A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist

It’s still hard to digest the fantastical news reporting that plagued Australia in 2014. From The Courier Mail’s front-page photograph of transgender murder victim Mayang Prasetyo to Fairfax Media’s use of an incorrect photograph in their reporting on the death of Numan Haider, it was a year to forget for Australia’s mainstream media. This was seen most clearly in December’s ‘Sydney siege’, which sent them into overdrive. It was somewhat startling – though unsurprising – to see words such as ‘terror’, ‘jihadist’ and ‘Islam’ appear so prominently when reporting the siege and its perpetrator Man Haron Monis. Many argued the validity of this terminology. For instance, the ‘lone wolf’ argument raged in the days following the siege. Some pointed out the media’s hypocritical use of the term ‘terrorism’, ostensibly reserved for Muslim attacks.  The coverage altogether reignited a discussion about the media’s reporting of ‘terrorism’.

Fairfax has occasionally led the battle against this bigotry. In 2011, following the attacks carried out by Anders Behring Breivik, The Age ran Mariam Veiszadeh’s denunciation of biased terrorism reporting. Although bizarrely published in the ‘IT pro’ section, which implied that it did not deserve prominence, the piece revealed a clear position: Fairfax wanted to be seen as unbiased and fair. Most people accepted it at the time.

A similar piece appeared in The Age last week in the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shooting in North Carolina. An article on the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter was seemingly going to reproach the media bias that had been plainly critiqued by Veiszadeh only four years prior. But then, some questionably placed quotation marks hinted at something else. By scare quoting ‘hypocrisy’ – and signalling that they did not believe it to be true – Fairfax had revealed a different position compared to the coverage of Breivik. There was, in fact, no problem. The media was not hypocritical. How convenient for Fairfax. But one needn’t have travelled far to find hypocrisy. Fairfax had two pieces on the Chapel Hill attack. The first, titled ‘North Carolina man arrested for killing three Muslim students posted anti-religious messages’ makes no mention of ‘terrorism’. The second, a video story, was titled ‘Gunman kills three Muslim students in US’, choosing to identify the religious beliefs of the victims, but not the perpetrator – an atheist.

The reporting cycle of so-called ‘Islamic terrorism’ had already been exposed by the Sydney siege. Most were already well aware of its motion: identify the perpetrator’s religion, emphasise it, create an us versus them mentality. The reluctance to focus on the Chapel Hill perpetrator’s religious inclinations seemed at odds with the Sydney siege reports that had flooded the paper only weeks before. Was this a single innocent reporting mistake from Fairfax – or was it something more sinister and habitual?

We should first consider the following United Nations statement from 1994, which is the closest thing to a definition for terrorism they’ve written:

Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.

The UN employs fairly inclusive language in that statement – no religion-specific phrasing. But delving into the Fairfax archives reveals that while Islamic criminals are readily identified as ‘terrorists’, it’s common for non-Muslims to be spared the same tag.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the coverage of Peter James Knight. On 16 July 2001, Knight murdered Steven Rogers at the Fertility Control Clinic in Wellington Parade, East Melbourne. Knight didn’t have a flag marked in a foreign language, but he was no less motivated by religion. Bernard Teague (AO) oversaw the case in the Supreme Court and described Knight as a man who believes ‘in [his] own brand of Christianity’ with ‘strong beliefs to the point of obsession, indeed fanaticism.’ Teague noted that Knight obsessively planned his attack, even considering the usual departure time of Rogers when undertaking his ‘detailed planning and preparation.’ What did the media say of this crime? On 17 July – the day after the murder – The Age ran the front-page headline ‘Clinic shooting heroes ‘brave beyond belief’’ – with no mention of religion as a motive or use of the word ‘terror’ in any form. In fairness, the now-viciously fast news cycle was probably slower then, and it’s possible that no one knew much about Knight. The same newspaper devoted another front-page to Knight with an article titled ‘Knight: a loner on a path to infamy’ on 24 April 2002. Again: no use of ‘terror’; no discussion of Knight’s religious motivation. Now this Fairfax reporting was starting to smell. When presented with the opportunity to run a terror-related story only a few months later – and a day after Knight, arguably a ‘Christian terrorist’, was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 23 years – Fairfax jumped at it.

