|Photo: Lucas Coch, AAP|
Filming an Australia Day awards ceremony at a glass restaurant near parliament must have beckoned as another pedestrian assignment -shooting up the nostrils of leaders at lecterns, stowing away a couple of routine cutaways of, well, other cameramen. Might have been 20 seconds at best as part of a presenter-voiced montage at 6pm.
But then: "Extraordinary scenes in Canberra today as an angry and violent mob forced the emergency evacuation of the prime minister and opposition leader from an official function..." Hubba Hubba. "Running the gauntlet of baying protesters, federal police bundled a clearly terrified prime minister into a waiting car." Oh, journalistic joy: 'Anger, violence, gauntlets, terror' - don't get to use those words covering Senate Estimates. And for a Canberra cameraman - the novelty of spontaneous and unrehearsed speed, movement, colour and emotion was mana from heaven. Who can blame them for beating it up?
For a beat-up and an hysterical over-reaction this most clearly was. The game was given away at the end of the news report on Channel Nine when the reporter said there were no arrests. And for a discriminating viewer, a second or third viewing of the footage of the "frenzy" showed a dislocation between the script and the actual events. A "riot"; a "violent mob"? Well, yes, they were banging on the window, but where was the violence? This was a long way from Tripoli. And in the shot of the police bundling Gillard into the car, hardly a protester is to be seen. In fact, there are more police and media in shot than anyone else. If there is panic, it's panic on the part of the security people. And the media loved it.
Call me cynical, but for my money this was a classic case of how journalists' infatuation with "great pictures" can distort their own editorial judgement. Television newsrooms are rife with this. This is a medium, after all, that is all about visuals. And with 99 per cent of the political news out of Canberra consisting of talking heads and set-up shots, an actual spot news story involving both the PM and the Opposition Leader on an otherwise quiet public holiday was always going to get the, err, mixmaster treatment.
Newspapers do it too. And in this case, it was just too tempting for journalists to describe Julia Gillard as terrified. Well, perhaps she was. But was she frightened of the protesters or at being dragged along the ground by an over-zealous and clearly pumped up security guard? Pictures can be very malleable in the wrong hands.
My philosophy when I suspect a beat-up is to ignore the Australian media's version altogether and see how the global wires treat the story. Correspondents who work for the like of Reuters and AP know a riot when they see one and their seen-it-all-subs often have a perspective lacking locally. Their headline on the story: "Aussie PM Loses Shoe in Protest Fracas". Quite.
(See also: 'The Mob Violence that Wasn't' - Ben Eltham, New Matilda and 'Australia Day' - Mike Stutchbery)