Public hearings for the federal government's independent media inquiry move to Sydney this week. One particular issue that is unlikely to be resolved by the inquiry is the tension between media agenda and responsible access.
It is the case that some media publishers will provide a platform for anyone to speak on certain topics which rate well regardless of the person's ideology. For example, will free reign be given to anyone who speaks on immigration or multiculturalism? Who sets this media agenda with related topic list? Is it the audience or politicians? Or is it the media proprietors themselves driven by a combination of ideology and ratings?
To what extent will the media go to feed this insatiable appetite for ratings and sales? For instance, will a publisher occasionally feature and provide access to someone that has a contrary ideology or controversial profile but conveniently choose to ignore it?
In the case of the hot topic of sharia for example, Craig Mathieson points to Seven's Today Tonight finding a lone, extreme voice on the "periphery of his faith who will ludicrously demand the immediate application of sharia in Australia with a straight face."
Another such voice that was given unprecedented access recently was that of Maryam Namazie. In August she visited Australia from the UK for a week-long speaking tour campaigning against sharia warning that we should not follow Britain's example.
Chris Merritt, legal affairs editor with The Australian newspaper, wrote that "she says her message is frequently ignored by some British newspapers and broadcasters." However, this was certainly not the case with the Australian media. In addition to five public speaking events at venues like the University of Western Sydney and Melbourne's Wheeler Centre, she also featured in at least eleven mainstream media reports ranging from ABC radio to Fairfax's National Times as well as Seven's Today Tonight.
Two weeks before her visit, in pure coincidence or perhaps stage-managed public relations, The Australian newspaper obligingly published an opinion piece written by Namazie titled "Australia must fight calls for sharia law."
Namazie's message which the media uniformly conveyed was clear and consistent: "Sharia must be opposed" and "legal pluralism must never be allowed." This view however was neither challenged nor was a counter argument presented.
With regard to her profile, she was almost exclusively introduced in the Australian media as the spokesperson for the group One Law for All. A few did mention that she also founded another group called Ex-Muslims of Britain. However, with the exception of Chris Merritt, no one highlighted the fact that she is a socialist, atheist and central committee member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran. Not a single insight into her views on the "greed of capitalism" and "socialism as the answer" was explored. Nor was it mentioned that she is the vice-president of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.
Perhaps this background was instrumental in the formation of an ideology which is opposed to religion itself and Islam in particular. This information could have helped readers, listeners and viewers put Namazie's claims about sharia into a proper perspective. Of the reports that we reviewed, none of the interviewers explored the connections between her giving up her faith, the opposing lifestyle choices she made and how they motivate her current activism.
What was also conspicuously absent from the coverage of Namazie's fight against sharia and religious law was her position on the existence of Jewish courts in the UK and Australia. Would she by extension be opposed to these courts as well? She came and went but we still don't know.
Perhaps some in the media are too busy with a formula focussed on entertaining through sensationalism rather than doing what journalists are supposed to do – investigate and inform. Journalistic standards must be lifted as the current media inquiry is being told.
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