy received blanket coverage.

In the “I stand for mercy” campaign, many of Australia’s leading artists, media figures and entertainers, from Alan Jones to Germaine Greer, pleaded for mercy to be shown to Sukumaran and Chan. The shift has been slow, but extraordinary.

Guardian Australia features editor Brigid Delaney, a co-founder of the Mercy Campaign, which for the past four years fought for clemency for the two men, says there was a concentrated effort to get the media interested in Chan and Sukumaran beyond the stereotype that had been crafted for them in the early days.

“They had been labelled in the media … and I suspected there might be an element of racism involved. They didn’t necessarily look like most Australians … and we felt there might be an uphill battle to get people to sympathise with them,” Delaney said.

“But as soon as I met the families, and the guys, I felt they were so hilarious, and so warm, and wonderful, that I felt part of the story was getting people to get to know them. And that’s something that the media can help with. When that happened — when that sense of their story being told and their characters being known — no one thought they were saints, but people got beyond the stereotypes. And that changed things.”

She adds that over time, many Australian reporters based in Indonesia got to know the men and their families, and that began to come through in the reporting.

“Anything you read by [Fairfax Indonesian correspondents] Tom Allard, Michael Bachelard, even Jewel Topsfield, who has only started that round recently, as well as [News Corp Indonesian correspondent] Cindy Wockner, you can feel that there’s a connection to the guys, and the families.”

Australian National University academic Ross Tapsell has recently spent time in Indonesian newsrooms as part of a research project on the Indonesian media.

He says that the duo’s clemency appeals relied on showing Sukumaran and Chan had been rehabilitated. The Australian media picked up this message of rehabilitation, but, unfortunately, it didn’t penetrate into Indonesia.

“I think in many ways, you can understand and explain the change of coverage because of the way the two men changed,” he told Crikey. “The sad thing is that in the Indonesian media, they’re still described as kingpins and drug lords. That story, their families’ story, really wasn’t coming through.”

Other factors could also have played a part. Respected public figures, like Archibald-prize winning artist Ben Quilty, spoke strongly in favour of the two men. Quilty spoke particularly of Sukumaran, who had channeled his time and energy into art. Shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek spoke in parliament early this year of her husband’s rehabilitation after spending time in prison for drug offences.

And in recent months, the Sukumaran and Chan families have also been increasingly vocal in the media, though Delaney says there are problems with this.

“The thing that the media should respect is that the families should have a choice about whether to be public or not,” she said.

“They weren’t the ones who committed the crime. They’ve been made to suffer horribly. I feel uncomfortable in the fact that we need to parade family members so people can feel a connection to the story. The situation was always strong enough to report on, without the spectacle we saw yesterday, of [Sukumaran’s sister] Brintha trying to get through that media pack.”

On the way to see her brother for the last time yesterday, Brintha Sukumaran collapsed, and had to be carried through the media pack to the gates of the prison.

In Australia, the broader public have also embraced Chan and Sukumaran in recent years. Last night on The Drum, former Fairfax Indonesian correspondent (now investigations editor) Bachelard remarked on the change in attitudes he had seen.

“I think the Australian public have been very late to this,” Bachelard said.

“I was in Indonesia writing stories about this, and getting very little traction at all. These were the poor cousins to Schapelle Corby in the popular mind. That very early attitude that some in the media took, that these guys were guilty and were at fault, which was never really very much corrected or reinterpreted once these guys were rehabilitated, that made the argument to get public sympathy for these guys much harder,” he said.

“You’d notice when you wrote a story about the Bali Nine … that people weren’t really engaged, weren’t clicking on it, until the very end.”

At the end, perhaps that was always going to happen. Asked what ultimately drove the greater coverage, Delaney concludes that “sadly, it’s the hangman’s noose, the proximity to death, the sense of the story being very dramatic”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey