lock out laws lockouts keep sydney open
A 2016 protest against Sydney lockout laws (Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

It’s unlikely that Sydney’s controversial lockout laws would have been implemented without major newspaper campaigns to change state legislation.

Now, with the laws to soon undergo a parliamentary review — a measure announced this week by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian — it’s worth looking at how media coverage shaped public policy to such an extraordinary extent.

How it all began

In July 2012, teenager Thomas Kelly was killed after a one-punch attack while walking in Kings Cross with his girlfriend. He died from head injuries after hitting the ground.

Ten days after his death, the Sydney Morning Herald hosted a public forum titled Safer Sydney at Town Hall. Hundreds of people attended with their concerns about the Kings Cross club district.

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In the period after Kelly’s death, before the lockout laws were introduced in 2014, a 10-point plan proposed by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education was put forward to the Barry O’Farrell government, which included a 1am lockout.

It was only until the attack of 18-year-old Daniel Christie on New Year’s Eve in Kings Cross two years later that media campaigns to change the laws blew up. The weeks of media campaigning and coverage after Christie’s death — which was deemed by some as hysterical and misrepresentative — culminated in O’Farrell introducing the Sydney lockout laws the same month.

What did the media campaign look like?

Sydney’s two most prominent newspapers, the SMH and The Daily Telegraph, are rivals and fierce competitors, but they both stood firmly on the same side when it came to campaigning the state government to bring on lockout laws.

Throughout January 2014, the SMH revived its Safer Sydney campaignThe Daily Telegraph also launched a campaign titled “Enough” — calling on the state government to introduce tougher laws to reduce alcohol-related violence. The Telegraph surveyed its readers about potential tougher laws, which they overwhelmingly supported, and ran a front-page story with the headline “Lock these grubs up”. “Our readers tell Premier what they want done with one-punch criminals,” the story read.

The Telegraph reported that 86% of 2100 readers surveyed wanted a 1am lockout plan for drinking venues and 89% wanted pubs and clubs to stop serving alcohol at least 30 minutes before closure. Additionally, 76% wanted parliament “recalled early” to pass new laws.

The SMH also spruiked an ad challenge, calling on readers to send in video entries in order to be in the running for $2500. The paper was looking for some kind of equivalent to the “pinkie” campaign against dangerous driving, but about alcohol-related violence.

The laws forced the locking out of new customers from Sydney CBD pubs and clubs from 1.30am, and also ended the selling of alcohol on premises by 3am. These restrictions have since been relaxed for some live entertainment venues, allowing lockout at 2am. A mandatory sentence of a minimum eight years also applied to perpetrators of fatal “king hit” attacks who were affected by alcohol and drugs.

Though there were other contributors to making the laws happen — like a petition run by Kelly’s parents which received 140,000 signatures — none seemed to be as powerful as the media campaigns. And the media knew it.

Did the newspapers get it right?

The Telegraph took credit for the lockout laws, publishing a story titled “The Daily Telegraph stops the punches: massive drop in violent assaults since lockout laws”.

The paper quoted Newspaper Works chairman Michael Miller praising their campaign.“The campaign run by the Telegraph contributed to the drop and played an influencing role in changing the laws,” Miller said.

And, while statistics did show less violence following the lockout laws, there was already a decrease in violent crimes in the years before the laws were introduced. Sydney, in fact, had its least violent year since 1998 when online records began. (Although it’s worth noting the two violent crimes that were on the rise were domestic violence and sexual assault.)

The price of that, however, has been paid for by music venues and Sydneysiders. The National Live Music Office shared statistics in 2016 citing a 40% drop in live performance revenue at venues within the Sydney CBD lockout. The figures also showed a 19% drop in attendance of nightclubs and dance venues. 

Since then there has been mounting pressure on the NSW government to repeal the laws, or at least relax them. This has been headed by the protest movement turned political party Keep Sydney Open, but has broad support from sections of the media too.

With the review of the five-year-old laws now on its way, will we see the same media organisations turn on their heels?