Impartiality in the Australian media – stuck between a rock and a hard place

By Gavin Seow                                                                               

Intended for publication in: The Diplomat

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The 19th century has been classified by many as the “British Century”. The 20th century has been classified as the “American Century”. Now, there are those that say the 21st century will be classified as the “Asian Century”, wherein some the world’s most important economic and strategic decisions for the next hundred years will be played out.

As more and more attention is being focused onto on our region, Australia has an influential role to play in the years ahead. Therefore how we manage our relationships with two of the most powerful players in the region (and our most important trading partners) – China and Japan, is of particular importance.

The volatile relationship between Japan and China however, have put Australia between a rock and a hard place in determining how best to interact with the two in terms of security and diplomacy.

Tensions between the two East Asian neighbours, who share a history of conflict, have re-emerged in recent years due to territorial disputes. The territories – known as the “Senkaku Islands” by the Japanese, and “Diaoyutai” by the Chinese, are a set of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.

Whilst relations between Tokyo and Beijing have turned frosty, Australia has chosen to be resolutely impartial on this matter – believing that the best way to continue its strong relations with the two is to not choose a side.

However, whilst it is the official stance for the government to not take sides – can the same impartiality be seen in the Australian media? This article will seek to shed light on this question, and will argue that reports on the territorial dispute have been largely impartial. That being said, some bias and a slight leaning towards Japan’s legitimacy can be observed.

In examining the stance of the Australian media on this issue, we will first examine how Chinese and Japanese sources report news related to the territorial dispute. In March 2016 a radio base was set up on the island of “Yonaguni”, which is situated near the disputed islands, by the Japanese Self-Defence Force for the purposes of monitoring activities in the South China Sea. This news was quickly picked up on and reported about by both Japanese and Chinese news agencies.

 

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http://www.shanghaidaily.com/nation/Anger-over-Japans-radar-base-situated-near-Chinese-islands/shdaily.shtml

A story titled “Anger over Japan’s radar base situated near Chinese Islands” was published on the 29th of March 2016 by the Shanghai Daily, a Chinese news agency. As expected from a hard news report, there is no explicit use of emotive or colourful language that indicates the author’s stance on the matter like one would expect from an opinion piece. Rather, the publication’s bias for the Chinese standpoint is implicitly revealed through the warrants behind the various appeals to fact that the article uses.

The very title itself, “Anger over Japan’s radar base situated near Chinese Islands”, reveals the article’s nationalistic slant on the issue. The central claim that can be gleamed from this title is that there are angry sentiments around the Japanese radar base that have been situated near territory that is understood without further clarification to be Chinese.

As the issue of Japan and China’s territorial dispute is one that is ongoing and yet to be resolved, the use of the term “Chinese Islands” as opposed to more neutral terms such as “disputed territory or “Diaoyu/Senkaku island” (which are commonly used in the Australian media) introduces a slant in the article that supports the Chinese standpoint on the issue. By not referencing the ongoing dispute by the two countries and stating that, in fact, the territories belong to China, the article is implying that the issue is not up for debate, therefore discrediting Japan’s standpoint on the matter.

The report follows a similar trend as it uses the phrase “Diaoyu Islands” in reference to the islands throughout the article without acknowledging that the Japanese call the islands “Senkaku”. In doing so the author is re-affirming the warrant that the there is no controversy or room for debate in the dispute, as the islands are called “Diaoyu” and therefore resolutely and absolutely Chinese territory.

Furthermore, the use of the phrase “Anger over Japan’s radar base” without stating who or which party is angry implies that the author is writing to an audience who shares or is amongst those who have angry sentiments towards Japan. It can be argued therefore that the author is writing to a Chinese audience who is believed to inherently understand the nation’s negative sentiments towards Japan. In other words the author assumes to be writing to an audience that understands negative sentiments towards Japan as a status quo.

The article also references a piece of discourse or narrative, which is commonly found in the Chinese media, wherein Japan is understood to be a threat to the public, due to their efforts to remilitarize.

“The 30-square-kilometer island is home to 1,500 people, who mostly raise cattle and grow sugar cane. The Self Defence Force contingent and family members will increase the populations by a fifth.”

