In the very unlikely case you’ve not yet heard of the possibly illegal and almost certainly irrational actions of an Australian TV news crew in Beirut, know that the rest of the world now has. Today, The Washington Post and other outlets retell the sorry allegations of the current affairs program so hard up for a hard-hitting story, it might have paid people to hit a nanna.
CCTV captured the abduction of two children currently in the legal custody of their father, Ali el-Amien, the former partner of an Australian citizen who is now a resident of Lebanon. It shows the possible assault of the children’s paternal grandmother, from whom they were taken by Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI), an organisation Lebanese authorities say was engaged by Nine’s 60 Minutes, and one not very widely admired.
Like all stories about custody disputes, this is a sad one. And not least because at its centre is a mother, Sally Faulkner, who seems a vulnerable sort. Faulkner, reportedly penniless, had initially sought donations toward the delivery of her children to Australia via a crowdfunding page. It is possible that 60 Minutes offered this naive and telegenic woman the funds she found she could not raise. It is possible that 60 Minutes placed this naive and telegenic woman in the most telegenic scenario it could cynically create. There was, it seems, no recourse by 60 Minutes to Lebanese legal processes or to more reputable child recovery agencies before heading straight to this Not Without My Daughter plot point.
This woman seems as unworldly as she is, understandably, desperate. In a recent series of text messages obtained by Fairfax, Faulkner asks an Australian associate if he thinks it might be a good idea for her to escape arrest in Lebanon by means of Syria. He tells her about Islamic State but leaves out the news about airstrikes.
There are few who could not feel for Faulkner. There are few who do not. Lebanese press and courts are treating her with consideration, and she has received no great criticism back home. An absence of attack didn’t stop Caroline Overington's purple defence in The Australian. She asks, “What would you do if somebody took your children and you couldn’t get them back?”. Well, Caroline, I’d probably go so gaga that I’d consider running naked through the battlefields of the Levante. Not the point, is it?
The point is the likelihood that 60 Minutes took all of this cynical risk to reward some pretty low audience impulses. And some fairly dwindling ones, too. Faulkner’s everyday heartbreak notwithstanding, this stinks of an orientalism so old, it’s not even going to tickle the racist fantasies of Australians under 60.
If the 60 Minutes crew hadn’t gone and got themselves arrested, then their footage of a crime in which they might have been complicit would not be currently serving international press and Lebanese justice. Instead, it would be serving a shrinking audience.
With the exception of Overington and a handful of others, there has been great local revulsion for the shopworn mistrust of the brown man we just know we would have seen in this story. In the Herald Sun, of all places, we find some first-rate rage by Elise Elliott. Unlike Overington, Elliot has no truck with the view of 60 Minutes as a humanitarian agent. She says the entire thing was “mired in self-righteousness”.
In my reading of local discussion, this seems to be the prevalent view. Thank goodness.
It seems unlikely that this Not Without My Daughter reboot would have become the “big story” about which one of its subjects had previously bragged to the ABC. Rather, it would’ve been another moment of orientalist make-believe tailored to the Paul Sheehan fan club.
Like so much content offered by TV current affairs, this one was hardly intended as report. The story of a pretty white woman threatened by a Middle Eastern man was intended chiefly to vitalise the dread of a particular demographic. You can depend on 60 Minutes to flatter the fear of the senior xenophobe just as surely as you can depend on The Project to remind its young audience that old people, like, just don’t understand.
This stuff isn’t news; it’s niche-bias with a soundtrack.
In the case of 60 Minutes, it also may be, pending the decision of an investigating judge in Beirut, criminal. We can all, if we are not Caroline Overington, agree that it was unethical.
And, perhaps some of us are just bored with orientalism.
Stories of evil Arab men corrupting women have been with us for a while. From Mozart to Norma Khouri to Dennis Jensen, we’ve heard dreadful morality tales on the topic of the oriental man.
If there’s any good to come at all out of this 60 Minutes fiasco, it is perhaps the evidence that we Australians have finally had our fill of this particular racist fiction.