This week, commentator Alan Jones announced his retirement from radio. Many are discussing his legacy including Prime Minister Scott Morrison who congratulated Jones on air for doing “right by your country,” to ABC’s Media Watch commending Alan Jones’ work ethic.
For Arab-Australians, that legacy is dominated by one of the worst race riots in Australian history. For them, Jones’ is a legacy that has left deep scars and remains an unhealed wound.
“He’s on his way out now, he’s walking out the door,” says author of the Miles Franklin-nominated novel, The Lebs and the director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, Dr Michael Mohammad Ahmad. “For everyone in professional industries, especially when they have such a big platform, they have to look back to see whether that made the world a better place. For many Arab-Muslim people, the world is a more divisive, hateful, miserable place because of [Jones’] contribution.”
Ahmad is referring to the comments broadcast by Alan Jones in the week leading up to the Cronulla Riots of 11 December 2005. As journalist Kym Middleton reports for SBS, ‘the comments were subject to an investigation by the federal government’s media watchdog, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) who found that the program Breakfast with Alan Jones had breached the Commercial Radio Code of Practice, 2004 because it racially vilified and encouraged violence toward Lebanese and Middle Eastern People’.
Excerpts from Jones’ original 2005 audio and its analysis forms part of more than 200 pieces of multimedia content that I produced for the SBS Interactive documentary, Cronulla Riots: The Day That Shocked the Nation. Winner of the Walkley award for Multimedia, the interactive is a deep dive into the cause and effect of the Cronulla Riots, predominantly from the perspective of Arab-Australians, for the first time.
Ahmad’s contribution to the interactive includes the essay, “A line in the Sand and a line outside the Mosque” in which the author addresses the retaliation of the community to the riots on the beach:
“This brought me to ask the most fundamental question for a Muslim on the brink of war: What would The Prophet Muhammad have done? I know Muhammad would not have smashed any cars or businesses, he would not have raised a hand on any person at any beach, and he would not have burned any flags. But as I stood there guarding the mosque that day, I couldn’t say for sure that The Prophet would not have been standing there too.”
No one from the community who lived through that time remains neutral.
“In the case of the Cronulla Riots there were a number of factors that came together in a perfect storm,” comments Professor Catharine Lumby in the Interactive. From dog whistling in the media, calls to action on mobile phones, slogans written onto bodies and the sand to the ethnic descriptors used by NSW Police to help identify and apprehend persons of interest (POIs) – an understanding of the use of language as a weapon and instigator to violence is key to understanding what happened in 2005.
The interactive also examines media representation, including language, before and after the Riots. “Long before the fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Sydney ‘Middle Eastern’ community was demonised by a consistent, repetitive message that emanated from the media, politicians and police: if a person from an ethnic minority committed (or was suspected) of commitment a crime, the whole ethnic community would be held responsible,” Rudi Soman writes in his piece.
In the interactive and the award-winning long form documentary that sits at its heart, we hear from many members of the community unfairly punished by this “consistent, repetitive message” in mainstream media. As participant Nemat Kharboutli says: “We are the generation of media headlines. You couldn’t just be a kid growing up. Because you were not just a kid growing up. You were a Lebanese kid growing up. And you were a Lebanese-Muslim kid growing up. And if word got out that you did something wrong, that’s not just your issue as a person or your private issue. That is the issue of the community.”
Reflecting on the riots now, Ahmad cannot believe it’s been fifteen years.
Ahmed has gone on to write The Lebs which takes place during the time of the Riots and has created a body of work in which he reflects deeply on those events. “It’s been fifteen years but it feels so recent. When people of colour talk about racism, it’s something that is with you for the rest of your life. It actively traumatises you: how painful it was. Even though it’s been fifteen years, I don’t think we are healed yet.”
The interactive documentary is available here.
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