FEAR SELLS, FOR SOME! But it costs for most

MELBOURNE: The sexually motivated murder of young Palestinian student Aya Maasarwe last month took the media to some strange places. Gary Johnston takes a look at how race and perspective shapes crime reporting.

There were 53 female victims of homicide recorded in Victoria in 2018. More than one a week. Fifty-three mothers, sisters, daughters, friends. Fifty-three too many.

The majority of these women were murdered as a result of what is known as family violence, meaning the perpetrators were related to their victims, in most cases as domestic partners, past or present.

Random killings, where the offender is unknown to the victim, is far less common.

Invariably however, random female murder results in much bigger media headlines, since the horror and fearfulness associated with stranger danger is journalistic catnip to editors and news room chiefs alike.

It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. Fear sells.

Such was the case in Melbourne last month, following the horrific murder of international student Aya Maasarwe, slain as she alighted from a tram by, it would seem, a man she didn’t know. Of course it is awful. Of course, it is news. But numerous aspects regarding the reporting of this and other recent crimes have shown how Australia’s mainstream media outlets have manipulated narratives in order to create maximum fear, maximum public invective and, by association, maximum political and financial profit.

To recap: For some years now, Melbourne redtop Herald Sun has been running a sustained campaign, backed by nothing other than prejudice, about the villainous activity of so-called African gangs.

If the News Corp rag is to be believed, the denizens of the world’s most liveable city are in constant fear for their lives with youths from Somalia and South Sudan running riot with apparent impunity. It is, they claim, a crisis of near civil war proportions, and much of their readership is buying it, hook, line and sinker. It is, frankly, a lie.

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There is virtually no evidence to support the claim; even Victoria Police has utterly rejected it, but the idea – the fantasy – the lie – has gained traction, with the tacit support of certain Conservative politicians, to the point where it is now, as they say, a thing.

It’s not just the print media. Television networks like Nine and Seven, no stranger to fabrication, have also got in on the act, sensing the potential in making capital with those who believe news is another word for implication.

‘Reporting’ on a crash in Melbourne’s outer-east, Channel Nine’s Christine Ahern unsubtly racially-profiled the occupants of one vehicle in the incident (…”youths of African appearance” of course) whilst pointedly failing to use a similar style of identification / vilification when it came to the other party involved in the incident.

FEAR SELLS, FOR SOME! But it costs for most

This and numerous other examples of unnecessary and highly inflammatory emphasis on racial characteristics is becoming more and more prevalent in Australian media.

It’s sustained and deliberate – by blaming and castigating people from ethic minorities, the true issue can be ignored, whilst the fear factor is ramped up to extraordinary, near frenzied, levels. And fear is the most important thing Because fear sells. It’s crude, it’s immoral, it’s blatant and it’s happening.

Which brings us back to the tragic murder of Aya Maasarwe.

Ms Maasarwe was a Palestinian Arab of Israeli citizenship, a Muslim woman. It was a fact that appears to have initially been written out of her story entirely, the media preferring to identify her as simply coming from Israel, or at best an Arab-Israeli.

Presumably as it better suited the right-wing narrative and the continuing erasure of Palestine in favour of Israel in much Western discourse.

It took the consistent pleading of young journalists from Palestinian and Arab backgrounds for the media to finally do some of the basics right.

Similarly, the identity and racial profile of the accused perpetrator was immediately revealed on his arrest. Firstly through the Herald Sun using a photograph which blanked out his eyes whilst still clearly showing the colour of his skin.

Hours later this was trumped by online scandal-sheet Daily Mail publishing an unblemished picture of the accused in police custody, a practice which, for obvious reasons, has previously been regarded as prejudicial and unnecessary.

FEAR SELLS, FOR SOME! But it costs for most
The original image of Codey Herman was given the least amount of censoring and first appeared in the Herald Sun before the Daily Mail rushed to publish a full picture of the alleged murderer (Image: Herald Sun)

Since then, all other media outlets have joined in. Would if it happened had he not been non-white? Answers on a postcard, please.

Predictably, this clear example of race-tagging has had the effect of inspiring even more fear and panic amongst Australia’s not so silent majority, with the associated recriminations and prejudices neither assisting in the ongoing violence against women debate, or respecting the privacy of Aya Maasarwe and her family.

Plainly, this was a vicious, unacceptable crime.

And equally clearly, every crime of violence, is one too many.

However, if the #MeToo movement has taught us anything at all, it is the fact that many men – a substantial proportion of whom are in positions of some influence – are threatened by the implication of blame, a responsibility that they want to reapportion.

And who better to blame than those who can easily be identified by their skin tone rather than their genitals? Crime, violence and violence against women in particular, is not a racial issue. But it is a gender issue. It truly is, a thing.

The state of Victoria spends an average of $131,430 per prison inmate, per year. It is the 4th highest such spend in the world. IN THE WORLD.

FEAR SELLS, FOR SOME! But it costs for most

And yet, re-offending rates are high, a huge amount of prisoners return to jail within two years, a fact prison insiders are convinced is due to funds being spent almost entirely on wages and security, rather than education and rehabilitative programs for those locked up.

Jails are effective places for violent, dangerous criminals, who impinge on the safety of the community. No sensible person believes otherwise. But many offenders progress toward violence. Many are initially incarcerated for non-violent crime, many only graduate toward brutality after being inculcated in it through a jail system based on regimented ferocity and imperviousness.

Violence, like anger is a secondary emotion, evolved from frustration, low self-esteem, poor cognition, amorality and boredom, all factors which are exacerbated, rather than addressed, in the current jail setting.

For the media, being tough on crime, locking people up, is a power play which as well as selling product, is strengthened immeasurably by community fear. But locking up, doesn’t work. And it costs. Hugely. Not only financially, but far, far more importantly, through the loss of the lives of women like Aya Maasarwe and, last year, 53 tragic others.

We simply cannot go on this way. It must change. But, we ask, when?

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About Gary Johnston 35 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

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