Be alert, but not alarmed

Doggie beachA couple of weeks ago, our local newspaper somehow invaded my Facebook page, wanting to know if I felt safe on the Sunshine Coast after the “recent spate of terrorist attacks”.

Excuse me? Actually, I’d feel less safe if I had a reason to be on the Mooloolaba Esplanade after dark, given that night club strip’s record of serious and even fatal assaults. And what in the hell is a spate, anyway? The word fits nicely into a tabloid heading, that much I know, along with flood, storm, havoc, hail, attack, axe, croc, shark, gay and CIA. But what does it really mean?

One definition of “spate” is “a large number of similar things coming in quick succession”. Surely location is relevant? There was the lone teenager shot by cops in Victoria. There was the poorly-handled Sydney café siege – not a terrorist, just a mentally troubled individual. Yes, the Taliban attacked an army school in Pakistan and killed 145 children, in retaliation for airstrikes on their tribal strongholds by Pakistan warplanes and CIA drones (CIA – hold that thought).

That for sure was a terrorist attack. But Peshawar is a long way from Mooloolaba and life and death, it could be said, has a different meaning to Pakistan’s population of 181 million. One could argue that death by gunshot, bombings, natural disasters, the collapse of poorly-built buildings or train/bus/ferry accidents is never far away in Pakistan.

Likewise the terrorist attack in Paris that eventually left a death toll of 17 was a long way removed from Australia, even if our media went on about it at length. Typically, the media will fall off a foreign story, be it a terrorist attack, plane crash or a natural disaster just as soon as all Australians are present and accounted for. That’s no surprise – the media works like that in every corner of the world. But in the case of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, editors and illustrators took it personally and so began a crusade.

Other bad things have happened in Australia over the past three or four months, but up here in the Hinterland, I couldn’t say I perceived them as a spate (also known as a flood or inundation; a sudden or heavy rainstorm). Not much of that up here.

Headlines as a trigger for depression
You may have read some months ago that I/we were having a media ban because we didn’t think it was helping us out of our respective bouts of depression. Counsellors talk about “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and for me it was December’s inflammatory, racist, inaccurate, scare-mongering, populist and plain stupid newspaper headlines. The Australian published 84 items about terrorism in just 12 days and The Courier-Mail gained international notoriety for the ‘Chef and the Shemale’.

Well OK, it’s their business to sell newspapers and a sensational headline will do it every time – that and bingo cards or the equivalent. Within the sweaty halls of tabloid journalism in 2015 I would probably now be known as a “do-gooder”.
No, I just want them to get it right and not insult people or damage their reputations.
Like other people, I’m feeling as if the media and its masters want us to feel constantly anxious about everything (so we’ll vote for strong government).

The Sydney Morning Herald makes a welcome change to the populist rhetoric pumped out by The Australian, but they follow the same form book: if it bleeds, it leads. If you read every story in the Guardian Weekly, which has the best round-up of international news, you would wonder if there are any happy people living in happy countries, where there is plenty of food and water, no drug addiction, child abuse, human rights violations or corruption.

But if you don’t keep up with the news, people tell me, you’ll miss things and get out of touch. Oh really? I found out by accident (I was flicking through Monday’s Herald in the library looking for the TV guide), when I read a front-page report that said Katrina Dawson, who died in the Sydney café siege, may have been struck by a stray police bullet.

“Jings,” as my Baptist minister friend says.

Pity the relatives of this unlucky person, who may or may not have been told about this angle before they read it in a newspaper. As if they didn’t have enough grief.
If you’re not happy about rabid bias and hyperbole in the media, you just have to do something about it.

A week or two ago I sat at my desk in the home office and spent a bit over $400 signing up for what I call “Fair Trade” media subscriptions. That’s about $8 a week – less than what I was spending on daily newspapers. Soon I’ll be getting the Guardian Weekly in the post box, followed by The Monthly and the New Internationalist. Not to mention online versions of The Guardian, Crikey and a (free) website called The Conversation.

The history of Terrorism
Despite our local paper’s farcical attempt to find a home angle, I’m here to tell you that terrorism has been with us a long while – there have been major incidents in every decade of the 20th century, many entwined with world wars, minor wars, civil wars and attempts by the CIA (remember them), to identify and “neutralize” (via infiltration, capture, terrorism, torture and assassination), communist cells such as the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam or Viet Cong.
If you want to follow the thread of that particular exercise during the Vietnam War, look up http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Program.

So, without too much effort, I can point to the Red Brigade, Patty Hearst, Black September, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the 1972 Olympics hostage drama as examples. It was always thus; the only real changes seem to be improvised explosive devices (IED), and the willingness of suicidal zealots to wear vest bombs.

I don’t mean to disrespect the Australians who have been killed or injured in terrorist attacks or their kin, but it is time for a media reality check.
Seventeen people have died in 10 terrorist attacks on Australian soil in the last 100 years (three of whom were killed by police bullets). Over the same period, 108 Australians were killed in terrorist attacks overseas.
The incidence of death by terrorism at home, therefore, is one every six years or so.

Over much the same period, heatwaves killed more than 2,500 Australians, 12,000+ died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 and 1,013 people died from polio between 1946 and 1955.

So I was musing about all of this and more while at the Currimundi doggie beach with our neighbours and four dogs of sundry breeds. There were about 100 people strolling up and down and at least 50 dogs. It was hot, so we all had our tongues out. We looked alert, I thought, but not necessarily alarmed.