The decision to include the statement above in the story is a deliberate choice by the author to appeal to the audience’s emotion of fear. Due to the underlying understanding of the readership’s fear of a re-militarized Japan,

The decision to include the statements above in the story is a deliberate choice by the author to appeal to the audience’s underlying fear by providing ‘proof’ or justification to the narrative of Japan’s aggressive re-militarization. By painting Japan in a negative light, the article is able to slant its readership being apathetic to the Chinese standpoint whilst consolidating the narrative of Japan being an aggressor by constantly making reference to it.

 

GSDF brings Yonaguni radar station online to keep closer eye on China

The Japan Times, March 28, 2016

 

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GSDF brings Yonaguni radar station online to keep closer eye on China

 

A news report by the Japan Times on the same story however, reveals a polarising narrative. The article, titled, “GSDF brings Yonaguni radar station online to keep closer eye on China”, while arguably more restrained than the previously examined article, still cannot be argued to be impartial. Akin to the article published in the Shanghai Times, subjective terms such as “the Senkakus” are favoured when referencing the disputed territories.

“The listening post on the nation’s westernmost inhabited island is just over 100 km east of Taiwan and nearly 150 km south of the flash point Senkaku Islands.”

Similar to how the previous article used the term “Diaoyu Islands” independently to reinforce the worldview that the disputed islands were Chinese territory, “Senkaku Islands” are used here in the same manner, to indicate to the reader that the name of the disputed territories are the “Senkakus”, and therefore unequivocally sovereign territory of Japan. The phrase “flash point” however shows some measure of restraint by the author, as it references and acknowledges the disagreements between China and Japan.

Parallels can also be drawn to the previous article’s reference to well established narratives in order to appeal to audiences. Where the Chinese article referred to the narrative of Japan being the aggressors in the bid to re-militarize, this article by the Japan Times refers to the narrative that Japan is being forced to re-militarize in order to defend itself against an aggressive Chinese neighbour.

The author actively and explicitly voices this narrative by stating that “the new radar will give Tokyo a first line of defence as it keeps a wary eye on a more aggressive Beijing”. The explicit statement of this claim however is justified through the use of an appeal to authority, by including a quote by a Japanese commander in the Self Defence force stating that:

“Establishing a stable defence setup in the area of the Nansei islands represents our country’s commitment to defence.”

Whilst this article uses an appeal to authority by quoting experts that speak positively on Japan’s new radar stations on numerous occasions, expert opinion about the contrary has not been included, thereby having the effect of slanting the readership to agree with Japan’s standpoint on the territorial dispute.

By understanding the tendency for news reports by Japanese and Chinese sources to have a nationalistic slant, an examination of how an Australian news article has reported on the same event will highlight the contrast in objectivity between the Australian media and that of our East Asian neighbours.

China Sea dispute: Japan opens self-defence radar station close to disputed islands

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The Sydney Morning Herald, March 29, 2016

http://www.smh.com.au/world/china-sea-dispute-japan-opens-selfdefence-radar-station-close-to-disputed-islands-20160328-gnsnwk.html

The article we will be looking at was published by the Sydney Morning Herald on the 29th of March 2016, titled “China Sea dispute: Japan opens self-defence radio station close to disputed islands”. Published by an Australian news agency that has relatively little stake in the issue, the tone of this report contrasts noticeably from the previous two articles. Instead of slanting the story to favour one standpoint, this article is commendable in its efforts to provide voice for both sides of the story.

This is evident from the very title itself – whereas the previous two articles used terms such as “Diaoyu” or “Senkakaku” independently when referring to the disputed territories, this article uses a much more neutral phrase in “disputed islands”.

“150 kilometres south of the disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China”

The quote above further highlights the balanced nature of this article. The phrase “disputed known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China” contains no language that would imply the islands belong to any nation – simply, it communicate to the reader that the islands are being disputed and have different names in Japanese and Chinese.

By doing so the article is choosing not to explicitly take sides, by acknowledging that there is in fact an ongoing debate about the issue and communicating to its readership that the verdict is still out on which nation the territories belong to as it is still being “disputed”. Instead of writing to persuade an audience, or to provide a rallying point for audiences who share the same worldview, this article is objective in its goal to simply report on the issue.

