Category Archives: Opinion & Letters

Offence is no defence

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Ada Lee had an emotional Facebook conversation with the self-professed ‘soldiers’ of the Australian Defence League.

“Fuck anyone who defends Islam. They don’t deserve life, to defend those who align themselves with a death cult that has snatched life and joy and basic human rights away.”

It’s a hate-filled message, wrapped in the proclamation of defending human rights. This is one of the last things the Australian Defence League soldiers (ADL Soldiers) say in our Facebook conversation.

Inspired by the English Defence League and set up in early 2010, the ADL is a loosely defined group of extreme, anti-Islam advocates in Australia, best known for their provocative presence on social media. A quick Facebook search uncovers dozens of different pages, with different location bases and sometimes, different leaders.

ADL Soldiers was created to be a “more hard-hitting… information page”, according to Ralph Cerminara, page admin and President of the ADL. With almost 3000 followers, the ADL Soldiers page features videos of ISIS atrocities, declarations of war against Islam, Andrew Bolt reports, and defensive words about why they are not racist or bigoted despite what “loonie left wing mates” might say.

Our Facebook interactions are tumultuous, as multiple ADL members reply from the same account. At times, it feels like tiptoeing around an angry and volatile child, one that could snap
in an instant.

At one point, Cerminara reassures me that he hates racism and loves Asian people (“I am married to an Asian girl”). But when I ask if the ADL identifies as neo-Nazi, another user takes the reins and tells me his war veteran grandfather would shoot me if I asked him the same question.

They emphasise that they are not condemning a race but rather, an ideology they perceive as “a religion of war, of deception and slavery, of sexism, of paedophilia”. In organising a Sydney meeting, they remind followers that the ADL welcomes people “from all racial groups and from all religions excepting the death cult of Islam”.

As we have seen in the rising spate of Islamophobic attacks against Muslim women and mosques, more and more Australians are using the atrocities of Muslim extremists to define and justify punishment against all Muslims. For ADL Soldiers, there is no such thing as the moderate Muslim.

The group insists they “have never attacked anyone,” yet they do not condemn those who do. “If people verbally abuse people then that’s them, they are sick to death of islamists raping young girls, planning to blow up people at the AFL grand final, Sharia law, marrying underage girls, it goes on and on,” Cerminara says.

Just last month, Cerminara posted a video on YouTube (now deleted) threatening, “another Cronulla is coming, and I can’t wait until it does, because this time, we’re going to show you who’s boss”. He posted it after five Muslim men allegedly attacked him in Lakemba because he was taking photos of women in niqabs and posting them online.

Cerminara frames the 2005 Cronulla Riots using the discourse of war, emphasising the gang rapes and attacks on lifeguards that preceded it. “All wars have civilian casualties…Aussies had enough,” he says. “Bad thing like any war is there were acts that were not called for, but that’s war, and when a foreign body comes to your country and rapes your women, tries to blow up your buildings and more, we are at war.”

Maybe we are at war. When the West invades the Middle-East, when we hear endless stories of women in hijabs and niqabs being harassed on the streets, when we see images of 5000 flag-wavers attacking people of Middle-Eastern descent in Cronulla, it breeds the perfect climate for people from either side to recede further and further into the shadows of extremism, polarised and marginalised from the demonised Other.

At the end of the Facebook thread, there is a battle among page admins arguing whether to stop speaking to me. The words reek of paranoia, insularity and intolerance of criticism.

“Fuck anyone who defends Islam … We will never stop. We will never stop learning about this death cult.”

Published in Honi Soit, 21 October 2014.

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Not your Asian fetish

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“I’ve always had a thing for Asian women,” a British man writes to me on Tinder.

“I’ve always dreamed of sleeping with an Asian woman – will you be my first?” a French guy writes.

On Tinder, and life generally, any woman is bound to be subject to feeble sexual propositions. But these racialised gems tend to be saved for women from minority groups. There is nothing more empowering than knowing someone is attracted to you because of your race. As I told the second guy, it is every girl’s dream to be objectified and fetishised for her race.

Not.

Online dating studies of heterosexual interactions have found Asian women are one of the most popular groups – while Black women tend to rank the lowest. Conversely, White men are the most popular group among women, while Asian men rank the lowest. It’s easy to simplify these findings to mere physical preferences. After all, you can’t help who you’re attracted to.

