Crimes in the home, lessons in the newsroom?

  • This article and image first appeared on the ABC’s The Drum.

Many Victorians were surprised when that state’s latest crime statistics showed a dramatic, 15 per cent increase in domestic violence.

Many journalists were not. And the media must shoulder some of the blame for that disconnect.

One of the first tasks for a journalist working an early morning shift is to “do emergencies”. That means ringing the police, fire and ambulance services and asking “what’s happened overnight?”

The police offer a shopping list of incidents: a car crash here, a petrol station hold-up there and some booze bus results for good measure. The reporter will often ask about some activity they’ve noticed on the police scanner, or heard about elsewhere, and the reply will come: “Oh, that’s just a domestic”.

Somehow, because those magic words have been uttered, we journalists hesitate.

Much like the reporting of suicides, the rough rule is not to report “a domestic” unless it was somehow exceptional – like the case of James Ramage.

Ramage was released from jail last month, after serving time for strangling his wife and then claiming self-defence because she “provoked” him.

The defence was used successfully and Ramage was convicted of manslaughter, not murder. The defence of provocation has since been abolished.

Alternatively, instances of domestic violence must have broader effects (a stand-off forcing the closure of a busy road) or involve somebody prominent enough to make their behaviour a matter of public interest (say, if a prominent anti-violence campaigner was charged for hitting his wife).

But most times incidents don’t meet these criteria and, regardless, the reporter finds it difficult to verify the behind-closed-door details.

The net result is they don’t get reported.

The same applies for reporters sitting in court listening to cases of domestic violence while they wait for a more ‘news-friendly’ matter to be called.

It should be noted the media does write many exceptional stories exposing the scourge of abuse within families and the fight against it. ABC senior reporter Kerri Ritchie’s story on 7:30 this week about the B-Safe program is a case in point.

But it’s almost undeniable that the media’s coverage of domestic violence is biased.

We are much more likely to report a drunken punch in a Melbourne laneway than a drunken punch in a suburban kitchen.

It’s sometimes argued a ‘Mean World Syndrome’ is at play in Australia, because of our nation’s obsession with violent crime.

The theory is that the reporting of these crimes is disproportionate to the reality, and creates the impression the world is more dangerous than it truly is.

“People are seen to overestimate the prevalence of crime in the community… perceiving increases in crime that are not supported by official statistics,” is how a Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry described the phenomenon last year.

Melbourne’s tabloid newspaper the Herald Sun even has a “Streets of Fear” logo for its stories on public assaults.

The media’s reporting of domestic violence seems to be going in the other direction.

Through underreporting we appear to be creating a ‘Safe Home Syndrome’, and inadvertently telling the community that domestic violence isn’t so prevalent.

This would explain why so many Victorians were surprised by the latest crime statistics.

Perhaps we in the media owe it to everybody to turn that around.


Meanwhile in Victoria the old paradigm rules

  • This article and image first appeared on the ABC’s The Drum.

I have a breaking news story. Make sure you’re sitting down. Here it is: governments spin, twist and contort events to suit their party political ends.

OK, so it mightn’t be a huge revelation.

But what’s interesting is that a senior Labor spin doctor has been forced, under oath, to confirm this is how their murky profession works.

The accidental release of a Victorian government ministerial ‘media plan’ in February caused huge embarrassment for the state’s Labor administration.

Many have since tried, and failed, to access other ‘media plans’, under the state’s freedom of information (FOI) legislation.

The State Government claims the media plans are “political” and unrelated to policy or governance, and therefore shouldn’t have to be released.

But Victoria’s FOI laws have a presumption of release. This means the Government must prove the documents’ political nature, for them to be kept secret.

“They are entirely political,” senior Victorian government media adviser Alison Crosweller told the state’s Civil and Administrative Tribunal this morning.

She went further, explaining that if a minister’s busy day is to be interrupted by a media engagement, “there needs to be a political purpose as to why the Minister should be committing to that event.”

Normally governments spend huge amounts of time and energy arguing that their actions aren’t politically motivated, but driven by the desire for good policy.

It must have felt strange then for Ms Crosweller, a very experienced operative who worked for federal Labor during the Howard government, to now be arguing the opposite.

Ms Crosweller was asked to explain how events listed in the leaked February document – such as the Planning Minister’s attendance at the launch of a street revitalisation project – could be deemed “political”.

“The fact that they are going to do it on a Sunday, the use of the Minister’s time is only best served if there is a political element to it,” she said.

“So it is in Frankston, which is a marginal seat. Alistair Harkness is a marginal MP … so by getting the Minister down to Frankston … serves a political purpose.

“While it might look like an opening, a speech or a conference … there must be a reason the media adviser has suggested the Minister do it.”

After all, she added, “the Minister doesn’t necessarily need to go and launch an $8 million boulevard.”

Get that?

So when you next glimpse a politician or political candidate smiling in the TV news, chances are they’re only acting for political purposes.

And when you hear a minister angrily denying something is being launched in a marginal electorate for political purposes, don’t believe them.

Ms Crosweller made the point even more succinctly in her written statement to the tribunal.

The document indicated that media advisers must act with regard to “the impact of various matters on the Government’s election prospects [and] the election prospects of individual Members of Parliament.”

And let’s not forget these media advisers are funded by the taxpayers, not the ALP.

The State Opposition’s scrutiny of government spokesman, David Davis, thinks Ms Crosweller’s evidence is extraordinary.

“The Government’s actions are simply driven by re-election,” he said.

Victorians want a government which is acting in “the public interest … [and] delivering for the public benefit, rather than its own.”

But the sad facts are these: every government uses spin, and every minister is motivated by politics.

The Victorian Government has just been kind enough to admit it.