The article provides references to arguments made by both sides of the dispute (although perhaps not equally);

“Japan has switched on a radar station in the East China Sea, giving it permanent intelligence-gathering post close to Taiwan and a group of islands disputed by China, a move bound to rile Beijing.”

And
“Over the next five years, Japan will increase its Self Defence Force in the East China Sea by about a fifth to almost 10,000 personnel including missile batteries that will help Japan draw a defensive curtain along the island chain.”

Statements such as the ones above inform the reader of Japan’s increasing militarization in the East China Sea, which comes at the expense of angering China.

“China has raised concerns with its neighbours and in the West with its assertive claim to most of the South China Sea where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims”

At the same time however, the above statement acknowledges the assertive territorial claims made by China in recent years. By providing facts that neither support nor discredit the arguments made by either side of the dispute, the article is simply stating the facts of the matter.

Despite making reference to narratives used by both sides of the dispute there is evidence of a slight leaning towards the Japanese standpoint, although not explicitly. For instance, Japanese experts are quoted several times during the article, seemingly providing background as to why (and perhaps justifying why) the new radio station has been set up. On the other hand, quotations from Chinese experts, or authorities related to the matter have not been included, therefore perhaps implicitly slanting the article to favour the legitimacy of the narrative that Japan’s focus on re-militarization to be a result of self defence.

Indeed most of the Australian media follows a similar trend.

The following excerpts have come from news reports from Australian news agencies on news related to the dispute. Noticeably the articles actively reference both the Chinese and Japanese names of the islands.

 

Chinese warship near Senkaku-Diaoyu islands anger Japan:

The Australian, June 10 2016

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/chinese-warship-near-senkakudiaoyu-islands-angers-japan/news-story/d6d5806753354d0fdd10fae3c054ef0f.html

“Japan said a Chinese frigate sailed within 38km of the contested territory, islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China”

Similar to our previous Australian report, the phrase above references the fact that the territories are contested, and lacks language that implies ownership over territories. Further, the title includes the neutral phrase of “Senkaku-Diaoyu”, unlike the Chinese or Japanese reports which include only one or the other.

 

Tarpaulin glitch delays Japan’s first military satellite for two years:

Sydney Morning Herald, July 19 2016

http://www.smh.com.au/world/tarpaulin-glitch-delays-japans-first-military-satellite-by-two-years-20160719-gq8xn6.html

“Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a territorial dispute in the East China Sea over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China”

Once again, both ‘Senkaku’ and ‘Diaoyu’ are referenced in this article. However the following sentence;

“It has [the tarpaulin glitch hindering the satellite from being deployed] set back plans by Japan’s military to unify its fractured and overburdened communications network, and could hinder efforts to reinforce defences in the East China Sea as Chinese military activity in the region escalates.”

Whilst not explicitly stating that the Chinese will attack Japan, by implying that Japan’s defences need to be reinforced as a result of increased Chinese military activity implicitly suggests to the reader that the Chinese are at fault, and justifying Japan’s push to rearm as self-defence.

As we have seen, the Australian media remains to be relatively impartial in the reporting of the island disputes between China and Japan. Where the Japanese and Chinese news reports use the names “Senkaku” and “Diaoyu” independently, the Australian media has opted to use more neutral phrases such as “disputed islands / territories” or “Senkaku-Diaoyu”. It also has to be noted however that despite the use of neutral phrases, there seems to be a slight slant towards justifying Japan’s recent re-militarization as self defence, as the narrative of Chinee aggression is often referenced.

However slight it may be, the implicit support for Japan in Australian media reports may explain why a recent study has found that whilst 80% of Australians express favourable views towards Japan, only 57% of us feel the same about China.

Indeed as more strategic and economic importance begins to shift towards the Asia Pacific, and the world begins to turn their eyes towards our neck of the woods, Australia has important decisions to make as to where our allegiances lie. Whilst the stance of our government is to avoid making choices in the first place, there may come a time where Australia is forced into a dilemma of picking a side.

With that in mind, we need to be cautious about how reports in the media are shaping our public’s perception about our two biggest East Asian neighbours.

