“What do we have to do to get on TV?” ABC radio host Jon Faine reported on Monday that this question was posed by young friends of a recent mugging victim to media crews loitering at Wyndham Vale railway station in Melbourne’s western fringe.

Faine claimed two sources had reported a TV camera operator responding to the men, although reportedly in jest, “Well I guess if you came back with baseball bats, that would pretty much do it”.

The youth obliged.

The Australian and Herald Sun ran dramatic photographs of young people “of Caucasian appearance” wielding baseball bats as they prowled the station, at one stage confronting an unarmed young African-Australian boy and his friends. The teens were there to confront youth “of African appearance”, ostensibly in retaliation for the mugging incident in the days prior. We know this because the Herald Sun interviewed one of the boys, 17-year-old Tremayne, who said the bats were being brandished as a “precaution”.

The Herald Sun adamantly denies it had prior knowledge the vigilante teens would be at the railway station; its journalists happened to be there taking photos of the mugging victims and one of their fathers when the boys showed up.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman has confirmed that, following reports of the baseball bat incident, a 17-year-old from Wyndham Vale has received a police caution.

Wondering why there was blanket coverage of an outer suburban mugging in the first place? The alleged perpetrators — one since arrested and charged — were “of African appearance”.

White ‘vigilantes’ and black ‘criminals’

This is not the first time media has left its sticky fingerprints over coverage of African-Australian youth while obscuring its direct role in sparking conflict.

Last year the Daily Mail earned the ire of Victoria Police for triggering what the publication described as “the latest gang flare-up”, failing to mention aggressive behaviour by its own photographer had provoked a group of teenagers socialising at the shopping centre.

A few weeks later, police raided two properties in Melbourne’s east following the airing of an A Current Affair segment on a motley vigilante posse shown brandishing deadly weapons such as a compound bow and nunchucks. The members claim they were set up and had been misrepresented by ACA. One of the men was put before the courts and handed a 12-month good behaviour bond on a charge of possessing illegal weapons after displaying his nunchuck prowess.

Media reporting around planned or actual vigilante action tends to span a spectrum from bemused to sympathetic. A scene is typically set: a society in which police and the state have failed to stem the tide of lawless thuggery by invading hordes of third-world barbarians. Vigilante activity is drawn as an example of “people power” and an inevitable response to an accepted crisis.

Channel Seven last year framed a meeting by far-right extremists including convicted arsonist Blair Cottrell as action against an “immigrant crime crisis”. The report failed to mention Cottrell’s criminal history, noting only that “they’re hoping to create a kind of neighbourhood watch”.

Race-based vigilantism in Australia is as old as white settlement. Indigenous communities have long lived with the ever-present threat of direct, lawless retribution for perceived incursions, slights, retaliations or simply existing. Amidst this, the media has often stood as more than witness. Fear is always a key ingredient. Escalation is also central to the narrative: tensions are flaring, rival groups are at a flashpoint, crime is spiraling out control. Race and ethnicity are almost always highlighted as a trigger point. Each new wave of migration has triggered its own peremptory justice in retaliation for perceived “ethnic crimes”.

In 2017, News Corp reported a Melbourne man “starting a vigilante group to ‘take back our streets’ from ethnic street gangs that are terrorising locals”. We were introduced to Hayden Bradford, who believes “police and the justice system are not to doing enough to protect Victorians”. Rarely are such claims cross-checked against anything as prosaic as, say, crime statistics that would show steady declines in overall crime rates across the state.

Vigilante violence

Vigilantism is far from being a uniquely Victorian issue. Baseball bat vigilante revenge attacks have occurred in Perth. A “paramilitary” force was assembled in Alice Springs, modeled on the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in Northern Ireland — classified as a terrorist organisation in Britain, Ireland and the US.

The Alice Springs Volunteer Force sought to recruit residents with “firearms experience” and was clearly targeting Aboriginal youth in the central Australian town. In 2015 we were told about the “unacceptable” crime rate and the inability of the police to do anything about it. Extrajudicial “justice” was indeed meted out to two local boys two years later.

Mainstream media was of course right in the thick of one of Australia’s most high-profile vigilante outbreaks. As Sydney entered the summer of 2005, 2GB shock jock Alan Jones was in full fervour over the need for “a community show of force” at North Cronulla Beach. “I’m the person that’s led this charge here,” he noted days before the race riots that shook the beachside suburbs.

Showing little regard for the calls for calm coming from authorities and cooler heads, Jones read to air the text message that had already been shared thousands of times, in the days before Facebook stepped into the breach: “Come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge. This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and wog bashing day…”

Jones spent the best part of the week whipping up anti-Middle Eastern sentiment and a vigilante vibe; he aired callers suggesting you “shoot one, the rest will run”. The New South Wales Administrative Decisions Tribunal found Jones “incited hatred, serious contempt and severe ridicule” of Lebanese Muslims when he described them as “vermin” who “rape and pillage a nation that’s taken them in”.

Much of the debate around last week’s Wyndham Vale vigilantes has revolved around whether or not media was tipped off that they would be at the station. Whether or not this was the case, it does little more than distract us from the bigger problem.

What do you think of the media’s coverage of “vigilantes”? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name.

Peter Fray

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