Opportunism, media and the law in response to Paris

There’s been a lot of discussion about social media in response to last weekend’s events in Paris, as well as criticism of the mainstream media’s selective attention when it comes to tragedy.  Much has been said before now about Australia’s – and Western media in general’s – assumption that if the victim of an atrocity is not white (and Australian) then it is not news; we are not interested in hearing about it.

At the same time, it’s hard not to feel that such selective attention is coupled with an innate and somewhat perverse fear of missing out. Something big is happening in the world, no matter how horrific: how can we be part of it?

That commercial media – particularly commercial television news and current affairs – frequently cross the line between reporting and rubbernecking, and sometimes even manufacturing, the news should be no surprise to anyone. If it makes me angrier than usual, perhaps that is thanks to three years of working in the production of commercial television news and current affairs as the same benign footage of Indigenous kids was overlaid with ominous music and recycled for every anti-welfare beat-up, or the same racists were peddled out for every condemnation of someone who had the misfortune of not being born Anglo.

But the reason I have been thinking about this week is less because of the way the media themselves have been responding to events in Paris, than how this FOMO tendency – opportunism, in part – parallels the attitude of the government and law enforcement around the terrorism narrative, with material repercussions that are both unsurprising and profoundly unsettling.

Currently tabled in Parliament are a series of laws designed to lower the age at which control orders can be applied (that is, the imposition of curfews, curbing phone and internet use, and the use of tracking devices such as ankle monitors) to fourteen. They would also allow the government to retrospectively bring ‘secret evidence’ to ongoing control hearings. They would, effectively, increase police powers while simultaneously reducing accountability for criminal convictions and surveillance. The lives of teenagers are tumultuous and difficult as it is, presumably more so for those kids who happen to be Muslim in Australia. The fact that they appear to be the primary targets of local national security efforts is hardly going to make the volatile less so.

In an article for The Drum a couple of days ago, Jeff Sparrow wrote:

The democratic deficit means that there’s no accountability for the decisions that have got us to this point, no pressure to explain why the various humanitarian wars haven’t delivered the peace that was promised. To give only the most obvious example, in Australia no-one’s ever been held accountable for the Iraq invasion, probably the most disastrous foreign policy intervention in the last hundred years.

On the contrary, the nostrums of the national security gurus remain essentially unfalsifiable: if one air strike doesn’t end terrorism, its failure then justifies a second and then a third attempt.

Local law enforcement logic is following a similar path. Police ramped up security at major events in Melbourne over the weekend, in spite of the Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton stressing there were no local links to the Paris attacks. (Was there ever any suggestion from Paris that there might be?) And the lack of any local links hasn’t stopped authorities talking about increasing arms to local law enforcement, and changing the policies by which they use them. In NSW, in direct response to the Paris attacks, police are now training to shoot on sight rather than ‘capture and contain’. In this, they are being assisted by that paragon of accountability, the FBI.

We are arming ourselves against ghosts. The fact is we know what the result of increasingly militarised law enforcement will be: we have been told about it time and time again. The victims of laws like this will not be terrorists; they will be kids, and men and women of colour – Indigenous Australians, Muslim Australians, anyone who happens to be the wrong shade of brown, or god forbid, tries to run when a gun is pointed their way.


Image: Ben Eenhoorn/Flickr

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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