 

Banning the Burkini: A media analysis

Banning the Burkini: A media analysis

The burkini has become a controversial issue in recent weeks, due to the decision of several French townships to ban swim-wear on their beaches. The divisive split in opinion on the matter does not come as a surprise for many, with the ban comes off the backdrop of recent terror attacks by Islamic extremists on European shores, continuing conflict across the middle-east and increasing pressure on Muslim communities across western societies such as France and Australia.

As a result, articles on the burkini ban, including the two to be examined, do not simply argue about the merits and de-merits of the burkini, they also serve as an outlet by which discussions on issues such as societal divide and women’s rights have emerged. There is a trend for authors writing on this issue to make assumptions about the worldview and underlying values of their audiences. Two of which are especially prevalent, the first assumption is that audiences are tacitly aware of the tensions between two factions; Muslim communities, and the western societies they live in. Secondly, it seems that writers also write with the assumption that their average reader has is apathetic to the striking imagery of the Muslim woman being told to disrobe the hood of her burkini by French police, and therefore, the stance and argumentative style of the article will differ depending on whether or not they support the burkini. Those arguing against the burkini in most cases take a defensive stance, seeking to persuade audiences and dismissing counterarguments about the potentially discriminatory nature of the burkini ban.

Operating with these assumptions are the two pieces that will be analysed in this article – “Burkini represents religious fundamentalism writ large” by Jennifer Oriel and “French bans on the ‘burqini’ force women back to watching from the sideline” by Sarah Malik. An examination of the two articles reveals that whilst the burkini features as a main theme, the central arguments go beyond the ban to provide commentary on larger issues such as the mistreatment of Muslim women and the compatibility of Islam in western societies. Whilst Oriel’s article employs are more argumentative style in communicating her negative opinion of the burkini, Malik argues in favour of the burkini, heavily criticising the ban through evaluative argumentation

 

Published in ‘The Australian’, Oriel’s piece revolves around the central evaluative claim that the burkini promotes rape culture, as the burkini is a symbol of Islam’s misogynistic nature.  The main warrant of this claim, and the worldview that Oriel assumes her audience also prescribes to, is that the rape culture symbolised by the burkini is incompatible with a western society such as Australia that values equality of gender.  The writer justifies her claim through the numerous appeals to precedent and authority figures, as well as emotional appeals to the reader’s ethics and morals. Whilst persuasively sound, the article offers little in factual arguments.

As suggested by the title of the article, “Burkini represents religious fundamentalism writ large”, the author is explicit in the statement of her central claims. Laced with strong emotive language, the article may come off as too evaluative on first read. However, a careful examination will reveal that the article focuses on proving counter-arguments to the existing discussions surrounding the status of the burkini as merely a modest alternative to the bikini.

To begin with, the argumentative style employed by Oriel would suggest that she is writing in order to persuade an audience that has been shocked by the striking imagery of a burkini clad woman being pressured by French police to disrobe in public.

“The sight of French policemen surrounding a woman beachside and asking her to remove the hooded portion of her burkini provoked a reflexive defence response.”

The term “reflexive defence response” used in the above quotation suggests that the initial response of the Australian public to criticise the French police was a natural reaction that occurs without any thought and is inevitable for us as humans.

Shorty after that, the author states that:

“The Australian response to the burkini generally mirrors worldwide media coverage. The burkini-clad woman is presented as a victim of muscular secularism, which in turn is depicted as an overreaction to a harmless, areligious garment worn as a sun safe and modest alternative to the bikini.”

By presenting a contrary argument with the use of emotive words such as ‘victim’ and ‘muscular’, Oriel is once again empathising with her audience, showing that she understands that the reader’s sense of morality would have naturally prompted the initial ‘defensive reaction’.

However, Oriel is quick to follow up with a counter-argument:

As its name suggests, however, the burkini is derived from the burka – the hideous garment imposed by sharia police in Islamist states on the absurd pretext that women are immodest unless they walk in a shroud.

Having already established a connection with her readers, Oriel then uses strong emotional language such as “hideous” and “absurd” to convey her negative evaluations of the burka, and the central claim of the article. The author quickly justifies her strong claims by appealing to an authority figure in Arafa, a female Muslim journalist.