But, after watching a cringe-inducing episode of SBS Insight, I’ve started to realise that our preferences are often shaped by power dynamics and gender stereotypes.

It’s not uncommon to hear of the middle-aged Aussie bloke who travels to Bali or Thailand to find a (significantly younger) wife. John Carroll sits in the SBS Insight studio with his Filipino wife, explaining why he prefers Asian women: they’re “very attentive,” he coos.  “One of the stereotypes is Asian women treat Western men better than a white woman. Yes, I believe that to be true,” he says. Thanks for the seal of approval pal.

He’s not the only one. At an Asian women speed-dating event, one guy admires how “Asian women definitely look after the partner.” Australian expats in Bali with Indonesian wives tell The Australian how, “Asian women treat men like men.” One 44 year-old explains the difficulties of dating Western women: “It’s because of the independence, the nagging – they’re high maintenance. It’s much easier with an Asian girl”.

According to sociology expert, Jennifer Lundquist, there is a desire among some Western men to find women who come from more family traditional cultures and who subscribe to more conservative gender roles.

The attitudes of these men reflect Patriarchal assumptions that Asian women are domestic and docile. But don’t worry, John Carroll is here to defend us from the misguided stereotype. Peering over at his wife with a fawning grin, he says, “as far as Asian women being docile, I’m sorry to disappoint you but they’re not docile, they’re definitely not.” I’d rather not imagine what he means by this.

In the arena of stereotypes, the Western conception of ‘Tarzan masculinity’ is defeating quiet Asian masculinity while docile Asian femininity is winning against loud Black femininity.

I’m not saying every guy who’s dating an Asian girl has some Patriarchal complex. Nor am I saying every guy who’s dating a black girl is looking for his own Beyoncé fantasy. There is nothing wrong with interracial couples or being attracted to certain attributes. But there is a fine line between appreciating difference and fetishising someone for their race.

Most of us aren’t from a generation where the fantastical ‘Other’ exists only on some remote, exotic island. More than ever, we have grown up alongside different cultures and from this, we’ve learnt to respect and embrace diversity. Still, it remains important that we question the historical power dynamics and gender stereotypes that shape our attraction towards some and our exclusion of others.

Published in Honi Soit, 7 October 2014.

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The problem with small town racism

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On the Easter long weekend, I took a trip with my family to a place three hours down the coast from Sydney. The water was crystal blue, the white sands were beautiful and live music filled the town street at night.

But something tainted my escape from the city: small town racism. It wasn’t from everybody, and it wasn’t necessarily vicious, but it was there.

On Saturday night, we were walking back from dinner when six teenagers walked past. The only boy in the group started waving profusely, and with wide eyes said “good morning”. I smiled at them, and my sister replied “good morning?”

It was night time.

It seemed pretty innocent until I heard one of the girls say to the boy: “oh, they speak English!” They then all walked off giggling. Sorry to shatter your small-minded stereotype of Asian people.

I don’t know whether they thought it was wrong or even racist, but it does touch on issues regarding the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. The reality is that it can be difficult for the dominant race to identify when something is racist, which is what makes the proposed subsection (3) so problematic.

The subsection states that whether an act is reasonably likely to vilify or intimidate is “to be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community. In other words, not by the ethnic group being vilified.

The question is who is the ordinary Australian? If ‘ordinary’ means the norm, and the norm is white people, then we could have a problem, writes Waleed Aly. “Plenty of white people (even ordinary reasonable ones) are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn’t find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call,” he says.

I don’t think the small town boy’s remarks warrant legal punishment under the Act. Even though I was offended, I think, to an extent, people should have the right to say stupid things. But there must be a limit. The idea that the market will automatically self-correct itself and oppose racists is flawed because it overestimates Australia’s tolerance and underestimates entrenched inequalities within the system.

To me, my coastal weekend experience indicated a deeper entrenched racism that has the potential to manifest into the humiliation, vilification and intimidation of people because of their race. This potential is especially ripe if the standard of racism is to be determined collectively by people who have not experienced it. And I’m not just talking about white Australians. An Asian may struggle to understand how racism affects Aboriginal people. Likewise, a person with a Middle Eastern background may have different experiences to a European.

Most of all, it’s the victim’s voice that matters.

