Terror arrests: how the media were spun

November 26, 2005

On November 8, Australian authorities arrested 18 men in Melbourne and Sydney on alleged charges of belonging to terrorist groups, and, in some cases, acquiring chemicals to stage attacks. The case is still in court so one has to be careful about what one says. But this piece is not about the men and what charges they face - rather it is about the lead-up to the arrests and the way the media swallowed everything they were spoonfed.

As background, it should be mentioned that the Australian government has recently introduced two pieces of legislation into parliament - one to beef up the existing anti-terror laws and another to completely revamp the industrial relations system. The campaign to push the latter as something the country needs has been waylaid by the unions who were quick to launch a series of really effective television advertisements that had people scared to death of what they would face when these IR laws took effect. Thus, the government was understandably eager to curb any kind of discussion or media coverage of these laws.

The week before the arrests, the prime minister made a dramatic announcement - one word needed to be changed in existing anti-terror laws to make it possible for the authorities to thwart would-be attackers. People took this to mean that arrests were around the corner. Some newspapers carried stories in which law enforcement sources slammed the prime minister for this very public statement, saying that it could harm investigations.

On Tuesday, November 8, the 18 men were arrested. A lot of claims were made by the Victorian and New South Wales police. These have all yet to be tested in court. The prime minister claimed he had been vindicated. The media believed him.

But the tale is not that simple - there are some twists that should have had people asking questions. But one must understand that in all the phobia whipped up, even journalists would have felt a sense of nationalism come to the fore. The impression given by the police was that danger had been nipped in the bud. Everyone swallowed it.

Let's look at a few facts in the cool light of day. The change in the law which the prime minister so boldly and dramatically announced had been sought by law enforcement at least six months back. This information came from the attorney-general a day or two after the arrests. The prime minister made his announcement just a few days before the industrial relations laws were to be introduced. It became the focus of a lot of newsprint and TV footage - displacing what discussion of the IR laws would have occupied.

Why did the prime minister wait all these months to effect such a change? Was it necessary to make such a big drama about it? Certainly not. It could have been quietly introduced and passed.  No police investigation would have been jeopardised.

The other thing which needs to be noted is that the new anti-terror laws had attracted quite a bit of attention and negative comment after one of the men who had a draft posted the whole thing on the internet. The dramatic announcement thus had the effect of making people think that these new laws are needed when they are not.

So to me, at least, the progression of events is very clear. The 18 men were under observation and the law enforcement authorities had told the pollies to make a change in a law well over six months back. John Howard needed a diversion and so he announced the change with great gravitas. The law enforcement people were furious that their hand had been forced but they knew that if they did not arrest the 18 whom they had been observing, then they may well flee the country.  

What happens if the police cannot now prove the charges which they have brought against the 18? Their right to a fair trial has been seriously jeopardised by the amount of loose comment made by the law enforcement authorities and also numerous politicians. Of course, this is unlikely to keep too many people awake at night.

A different kind of charge has been brought against five friends of the accused who attacked a cameraman outside the court in Melbourne. Here again, it appears to be fine for a TV cameraman to come and poke his camera in your face when you are walking on the footpath. It doesn't matter that the footpath is not part of the court premises.

It doesn't matter that the cameraman has not ascertained whether you are actually connected to the case or not. It also doesn't matter that the cameraman is from a channel which recently interviewed young Muslim men, twisted and patched their comments together to make them look like isolationists who do not want to integrate, and aired it. No, they are the ones who should be in the dock.