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Media must avoid fanning flames

Some radio practitioners are fond of calling talkback shows "dial-in democracy" - as if the ability of people to go live to air to have their say, no matter how wrong in fact, misguided in intent or inflammatory in effect, somehow brings a benefit to society.

Talkback radio can inform and entertain. But it is also the haunt of a core of uneducated, bigoted, aged insomniacs carefully orchestrated by clever and manipulative hosts, universally right-wing, who know exactly which button to push to yield extreme reactions - all in the name of "good radio".

And they call it the "voice of the people". It′s not. It′s the voice of a very small number of blinkered fools who make enough noise to drown out the commonsense majority. In the wake of the Cronulla riots, the old cry has gone up: it′s the fault of the media - and fingers have pointed at talkback radio and some of its more visible hosts, such as Sydney market leader Alan Jones on 2GB.

In my view, if the question is "did the media cause the Cronulla disgrace?", the answer is no. But to the question "did the media help simmering tensions to ignite, and did the media fan the flames?", the answer is yes.

Media outlets are damned if they do and damned if they don′t. If they report the rising tensions, they publicise them. If they don′t, they′re not doing their job of telling people what′s happening in their own communities. The issue exploded on radio last Monday week, a day after the bashing of surf lifesavers at Cronulla that was the catalyst for the events that followed. On 2GB, a police spokesman downplayed the incident and said it was the first report of its kind this year.

Not so, said caller after caller on the Jones program. The bashing was just the latest episode in a recurring beachside nightmare.

Jones has been accused by his longstanding critic, Sydney Morning Herald writer David Marr, of grabbing the issue and agreeing with callers who preached hatred and violence towards so-called "Lebs" from the western suburbs who were trying to take over the "Aussie" beach at Cronulla.

Jones did not stand up to nor dissociate himself from the views of his extreme callers, but he did say on several occasions that cool heads should prevail and that it was wrong to take the law into their own hands. Several times he repeated the text message that was a call for surfsiders to defend "their" territory.

The question is whether talkback hosts should self-censor, knowing how inflammatory is the material they put to air. It is also a question for newspaper editors: Sydney′s The Daily Telegraph and The Australian published pictures and texts of SMS messages that alerted hundreds of thousands of readers to the time and place of the confrontation.

Democracy is best served by the public being informed, but that right to know has to be tempered with a law-abiding perspective that condemns all vigilante action or violence.

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