David Cohen on Thu, 8 Nov 2001 09:34:36 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 'Perth men urge support for Taliban'

By freelance journalist David Cohen, dcohen@wiredcity.com.au
'It's not what you expect to see on the front page of a local newspaper.'
The headline and accompanying story in a recent edition of a Perth, Western
Australia paper has provoked outrage amongst its readers, and raised
questions about media objectivity and fair reporting.
The comment above is just one reaction to an October edition of Voice News,
an independent newspaper that covers the inner northern suburbs of Perth.
'Perth men urge support for Taliban,' said the Voice headline, above a
colour photo of five young Perth Muslims who regard Osama Bin Laden as 'a
The men - one of whom has worked in the media office of the WA Islamic
Council - were reported as saying the Taliban was 'misunderstood' and that
'any Muslim worth his salt should support it in its war against the US-led
coalition against terrorism.'
While the men regarded the September attacks on the US as evil and contrary
to Islamic law, they said there had been no evidence bin Laden was
'This is why the Taliban refuse to hand over Osama, because there is no
proof,' the Voice quoted 23 year-old Mohamad Bima as saying.
Provocative stuff - and perhaps unprecedented in a mainstream Western news
organisation since September 11. It made Channel 7's national news and was
covered on Southern Cross radio.
The author of the story, Voice News journalist David Crossthwaite, has been
fielding dozens of reader responses since the offending edition hit the
"The phones ran hot for two days, but most of the really abusive calls came
in middle of night and were left on the answering machine," he says. "We had
letters to the editor, email from Sydney - and a woman from Geraldton called
nine times over two days - she just wanted to talk about it."
The responses were far in excess of the usual amount of feedback the Voice
receives. Crossthwaite describes it as a typical local publication that
concentrates on issues in its backyard.
"We're not ratbags who beat things up - we're a responsible paper that looks
at local issues and speaks to local people," he maintains. "Although it's
not often we get on TV."
Since September 11 the Voice - which distributes 39,000 copies each week -
has touched on some of the local aftermath of the attacks on the US: the
effect the ensuing crisis has had on local travel agents, and people that
have relatives overseas.
The Taliban front page had its beginnings in a letter to the editor where
the author, Abdulaziz Khan, didn't want his name used.
"I chased him up and said we wouldn't publish it without his name, but he
still said no," says Crossthwaite. "I said 'would you like to do an
interview', and he said yes. He organised to bring along some friends. I was
quite surprised when I got there and he told me about his media position -
that sparked my interest immediately, that these comments were coming from
someone who had a role in the Islamic Council. That in itself is a story,
but he was quite adamant they were his own views."
Khan and the other four men are all university students in Perth, bright and
articulate, and agreed with Khan's sentiments.
After interviewing the five young Muslims, Crossthwaite contacted WA Islamic
Council vice president Ismail Fredericks for a response. Fredericks was
aghast, and pleaded with Crossthwaite not to publish them.
'These terrible comments could land everyone in hot water and put us back to
sqaure one. Please disregard them,' he begged Crossthwaite.
"I told him I understood his take on it,"says Crossthwaite. "I also said
these people are locals and they've expressed their view."
So the front page hit the streets, and the phones at the Voice started
ringing. But Crossthwaite is sure it wasn't sensationalist reporting,
although he agrees it was a sensational story.
"What would have been sensationalist (to print) were some statistics that
Khan had quoted at me: that perhaps up to 80 per cent of the local Muslim
population agrees with their views. That would have been sensationalist,
especially without any kind of confirmation."
Ismail Fredericks says he was disappointed the Voice didn't respect his
wishes and not print the comments of Khan and his friends.
"I have no further comment to make," he says. "It has caused a lot of
damage - it has even affected my family, with people ringing me up and
saying I am a traitor."
Voice news advertisers were divided in their opinion on the story and
whether it would affect their future advertising with the paper.
"There have been a few headlines in the paper we haven't liked, but this is
extreme," says retailer Peter Treen. "It's not a good headline for a local
family paper."
Treen says he will be reviewing his advertising contract with Voice News as
a result of the story.
"Advertising in the paper works for us, we love it, but if the stories upset
the locals, what are we going to do?"
Hairdresser Lyn Muia says she was angered by the story, but she has no plans
to pull out of advertising with the Voice.
"It angered me to the stage where I felt like writing a letter to the
editor," she said. "It shocked me, but it won't affect our advertising. It
just wasn't right for the front page of a local paper."
"Advertising doesn't enter my consciousness whatsoever," Crossthwaite says.
"If they don't advertise I'm out of a job, but it's nothing to do with me at
all. But I would have though advertisers would have liked the idea of a
paper that got national coverage."
The Voice followed up their offending front page with another that reported
on the response it had generated. The fuss created by the incident has left
Crossthwaite reflecting on the nature of print journalism.
"It was a balanced piece with a descriptive and active headline - and not as
senasationalist as many of the major publications can be," he says.
"Possibly the headline was not what the story was really about...it's been
suggested to me an alternative headline could have been 'Islamic Council
condemns comments.' I don't know if I agree with that, it's not the way
headlines or the inverted pyramid works. But the whole thing bought home to
me that most people read the headline and first par, and don't read the rest
of the story."
He maintains it was a great news story, with all the classic news values.
But what about the wider implications of the Voice front page? Since
September 11, media coverage of Muslims in Australia has been largely
restricted to politicians visiting mosques, pleading for tolerance and
expressing support, and Muslims in turn condemning the attacks on America.
Are there other angles to the story, and should they be reported?
"These guys (Khan and friends) are disenfranchised, they didn't have an
opportunity to put their views," says Crossthwaite. "I can sympathise with
that. A similar thing happened with Hansonism: by putting it in the lunatic
fringe basket the media ignored it. (One Nation) would hold press
conferences and no one would show up, except for maybe Margo Kingston.
"There is a media responsibility to hear the other side, too. Not just to
print it, but certainly to listen to it. And if there's a valid reason for
putting it in the paper, then do so.
"The pro-Taliban sentiment obviously exists - I couldn't hazard a guess at
how widespread it is. But if it exists then people should be aware of it -
and not from a 'we should be frightened' point of view. Perhaps it will open
debate on it."

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