But, it was an Islamic terrorism story. The Sydney Morning Herald roared with ‘Terrorists threaten Australia’ on the 20 November front page. The articles contained ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ ten times in fewer than 700 words. Similarly, The Age ran with ‘Terror alert: Australians warned of local attack’ and another article about British expatriate Jack Roche, titled ‘Muslim convert denies plot to bomb Israeli diplomats’. Islamic terrorism was splashed across the front pages of Fairfax newspapers nation-wide. The sentencing of Knight was apparently less newsworthy. It seems The Age loves reporting on terrorism in Australia – so long as it’s Islamic terrorism.

This example concisely represents the perception of terrorism that the mainstream media are fuelling: one that confines terrorism as a concept unique to Islam. Historically, this is incredibly questionable. Douglas Pratt, an expert in religious fundamentalism and terrorism, links John Esposito’s six ideological elements of Islamic extremism to the common framework within which a Christian terrorist/fundamentalist/ extremist operates. According to Pratt, both Muslim and Christian extremists:

  • Demand ‘total commitment.’
  • Focus on a ‘perceived failure of the wider society.’ For Muslims, this may be the way Muslim societies have followed a supposed Western/secular path; for Christians, this may be the increasing public acceptance of homosexuality or abortion.
  • Require ‘assertive, even aggressive interventions… to get the religious and moral message across, and [to] attract requisite attention.’
  • Insist on ‘God’s law’ and fight against the secularisation of the legal system.
  • Employ modern technology to varying degrees and purposes
  • Call for ‘the fostering of highly intentional discipleship’ comprising of ‘dedicated, trained, and committed participants.’

Pratt mounts a compelling argument and gives several examples of Christian terrorists, including: New Zealand’s Destiny Church, a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian organisation; the Christian Identity-aligned Phineas Priesthood; and the Branch Davidians, a Protestant Christian subsidiary best known for the Waco siege in 1993. Why didn’t Australia’s mainstream media hysterically report these religious threats?

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing further illustrates the failings of Australia’s mainstream media. Douglas Linder, an American law professor, describes Timothy McVeigh – one of the two Oklahoma City bombers – as someone who was ‘radicalise[d]’ by the Waco siege. McVeigh himself wrote that he came to ‘peace with… my God’ in a farewell letter to a childhood friend and continued: ‘Blood will flow in the streets… Good vs Evil… Pray it is not your blood, my friend.’ What did Fairfax first report of the Oklahoma attack? Did they approach it with the same presumptuous and attention-craving tone as the Sydney siege? How did they handle an overseas Christian terrorist? In an article published the day after the attack titled ‘Mid-East terrorists top list of suspects’, Phillip McCarthy discussed the likelihood of a Muslim perpetrator and quoted at length from an unnamed source. And when the perpetrator was revealed to be Christian (or later, agnostic) – how did their language change? It scarcely did at all.

McVeigh would be described as a ‘hated killer’, ‘bomber’ and ‘coward’ over the proceeding years, but rarely a ‘terrorist’. Reports of McVeigh’s religion were scarce. In March 1997, The Age questioned the very definition of McVeigh (finally known to be a Western, non-Muslim man): ‘Is this man a terrorist?’ In an article titled ‘The new face of America?’ (The Sunday Age, 29/04/1995), Christopher Reed encapsulated the Fairfax language in one sentence. There was a ‘Middle Eastern terrorist group’ – the two Oklahoma bombers did not belong to this or any other such group. They were ‘members of the American far right.’ Apparently, you are only a ‘member’ of a far-right extremist group, but a ‘terrorist’ if that extremist group happens to be Middle Eastern or Islamic. In the same article, a source is referenced as saying that terrorism is ‘mainly the work of Islamists’ and that this is ‘conventional wisdom’. The statement goes unchallenged.

