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Apr 14, 2016

In Lebanon, 60 Minutes was creating a racist fiction for senior xenophobes

The likelihood that 60 Minutes took all of this cynical risk to reward some pretty low audience impulses.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

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.

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22 thoughts on “In Lebanon, 60 Minutes was creating a racist fiction for senior xenophobes

  1. James O'Neill

    Helen, there are a number of disturbing features about the reporting of this case, in addition to the factors you mention. This morning SMH for example, carried a lengthy article that consisted almost entirely of quotes from an anonymous friend of Ms Faulkner. It is difficult to conceive of a less objective piece of reporting.
    Secondly, none of the Australian media appear, to my knowledge, to have made any attempt whatsoever to ask the father for his version of events. He is persistently portrayed, either impliedly or explicitly, as having taken the children on holiday and then refused to return them. In my experience of such cases over 30+ years in the Family Court it is very rarely as simple as that. Why not simply ask him for his version? It is not as if he is unreachable.
    Thirdly, the Lebanese Court quickly returned the children to the father. They were presumably satisfied that he had lawful custody of them and that it was in the children’s best interests to be so returned. Any suggestion (and there have been a lot) that Lebanese Courts are somehow less equipped or biased in one direction simply betrays the inherent racism that lies at the root of much of the reporting.
    Fourthly, why are so few of our media willing to call this for what it was; a blatant breach of a number of laws (as it would be in Australia), some of which carry heavy penalties.
    Ms Faulkner was worse than naive. she was a willing party to criminal conduct, as were, it seems, 60 Minutes. They may well find that the cost of such unlawful conduct is more than financial.

  2. Maureen Boller

    I’m 61. Yet to commence indulging in racist fantasies. Keeping an eye out though.

  3. aliso6

    I’m 68, never watch trash, i.e. current affairs programmes on Australian TV.

  4. paddy

    Excellent piece Helen. It would be interesting to know just who from the Nine network actually authorized this car crash.
    Who signed the cheque and which execs agreed to the deal.
    The crew in Beirut are now subject to Lebanese law.
    The Nine execs are still subject to the Oz legal system.
    Have they broken any Oz laws?
    Any Crikey legal eagle readers care to comment.
    (Taking care not to overstep the legal boundaries of course.)

  5. old greybearded one

    In the 1980s I had occasion to interact with both 7.30 report and 60 Minutes. I found 7.30 to be quick, well researched and respectful. I found 60 Minutes attitude extremely exploitative in their views and to have no regard for how the subject might feel afterwards (in this case a handicapped person). Never watched it since.

  6. James O'Neill

    Paddy, re your question in 2nd to last line. Difficult to reach a definitive view at this stage as there is a paucity of information. To no-one’s surprise 60 Minutes are not answering questions. On the basis of what we do know however, there is sufficient to warrant a criminal investigation.

  7. AR

    Succinct, mordant and well put, congratulations to MzRaz for eschewing her usual prolix verbosity.

  8. Helen Razer

    Hey, 60+ Crikelets. I am genuinely sorry if you felt that there was some ageism in this piece. Honestly, all my favourite thinkers are over 60 and I did not mean to imply that persons over 60 are uniformly orientalist. However, I do think there is a reasonable claim to be made that the particular orientalism that 60 Minutes appeared to be going for with this “story” has more appeal to older Australians generally.
    I don’t want to be that tedious guy who says “Young people are great and so much more tolerant”. They’re not. They just have a different set of biases, which is why I mentioned The Project (a shorthand method for explaining all of this generation-specific prejudice in the piece, which would if properly addressed, have added another 100 words and made that guy who always comments about my word count excited).
    I just wanted to make the point that there was all this risky fuss for the reward of a niche market. And I truly do have great respect for those born in the post-war period whose activism in the ’70s is far braver, more considered and funnier than anything this bunch of Millennials is currently claiming that it does so well on jolly Facebook.

  9. Helen Razer

    Hey, James. I would say that the matter of Faulkner’s culpability is not the point. It seems, in my reading of events, that she is an especially vulnerable person.
    But, who wouldn’t be, right? The only thing in Overington’s piece that was correct is the claim that most people behave in a reckless way when they have no access to their kids. Even if she was a person who intended to behave reprehensibly (and I don’t think she was, her original gofundme page to whose archive I have linked in the piece says that she is looking for money for a legal challenge, which several academics have told local agencies would have been the correct and likely most rewarding step, despite all these people banging on about The Hague Convention; actually Elliot reports about the agreements in place between AU and Lebanon) this is not the point. She was only permitted to behave reprehensibly by 60 Minutes, if allegations are true.
    I would also say that most media agencies are reporting this with a great sense of frustration and embarrassment that their peers could have behaved, if they did, in such an unethical manner.
    I really get the sense that many people see the production as an old-fashioned act of xenophobia. I am not inclined to hope, but I really see and hear a lot of people tsking abut this.