Two recent studies have prompted a vigorous debate on the objectivity of the country's press and its recent coverage of Arab and Islamic issues, both international and domestic.
 
Authors Peter Manning and Iain Lygo argue that views of Arab and Muslim people in Australia have been significantly distorted in recent coverage.

The media has – by both what is reported and by what is not – portrayed them as different and a danger to the rest of the community.

Manning was a former executive producer both with the publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation and for commercial television.

He examined pre- and post-11 September depictions of Arab people and those who practise Islam and writes that they have come to be seen as "tricky, ungrateful and undeserving".

In his book Dog Whistle Politics and Journalism, Manning – now a lecturer in journalism at the University of Technology Sydney – looked at two Sydney newspapers, the News Corporation-owned Daily Telegraph and the Fairfax group's Sydney Morning Herald.

Manning studied their coverage of Islamic ethnic, political and cultural issues over a two-year period, one year either side of the World Trade Centre attacks.

Promoting stereotypes

In addition to the global turmoil, it was a time when five Lebanese-Australian youths from Muslim backgrounds were convicted over the gang rape of an 18-year-old girl in an outer Sydney suburb. 

"My study showed that Arab and Muslim people are seen as a threat, pre-modern and very different to other Australians, whereas the truth is that most of them are just migrants to Australia like every other migrant group that has arrived in Sydney"

Peter Manning,
media expert and author

While the ringleader was sentenced to 55 years in jail, another of the group – the last to be tried - had his conviction quashed on the grounds that the media reporting prejudiced his fair trial.

When the Mufti of the Islamic faith in Australia, Shaikh Taj al-Din al-Hilaly, pointed out that the accused men were born and educated in Australia and were clearly not following Islamic principles, the Daily Telegraph published an editorial accusing him of "effectively washing his hands of the problem".

"I think there is carelessness about giving time to the Arab and Islamic voice in Australia," Manning said in an interview with Aljazeera.net.

"My study showed that Arab and Muslim people are seen as a threat, pre-modern and very different to other Australians, whereas the truth is that most of them are just migrants to Australia like every other migrant group that has arrived in Sydney.

"One in three Sydney-siders speaks a language other than English at home, so it's a very multi-cultural city. The question is: Why this focus on Arab and Muslim people?"

Hidden message

The dog whistle of Manning's title is an Australian slang term, taken from the whistles used by sheep farmers to communicate with their dogs that go unheard by the sheep and people.

Muslim men attend prayers in a
Sydney suburb

In this context, Manning argues that the Australian media sent out a dog whistle, which was heard and heeded by people with racist tendencies.

Kaisar Trad, a spokesman for the Lebanese Muslim Association in Sydney, says such coverage creates a strong feeling of fear among his community whenever the media approach.

"The feeling is so strong among people of Lebanese Muslim backgrounds that if they see the media near the mosque, they become very apprehensive and try to make them go away," he says.

"They think that no matter what they say, they will be misrepresented."

Fear mongers

Trad says he believes the Australian media attempted to "keep the fear alive" among people so they would "want to get the next newspaper or listen to the radio to find out what is next".

"I had ordinary Australians ringing
me and saying that
they were afraid of Lebanese Muslims"


Kaisar Trad,
Lebanese Muslim Association, Sydney

He also says the media does not differentiate between Arab or Muslim people, lumping everyone together under one label to create fear.

"I had ordinary Australians ringing me and saying that they were afraid of Lebanese Muslims," says Trad.

"They said they weren't racist, and were happy to make friends with Indians, Africans or whoever, but not Lebanese Muslims."

View questioned

Not everyone agrees with this view.

Janet Albrechtsen is a conservative columnist with the News Corporation flagship The Australian and says that the idea that Arabs and Muslims are "demonised by sections of the media is very much limited to a small group of Australian left-wing intelligentsia".

PM John Howard has played on
anti-refugee feelings

"I very much doubt that view finds much traction in the wider community where there is a much more receptive attitude to discussing all angles to any particular issue," Albrechtsen told Aljazeera.net.

"Given that research shows that most journalists have left-leaning views, it is no surprise to find that on many issues, for example, the Israel/Palestinian problem, sections of the media produce stories with a pro-Palestinian slant.

"The left's addiction to cultural relativism means that they in fact choose to demonise anyone who talks or writes openly about cultural issues, including those which involve Arabs and Muslims."

Albrechtsen's view that most journalists are left-wing is not shared by Lygo.

His book News Overboard examines how the government of Prime Minister John Howard "sold the hard-line message against 'illegal immigrants'", many of whom came to Australia from Muslim countries, seeking asylum.

Children overboard

Lygo's book focused on what he calls the Howard government's lies during the children overboard affair, when Afghani boat people allegedly – and reportedly – threw their children overboard so that they would be rescued by the Australian navy.

Refugees seeking asylum are
escorted to Christmas island

The furore over the affair ultimately helped Howard secure victory at the 2001 election.

"Some of the most irresponsible journalism documented in News Overboard comes from very senior journalists in tabloid media organisations," Lygo told Aljazeera.net.

The Australian media, he says: "Seems unwilling to accept any responsibility for increased levels of intolerance in Australia".

"They rarely correct their errors, and this is especially the case when reporting issues involving Muslims," he says.

Conservative tendencies

Both Lygo and Manning see a link between this trend in reporting and the ascendancy of Howard's government.

"There is without doubt a correlation in the rise of Howard as a political force and the increased dominance of ultra-conservative media commentators," says Lygo.

"Howard is a very skilled politician who uses a friendly media for his own political gain."

"There is without doubt a correlation in the rise of Howard as a political force and the increased dominance of ultra-conservative media commentators"

Iain Lygo,
author

Peter Manning sees a "conservative tone in the air" in Australia, which has "successfully been engineered by Howard".

"All his manipulations in the cultural sphere – which include media – have duly had their affect, which is to suppress dissent and to suppress the width of the spectrum of debate," he says.

"I don't think that's necessarily a conspiracy of the media moguls – it is just part of the atmosphere and I don't think September 11 helped that.

"It put the fear of God into most Australians and all you needed was a political leader who wanted to use it for electoral purposes to make it worse."

With a federal election due this year, Manning predicts that the dog whistle will be out again, sending subtle messages to the Australian electorate.