As a person with Malaysian-Chinese heritage that was born and raised in Australia, this is not the first time I’ve been faced with racial slurs. But I must say it hasn’t happened in a while and I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t terrifying or extreme. I didn’t fear for my life. But these nuances of the small town frustrated me. It made me wonder for the Chinese kid growing up in a rural school or for the Korean tourists who are mocked behind their backs. It certainly made me realise Australia isn’t the multicultural nirvana that I sometimes think it is.

After that incident, I walked the streets hyper aware that I was one of the only Asians in that town.

This is understandable. The town has a population just over 700 people, and according to local statistics more than 80 per cent of them were born in Australia. Only 0.05 percent of its population were born in China (the only Asian country represented) meaning this small town probably doesn’t encounter Asians very often. When they do, it’s most likely to be international Korean and Indian tourists who dress differently, speak loudly in another language and seem to take up a lot of space during tourism season.

Lack of exposure is a problem in Australia, but it’s no excuse. There comes a point where you cannot blame the small town society that shaped you for the wrongs you commit.

Mostly, what they said made me wonder whether I would have been treated worse if I’d turned out to be one of the Korean tourists. If I don’t speak English well, or I don’t share the same cultural norms as the locals, does that make me more fair game to be mocked? I found myself feeling – not for the first time in my life – that I had to prove that I was a westernised Asian, that I was well-spoken in English, that I had the Aussie accent, that I dressed like an Aussie and that I was from Sydney.

Even growing up, I remember how the few Asians that did appear on TV were usually ridiculed stereotypes, like this guy:

Flynn on Australian Idol was so popular he go invited to sing in the grand finale. But, if we’re being really honest, we weren’t laughing with him. We were laughing at him. Only in hindsight have I realised how depictions like these influenced my perception of my own ethnicity. The message from both the small town teens and Australian Idol was this: Asians are people with funny accents who are oblivious to how silly they look.

The cultural implication that my ethnic roots are inferior or sillier than Western culture is, quite frankly, offensive. The implication that I need to disassociate from my heritage in order to be cool or accepted, I find offensive. When I was a kid, I was more inclined to believe them. Now I know better. Cultural diversity is to be celebrated not mocked, and no one should be made to feel like they are worth less because of their race.

Published in Hijacked, 24 April 2014.

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Modern day thought police

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“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” – George Orwell.

You sit at your dusty desk at the Ministry of Truth, where your job is to alter historical records in favour of the Party. The Ministry is currently implementing a new language called Newspeak where certain words are deleted from the dictionary.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all. Wherever you go, Big Brother is watching through telescreens. Wherever you go, there is the irrepressible murmur of political propaganda in the airwaves. The outside world is your enemy. Food is scarce. The torture of dissidents is rife.

Everything is great. Because that is what they tell you and this is all you know.

“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

It sounds like a fictional story because it is. This is the world of George Orwell’s 1984. But it is also harrowingly similar to the world of today’s North Korea.

“I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate’s mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the neighbourhood,”writes Yeonmi Park, a young woman who escaped North Korea.

In Nazi Germany, it was the Gestapo. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the thinkpol. And now, the mental and physical repression of the masses in North Korea is nothing short of a modern day thought-policing system. Both the past and the fiction exist in today’s reality.

For the first 15 years of her life, Yeonmi Park grew up in North Korea literally believing Kim Jong-il was an omniscient god. “I never doubted it because I didn’t know anything else. I could not even imagine life outside of the regime.” Earlier this month, she appeared on SBS Insight to share the harrowing reality of the North Korean regime.

“It was like living in hell. There were constant power outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation – everyone had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.

“It was not the right conditions for human life, but you couldn’t think about it, let alone complain about it. Even though you were suffering, you had to worship the regime every day.”

When her father, a government worker, was accused of doing something wrong, he was sent to prison for three years. The regime’s policy of generational punishment meant that Park’s entire family was exiled from Pyongyang to the countryside near the Chinese border.

The UN Commission has also heard many testimonies indicating there are currently 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea. Many are systematically starved and instructed to burn dead bodies into fertiliser. Mothers are forced to kill babies that are of ‘impure’ blood.

As a teenager, Park fled the dictatorship, crossing a frozen river and a winter desert to get from North Korea to China to Mongolia and finally, to South Korea. After years of brainwashing, it was difficult for her and her mother to let go of their indoctrination.

“I realised that everything I thought was a lie. I had not been a real person – I was created for the regime to work for them. If they ordered us to die, I would’ve died for them,” she writes. It took Park three years to overcome the brainwashing.

