Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Australia and racism – 2 : Brainwashing by media

Previous post : Australia and racism – 1 : A media blunder

When the first instances of 'attacks on Indian students' were reported in May 2009, around Melbourne, most Indian media took the easy and short route to labelling the attacks as ‘racial’ from the word go. They seemed to have succumbed to the Fallacy of Hasty Generalisation. They did not consider that Melbourne is a big city, that there are bound to be ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ areas with different crime rates. In some cases exploring the time of the crime would have been helpful. Such aspects escaped mention in the haste to generate a sensational piece of news which would sell.

The Australian authorities (Victorian Police to start with) expectedly went into denial. This was partly understandable, for two reasons. The more practical reason, it appears to me, was that they deal with a lot of late night crime and are aware of the patterns.  The second reason probably was that no one likes to admit to racism. In multicultural Australia, racist abuse or violence is a serious matter. Whether racism exists in Australia or not is a separate issue and I shall certainly return to it.

I heard from friends and relatives in India that the electronic media went into a 24-hour frenzy about the racist attacks. We received phone calls and emails asking whether we were safe. It was as if the Indian public was led into believing that mobs of fanatic youngsters are storming the streets of Australian cities, singling out Indians for beating up. Had it not been for the implications, I would have had a big laugh at the joke.

By early June of 2009, the attacks were firmly embedded in public memory and opinion as racial or racist. A headline from a ‘leading Indian newspaper reported the fresh attack in these words :  “…xxx, who was attacked on last Monday night in one of several racial attacks on Indian students in Australia, was discharged from the … hospital”. The newspaper did not bother to report that in many attacks the assailants were not Caucasian (“white”) at all. In some attacks the perpetrators were in fact Indian! I sat up in consternation when the local media reported a horrible stabbing attack in Perth, where I live. It was too close for comfort, but soon it came to light that the attack was the outcome of a money feud among Indians, and that the suspect/s had fled the country before they could be apprehended.

The place of honour must be awarded to the case where an Indian claimed to have been attacked by Australians who also set his car on fire and that he suffered burns in the attack. It turned out that he was trying to lay a false insurance claim by setting his own car on fire and was burnt in the process! Marital discord and old rivalries have also figured in instances of violence within the Indian community.

In reality each attack should have been treated as a separate instance. It defies my imagination why the Indian media ignored simple logic and resorted to frenzied drum-beating. In some cases the locality of the attack was also important. Some of the late night attacks happened in areas of dubious reputation. Local residents, regardless of their ethnicity, often commented that they would not go to such areas alone, and certainly not at night. Responsible parents advise their children not to travel alone at night on certain routes. At least two of the reported attacks happened in such locations, around midnight or later.

If the media coverage was deplorable, “readers’ comments” in most cases were shocking beyond belief. Abysmal ignorance and bigotry at its worst surfaced here. It is very easy to spew venom under the cloak of anonymity that the web generously offers. Leading newspapers claim that they moderate readers’ comments – something that seemed to be totally missing in this case. Many Indian readers were full of choice expressions like Aussies being descendants of criminals, halfwits, drunkards and more. In this fury, sane and rational comments were just drowned. Even worse, if a person of Indian origin in Australia attempted any sanity, he/she was quickly denounced as servile, dollar-hungry bootlicker or some such.

“Resident” bloggers in newspapers, some of them on the editorial staff, did not help much. One such blogger opened his post with five opinions from Indian-Australians stating that these events do not reflect racism. Then he quickly changed his tune to his ‘non-acceptance’ of these comments and proceeded to give his own take that the attacks are indeed racist. I questioned some of his assumptions giving examples from my personal experience – he did not respond. He did respond to another ‘rational’ opinion with the statement that the 5000 students who protested in Melbourne perceived it differently. Aha! Therein lies the rub. The “5000” protesters blocked peak-hour traffic in the heart of the city, shouted slogans, swore at Australians passing-by (there is YouTube footage of this)… heritage property was damaged. The protesters naturally say that their ‘peaceful protest’ was hijacked by ‘others’. Did they expect it to be otherwise? The blogger ignored a very simple fact of life – individual psychology and perception differ greatly from mob psychology and perception. The mob had a preconceived notion that whatever was happening was purely racial. The leaders of the protest, despite having lived in Australia, did not wake up to the fact that protests here are very different from what they are in India.

One reporter wrote a very telling article, titled "भय्ये - मुंबईचे आणि मेलबर्नचे"  (Bhaiyas – from Mumbai and from Melbourne) in a Marathi Daily. I for one, would not compare racism (real or alleged) elsewhere with parochialism or casteism in India (well, some time I may feel compelled to do so!). Still, the article did make a lot of sense. However, the reporter slipped on one vital point. The article was written before the two deaths had occurred. Yet the reporter wrote (loosely translated) : “Our kids are being beaten mercilessly – some dead bodies have reached India…”. I commented, asking him where he discovered the dead bodies. There was no reply. The folly of irresponsible journalism was compounded by the lack of will to correct oneself.

Finally, I must say something about the reaction on social networking sites. I took part in discussions on at least three ‘communities’ on Orkut. I emerged with a feeling of having banged my head against a stone wall. Once again, pure vitriol against NRIs, stereotyping of NRIs as selfish, snobbish, dollar-hungry… it was the same story again. What is even more painful is that most of these ‘commentators’ have been furiously pounding their keyboards, sitting in their homes built of walls of ignorance.

I am aware of the possibility that this post of mine would generate more questions than answers. In order to keep this post within reasonable limits, I shall just highlight some such questions with leads to my further discussion.

Some sample questions :
  • Do I mean to say that there is NO racism in Australia? Answer : There is NO place without racism. Perceptions can differ vastly from person to person.
  • Aren’t Australians descendants of criminals? This question can only arise out of monumental ignorance. The issue is really simple, all one needs is patience and willingness to understand some history.
  • Why do Indian youngsters go to Australia to study? This will reveal some very, very interesting facts.
  • What Australia really like? I shall give my take on this.
And many, many more.



  1. "Why do Indian youngsters go to Australia to study? This will reveal some very, very interesting facts."

    - keen on seeing the answer to that question! :P

  2. Lovely balanced post!,
    Came via Rakhee Ghelani's blog :-)