On Writing, Style and Terror in Sydney

The Daily Telegraph’s 2pm edition as the siege unfolded.

Whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought. — Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero

Whatever might be said about the impact upon Australia from this week’s siege in the heart of Sydney, it has unfortunately wrought the worst from some on both professional and social media.

Sydney’s own Daily Telegraph set the bar rather low, as many have observed, by rushing out a 2pm special addition laden with dog-whistles. Before much of anything was known about the gunman’s affiliations or motivations, the paper hit the streets declaring the attack was the work of Islamic State, or IS (the French government labels them Daesh, close to the derogatory Daʿish in Arabic). The Tele would prefer we continue to associate the group with Islam and conflate their efforts with state-based warfare common to the twentieth century. Old politics and understandings die hard, it would seem.

In the United States, a Fox commentator suggested Australia’s gun control laws were to blame and that, in fact, more weapons on the streets would prevent firearm deaths.

The quote from Barthes above suggests that something other than clear and rational thought is at work among the editors, journalists and commentariat at newspapers and elsewhere who style their words to underline hatred and violence. Their need to fill column inches and cover photos is the form without destination, the product of a commercial thrust driven by a need to be first, not accurate. It is, indeed, a “lonely dimension of thought” that motivates the kind of schlock they’re rather good at and proud of. (On pride, the Tele’s boss Rupert Murdoch issued another of his bizarre bon mots on Twitter this morning, congratulating the paper for its work.)

The point has been well-made that this lone hostage-taking gunman has little to do with Islam. As my mate Pete Oliver put it:

If someone’s a shit human, they’re a shit human. Everything else is just white noise.

The acts committed during this siege by the gunman are undoubtedly terror, but they are not quite the organised work of an Islamic terror cell as the Tele’s approach would have us believe. The word terror seems to have taken on a tenor quite different from it’s dictionary definition of late, associated as it is with Islam, despite the apparent logic that terror and terrorist acts can be perpetrated by any mad human.

Thankfully, other news outlets seemed to keep their cool. Renowned shock jock Ray Hadley at Radio 2GB did not accede to the gunman’s demands to be put live to air, nor did Channel 9 share details of his demands, and Channel 7 cut the live feed from their studio opposite the cafe as soon as they were asked by police. Those things are coming out now, as well they should, when the situation is over and cannot be impacted by inflammatory reporting.

It is an horrific event and one, we’d hope, that couldn’t happen in Australia. It did happen and two innocent people are dead. My sincere and utter condolences to their friends and family. I hope it does not induce a fundamental change to our character or way of life. As the New South Wales Premier Mike Baird suggests, anything else would mean the perpetrator has succeeded

whatever the test we will face it head on and we will remain a strong democratic, civil society

Finally, a word on the support and solidarity promised to Australia’s Muslims through the #illridewithyou campaign, undoubtedly one positive to come from this whole event. While the messages of support are heartwarming, I can’t help feel this demonstration kindness and sincerity also arises from within the morass of fear and loathing sparked among the bitter by ill-informed, unhelpful speculation. Without the hate, we would not need a campaign to counter it.