“My mother took longer than me. When Kim Jong-il died she couldn’t believe it…she said, ‘he can’t die because he’s not a human, he’s a God!’”

While Park may have escaped, some of her family and many more North Koreans have not been so lucky. In 2014, it seems unfathomable that this could be a reality for anyone. But it is.

Published in Hijacked, 23 April 2014.

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Why journalists make great pets for corrupt governments

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If the detainment of three Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt has taught us anything, it’s that journalists make great pets for corrupt governments.

For a preview, all you have to do is Google “journalists in cages” and you’ll get plenty of totally non-sickening images of grown men literally caged like animals in a Cairo court room (note: if your search results have been replaced with pictures of your Supreme Ruler, it’s probably because you live in a heavily internet-filtered country like China or North Korea).

The cute cats and exotic birds of the world better watch out – they’ve got some stiff competition and here’s why:

Caging journalists because you believe they have portrayed you badly in the media is a great way to show the international community how un-bad you are.

Since December last year, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed have been imprisoned in Egypt, accused by the current military government of aiding terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood by publishing lies.

Egypt has been in political turmoil for the past three years whether it’s been under ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, elected then ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi in 2012-2013 or the current military government who took power in a coup.

There’s no better public relations strategy for restoring your nation’s international reputation than by jailing a few journalists. It’ll be as if the political violence, government retaliation and thousands of deaths never happened.

Like animals, journalists are unable to expressly communicate against any punishment you inflict because your court system is corrupt and refuses to hear any exonerating evidence. That, or you don’t have a court system.

In their fourth hearing in Cairo on Monday March 31, the Al Jazeera journalists denied any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. “After three hearings, it’s apparent that there’s no case against us. No witness has anything that incriminates us,” Mohamed Fahmy told Agence France-Presse, just before proceedings began.

At the end of the fourth hearing, they were denied bail. Time will tell whether their voices are heard.

Unlike birds, journalists can’t fly so you’re less likely to find yourself in the backyard with flailing arms trying to catch your little sister’s pet budgie journalist that you accidentally let loose.

It has now been around 100 days since the three Al Jazeera English journalists were detained and as of yet, there have been no signs of wing-development.

Journalists eat human food so you don’t have to get your hands dirty with smelly cat food or dead mice.

If you’re lucky, the pet journalist might even go on a hunger strike meaning you can save yourself the effort of cooking. Such is the case with another detained Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah al-Shami, who has been on a hunger strike for almost 80 of his 240 days in Egyptian prison.

Keeping journalists on a leash rather than letting them run wild means preventing them from airing your dirty laundry

With the latest UN Commission’s findings of North Korea’s atrocities, who would want a journalist cramping their style further by telling the world all their secrets?

If the world heard you’ve been forcing mothers to drown their babies, systematically starving 120,000 political prisoners and getting them to incinerate the dead bodies into fertiliser, the world just wouldn’t get it, ya know? Really, you’re doing everyone a favour. Nobody will feel obligated to do anything if they don’t know about it.

Animal rights abuse is a thing but luckily, human rights abuse isn’t

If anyone ever hurt my dog, I wouldn’t hesitate to go all Legally Blonde 2 on their arse.

Luckily for all the corrupt governments, people don’t care about stuff like free speech and it’s not like there’s a Universal Declaration of Human Rights or anything…

So if you’re the leader of an oppressive, corrupt dictatorship and you happen to be searching for a new pet, look no further than that cute, fluffy journalist. They might need some taming at first, but not to worry! It’s inevitable that they will bow before you O Great and Fearless Leader.

Published in Hijacked, 7 April, 2014.

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Election Propaganda: The Advertisements That Will Make You Cringe

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Recent election advertising makes me wonder whether it is possible for any political party to make an ad that doesn’t look like propaganda. Maybe it’s from all the film analysis I had to do at school, but I sincerely struggle to see these ads as anything less than ridiculous.

Without further ado, the awards are…

Sex Appeal

Surprisingly, this does not go to Tony Abbott. No, the Greens have stolen it.

When I first saw this Greens ad, I genuinely thought it was a joke. On second look, it has the perfect amount of, in the words of Tony Abbott, “sex appeal”, to keep the viewer hooked until the punch line at the end. It even incorporates an iPhone to show that the Greens are hip and down with the young people and there are enough close-ups of screaming faces at the end to make sure you understand the emergency of the situation.

