In the weeks since Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, the cultural shift in America has been swift. The TV show Cops was pulled off the air after 32 years. Police abolition, once a far-left pipe-dream, is now an argument given a serious run by establishment outlets like The New York Times. And there’s been a seismic change in public opinion, both on Black Lives Matter and attitudes to the police.
But in Australia, where our public discourse so often swims downstream from the United States, sympathetic media outlets have quickly tried to blunt that narrative shift. Since protests around the country drew thousands, and pushed the issue of black deaths in custody back into the spotlight, Australia’s tabloid media has been awash with defensive, pro-police content.
Tabloids say Blue Lives Matter
Just days after protests began to swell across American, footage of police in Sydney aggressively slamming an Indigenous teenager into the ground went viral. The next morning, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller discussed the arrest with 2GB’s Ben Fordham, Alan Jones’ heir to the Sydney talk radio throne.
Both Fordham and Fuller pointed out that the boy had used bad language toward the officer.
“I would imagine there’s people who would say ‘well you can’t just go around swearing at police and threatening them either’,” Fuller said.
Fordham would continue to return to the trope of police officers under siege in coming weeks. Stories about attacks on police officers get a run nearly every day. There was a call from a distraught father, who said his police officer son felt “victimised” by the protests and the sharp criticism of cops. This morning, Fordham began the week with Fuller again, with the pair linking the protests around the world with a rise in attacks on cops in Australia, and calling for mandatory minimum sentences for violence against police.
But the pro-police narrative was prosecuted most aggressively in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph. A front page on June 11, which called for an end to violence against police, urged readers to “stand up for cops”.
In the accompanying story, Fuller warned against a rise in anti-police sentiment following the protests.
In another piece about an attack on an officer days later, the Tele credited it’s “stand up for cops campaign” with influencing the state government’s decision to commence a parliamentary inquiry into violence against police.
Other News Corp tabloids took up the narrative with zeal.
Last week, News kicked off its web series “The Night Watch”, which highlights the after-dark exploits of police and other emergency workers, described in breathless tones as Australia’s “every night heroes”. The series has been aggressively promoted on websites, front pages, and social media channels.
Why shifting the discourse matters
For many people, pro-police narratives are comforting. But according to University of Technology Sydney law professor Thalia Anthony, the way tabloid newspapers and shock jocks so often try to characterise police as victims can muddy the waters, and make it harder to have an honest conversation about Indigenous deaths in custody.
“The media response has been like that for decades — it’s really uninformed, and it’s really reactionary,” Anthony says.
“The focus on violence against police redirects us from seeing Aboriginal people as victims to seeing cops as victims. The plight of Indigenous people becomes overshadowed and dwarfed by the plight of the police.”
But there are longer-term structural forces that shape police coverage in the media that go well beyond News Corp and talk radio. University of Sydney criminology professor Murray Lee says most of the information published in newspapers on policing, justice and crime comes from police media units, with a clear agenda.
“You’ve got a lot of resources in state police organisations that are there working on the police image, curating, creating and compiling stories for the mainstream media.”
And as newsrooms continue to shrink, Lee suggests it’s far easier for journalists to simply fall back on a pre-written police press release.
Anthony also suggests Australia’s media “oligopoly” makes its harder for diverse, critical voices on police culture to cut through.
“It’s not sufficient to have the media run by so few people, especially when their interests align with the powerful.”
All up, cops get an overwhelmingly sympathetic run in the press, even though, as Lee points out, many individual officers feel the media treats them unfairly.
That coverage also seems to have helped cement perceptions around systemic racism and police brutality in Australia. A recent poll found that most Australians think there’s institutionalised racism in American police forces, but not back home.