Whilst it is not only Fairfax newspapers that have succumbed to this casual discrimination, it is perhaps more unexpected that a supposedly (or traditionally) left-leaning publication would report terrorism in such a way. At least News Limited, Australia’s other major newspaper publisher, did not shy away from identifying the religious motivations of ‘ultra-Catholics’ (‘Bombers come from cults of personality’ in The Australian, 26/07/2005) – even if they still opted for ‘extremist’ before ‘terrorist’ when dealing with Christian perpetrators.

With a media hell-bent on generating revenue, be it through ‘clicks’ or  selling actual newspapers, the use and appeal of extravagant, outlandish and often unverified language is understandable. But they too must understand their duty as information providers. The Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance – an Australian union representing the media, entertainment, sports and arts industries – state in their Code of Ethics that journalists should not ‘give distorting emphasis.’ Yet there’s a perceptible distortion in the Australian mainstream media’s reporting of terrorism – and there has been for a long time. The 2004 ‘Living with Racism’ report to The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission notes instances of Australian media connecting terms ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ with ‘terrorist’ during the Gulf War. The same report found that the media was the second most common ‘place’ of racism experienced by Arab and Muslim Australians, after ‘the street.’ 47% of questionnaire respondents indicated that they had experienced racism in the media. The report notes that ‘respondents saw such media vilification as inciting the very racial hatred they were suffering.’

The mainstream media’s reporting of terrorism is not coincidental. Austin Turk (2004) summarises:

Contrary to the impression fostered by… media reports, terrorism is not a given in the real world but is instead an interpretation of events and their presumed causes. And these interpretations are not unbiased attempts to depict truth but rather conscious efforts to manipulate perceptions to promote certain interests at the expense of others. When people and events come to be regularly described in public as terrorists and terrorism, some governmental or other entity is succeeding in a war of words.

It is imperative that our mainstream media not ‘succeed’ in this ‘war of words’. Accepting their wildly differing portrayals of ‘terrorist’ attacks – portrayals that hinge on religion or ethnicity – will undermine the foundations of Australia’s multicultural society. With that in mind, go forward armed with these examples to prove that terrorism is not unique to Islam. Start the conversation – perhaps an #illtalktoyou or #illarguewithyou for your xenophobic friends or casually racist parents – and show that Australians understand that terrorism is not unique to Islam, regardless of what the mainstream media feed us.

James Fogarty

James Fogarty is a teacher and writer from Melbourne. He tweets at @JamesHFogarty.

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  1. terrorism is surely a curse of an afflicted mind gone astray [religious fundamentalism- choose your sect]. Youth seeking life – in death. I blame the crap played on the radio. MS lolipop vomit that is not even music. Then the straight life. Not everyone wants to just drink. People who do drugs are deviants, bohemians or decadents or all three. But they don’t start wars or do murder [even on speed]. Weimar Berlin was bulwark against the Nazis with its underground that bent all morals and blew the rules away. This should be encouraged in young adults. The alternative is murder

  2. People seem to notice the media hype more when it is something that offends them, but the majority of reporting done by the media is the same ridiculous hype and over dramatization that blows all perspective out of the picture, tells a false story and totally clouds the truth about many real situations, telling the ‘truth’ according to the same us and them mentality that refuses to acknowledge the underhand agendas of western countries, the US, Australia and Europe. Let’s just acknowledge that the ‘terror’ labelling is just the same problem, its business and ratings not information and knowledge, no matter what the topic.

  3. Good to see some thoughtful attention to the Australian media’s take on terrorism at home and abroad. I’ve been reading reports and articles (mostly academic, all published in the US) on terrorism from the late 90s. Back then all the focus seemed to be on fringe cults like Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians at Waco. Far less mention of the grand clash of civilizations stuff, the Islam vs the West stuff.

    A recent article in the Atlantic ponders to extent to which these groups have fallen off the radar. Is it only the media that ignores them? Obama is on the case…

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