Most Natural Performance

“I believe that investing in local schools (pause), like this one here, ” he says, pointing behind his shoulder while his eyes remain fixated down the barrel of the camera. The seamlessness of Kevin Rudd’s performance deserves an Oscar. At the very least, he could give weather presenters a run for their money.

Most Inspiring

There stands Prime Minister Rudd on a sunny day amid background shrubbery. His voice, of course, is accompanied by happy music, which crescendos as the video progresses to match the rising level of inspiration. “I know for sure that the old politics of negativity Just. Won’t. Work”, he says with a sort-of-smile on his face and hand gestures to match.

With this positive outlook in mind, I bring the next award.

Best Horror Film

Cue the doomsday music you often hear in horror films when the killer is hiding behind the curtain. A high angle shot looms over Tony Abbott’s helpless victims. A gloomy voiceover croaks into your ear as the stage light is symbolically switched off over the glum-faced ‘losers’. The simple slogan “If he wins, you lose” evokes the appropriate amount of edginess in anyone who doesn’t like losing. Most importantly, a dark shadow is cast over Abbott’s sinister face, looking more like a character from The Godfather. Real subtle, Labor.

Heartbreaker
This Liberal ad speaks to the sentimental among us, marking the third anniversary of “Labor’s Carbon Tax Lie”—there’s even a cake and a candle! The sombre music and slow-motion montage bring back a flood of haunting memories.

If you look carefully at the bottom-right, you can even spot a sneaky Kevin prancing and laughing jubilantly, followed by his best pal, Julia, after the carbon tax is passed. The ad even sneaks in that awkward photo of what looks like Kevin and Julia smooching.

Best Disney Remake

I sense Walt Disney won’t be happy with how similar the background music of this Liberal ad sounds to ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It has the magical feeling of a Disney movie with smiling faces and a sprinkle of Australian slang—“having a go” and “land of opportunity”—in true Tony Abbott style.

At the end of the ad, there sits Tony on an airplane (in what looks like Business Class), looking out the window with hope as the light shines on his face (hint: symbolic for the promising future under the Coalition).

So there you have it – the ads that are supposed to inform the electors. Mind you, I’m not complaining. I would rather political agendas be sensationally blatant than perniciously subliminal. Use all the dramatic music and plastered smiles that you want – just don’t expect us to take your ads seriously.

Published in Vibewire, 24 August 2013. 

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Racism on Public Transport: The ‘Real’ Australia?


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Ada Lee

A woman will face court after she launched a racist tirade against an Asian schoolboy on a Sydney bus.

Inside the bus

Video footage, recorded by an onlooker, went viral across mainstream and social media earlier this month. The video shows a 55-year-old woman telling an Asian schoolboy to get a passport and educate himself after he refused to sit down. “Go back on your f—ing boat and f— off, ” she said. “There’s a lot of Aussie passengers on this bus and I’m telling you, they’re totally not going to agree with you…and I’m one of them… Come to this country, you [think you] can do whatever you want. Well you know what? You can’t!”

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Racist or Just Ignorant?

Published in Vibewire, 29 May 2013.

Click here to see the original.

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A young spectator’s racist slur to indigenous AFL player, Adam Goodes, has sparked debate about racism in society.

13-year-old Collingwood fan, Julia, shouted “Way to kick the ball ape” before being escorted out of the MCG stadium in Melbourne. Goodes said at a press conference that he was “shattered” by her remarks. “It’s not the first time on a footy field I’ve been referred to as a monkey or an ape, ” he said. “It felt like I was in high school again, being bullied.”

For many people, the fact that Julia is only 13-years-old has proved to be particularly shocking. Adam Goodes said, “When I saw it was a young girl, I was just like ‘really?’. I was just like ‘how could that happen?’”

North-West indigenous footballer, Kent Jackson, told The Advocate: “The fact that the slurring came from a 13-year-old girl really hits home and shows you how deeply ingrained into our culture this sort of thinking is”.

Those who defend the young girl argue that she was unaware of her actions. Among her defenders is Adam Goodes himself. The Aboriginal AFL player said: “It’s not her fault. Unfortunately it’s what she hears, it’s the environment she’s grown up in that makes her think it’s OK to call people names.”

In defending the girl, many have pointed to the complicity of her environment in fostering her ignorance. The girl’s mother, Joanne, told Nine News, “She’s only a 13 year old young girl that lives in a country town, that doesn’t really get out that much, going to the cities”.

Collingwood president, Eddie McGuire, told ABC radio that he had spoken to the girl; she “didn’t even know that it was racist”, he said.

It is questionable, however, whether ignorance can always be used to excuse racism. As a young girl, perhaps she did not know any better. Perhaps she is merely the product of a society that never told her that calling Aboriginal people “ape” is unacceptable.

But at what point are we as people to be held responsible for our own education? After all, racism itself is often rooted in ignorance and a misunderstanding of other cultures. Would the public reaction be different if it had been an adult who called “ape” from the stands? What if this adult grew up in the same environment as the 13-year-old girl?

It is true that you will not learn anything if no one tells you. But at the same time, you will not learn anything if you do not look and listen.

Goodes points to the broader picture: “It’s not a Collingwood issue. It’s not an AFL issue. It’s a society issue”, he said.

Goodes and Jackson say parents should be held accountable. Jackson told The Advocate: “How is anyone expected to penetrate the heart and minds of children more than parents can at the family table?” He said that better schooling could help address the issue but ultimately, family values needed to change.

Collingwood president, McGuire, points to politicians, the media and our own situation in revving up racism. He particularly blames political rhetoric on issues such as asylum seekers. “Politicians set the tone for the type of country that we will get and the voters go along with it. We all have to decide whether we’re going to be a red neck, hick country, or we are going to be a country that is very much involved in tolerance, ” he said on ABC radio.

Undoubtedly, all of these groups play a role in shaping society. More important than playing the blame game, the question stands: are webuilding a society that listens to other cultures or ignores them?

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Pranking Tharunka – is there a lesson to be learnt?

Published in Honi Soit, p. 9, Wk 10 Semester 1 Edition, 15 May 2013.

Click here to see it online.

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The demonisation of Government lecturer Peter Chen has been largely misinformed and misleading, argues Ada Lee

Recently, some Sydney University students were  given an assignment to submit a fake news article to UNSW’s student paper.

The purpose of the ‘Prank Tharunka’ assignment was to test whether the media is susceptible to manipulation. It was not attempting to raise up the next generation of lying, sensationalist journalists. GOVT2603 (Media Politics) is a politics, not a journalism, subject. Peter Chen is a media critic, not a journalist.

The majority of reactions have oversimplified the issue. At one end, we have the conniving, mohawked Dr Chen, setting out to destroy the media. The Australian suggests that “maybe the lecturer” is what’s wrong with the media. Again, this was not a journalism training exercise. At the other end, we have Tharunka, UNSW’s student publication, maliciously targeted and victimised.

Tharunka admitted to Crikey that they had planned to run a fake story on fare evasion.

Here’s a question for Tharunka: did you check the facts? Would you have noticed the prank if not for the whistleblower? The assignment’s task to post false stories only works if the media is not doing its job properly. Tharunka, if you fact-checked and sifted out all the false stories, then I salute you—for doing your job.

As journalists and editors, if all our sources were entirely truthful with no distortion, no attempts at manipulation, no deliberate omission of facts, then the media world would be a better place. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Journalists and editors have a responsibility to check facts, investigate and sift out spin. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it might suck. But spin happens and the media should be prepared for it.

It is not sufficient to use Peter Chen as a scapegoat. Journalists and editors are not infallible lie detectors, but they also need to take responsibility when they make mistakes.

The argument has been made that as a small university paper with few resources, Tharunka was an unsuitable case study for testing the media’s gatekeeping role. But perhaps there is a  broader point. With highly concentrated media ownership and fewer journalists to fill in a demanding 24-hour news cycle, are our major news providers really better equipped?

Has the journalist watchdog been overtaken by a pack mentality where certain stories are over-emphasised and others completely missed? Is it sufficient that the media often rely on carefully planned press conferences and written statements rather than hard in-depth interviews with our political leaders?

If the big papers were bombarded with falsified stories as Tharunka was, would they pass the test? And if not, can we still trust them to bring the important issues to the surface? These are the questions we were asked to explore.

I don’t know whether encouraging students to post fake stories was the most virtuous thing to do. But what I do know is that I’ve learnt an invaluable amount about the politics of media.

For more of my coverage on the Tharunka prank, click here.

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