It can be argued that due to the population demographics of Australia, as well as the readership demographics of her publication, Oriel understands that her audiences are not likely to be experts on Islam. As a result Oriel is able to refer to Arafa  as an authority figure on the issue, due to Arafa’s status as a female Muslim journalist, who would more likely than not, be more knowledgeable on the issue than the average reader.

Albeit using colourful words that carry negative connotations aimed at discrediting, Oriel presents the contrary narrative that the burkini is a modest swim wear alternative to the burkini, only to effectively counter-argue in the decision to include Arafa’s analysis that the burkini promotes “an ideology that absolves men from any responsibility of committing the crime of rape and blames the victim”.

Throughout the article Oriel refers to several events and instances involving tensions between Muslim and ‘Western’ communities, case studies of sorts that Oriel evaluates negatively on the part of Muslim communities.

“More recently, European women have come under attack by Islamist men who believe they have a de facto right to assault women and girls who enjoy full freedom of movement and association in the fashion of our choosing.”

For instance, in the above quotation, Oriel claims that “Islamist men” believe they have the de-facto right to sexually assault women.  She justifies her claim by stating the following:

“Women and girls who suffered the horrific mass sexual assault in Cologne on New Year’s Eve reported that the perpetrators, reportedly men of Middle Eastern and African called them sluts and whores as they attacked en masse.”

Here, the author is making an argument that appeals to the fact of the matter that mass sexual assaults were carried out on New Year’s Eve. This argument however, relies upon the warrant that the men of Middle Eastern and African descent who carried out the attack were of Muslims. There is however, no concrete proof that indicates that these men were of the Islamic faith. As such, the author has made an inductive leap to assume that because the men were of Middle Eastern and African descent, they were “Islamist men”.

In contrast to the negative evaluations of the burkini being a symbol of misogyny, Sarah Malik in her piece believes the burkini to be a form of freedom that is being taken away from Muslim women by banning the burkini.

Published in ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, the central claim of Malik’s article is that the banning of the burkini is an attack on the Muslim woman, which will stop them from participating in an aspect of Western society. The warrant of this claim is the author’s underlying belief that women should in fact be encouraged to participate in Western society, and therefore the ban is doing a misdeed in “forcing women back to watching from the sidelines”. Like the previous article, Malik is explicit with her claim, with much of the article’s argumentation being inferred in the title; “French bans on the burkini forces Muslim women back to watching from the sidelines”.

A secondary claim that the capability for governments to decide what women can or cannot wear is sexist. This claim of course, works on the basis of the worldview that the governments making these decisions that are biased against females.

Unlike Oriel’s article however, Malik does not write her article with the primary purpose of persuading an audience, but rather, writes for an audience that she assumes is aligned with and sympathetic for her cause. Much of Malik’s argumentation relies upon her readers sharing her worldview, and therefore perhaps acts as more of a ‘flag waving exercise’.

This is evident in Malik’s evaluative style, focused not on persuasion, but on commentary, wherein she opens up the article recounting her experiences with the beach as a child growing up in a Muslim family. Her points rely more on emotion and an appeal to ethics as opposed to appeals to facts, precedents or authority. It seems that Malik assumes that she is writing to an audience that already shares her belief that the banning of the burkini is wrong. The fact that any direct reference to the banning of the burkini is made in the 7th paragraph of the article, halfway through, is indicative of the fact that the persuasion of audiences is not the primary goal of this article.

 

Malik’s in the 6th paragraph of her article states that:

“And it’s not just Muslim women who want to surf in these suits – the exquisite Nigella Lawson once famously sported a burqini for sun protection. For those who want to remain fair and lovely who don’t feel comfortable with the body beauty display otherwise required on the beach, various forms of the suit gives freedom to frolic with joyous abandon. All good right? Wrong. “

From the above statement, we can infer that Malik is making the argument that; as the burkini has various areligious applications, it should not be banned. However, whilst she is undoubtedly making an argument, she is probably not doing it for the sake of persuasion. The phrases “All good right?” and “Wrong”, suggests that Malik is automatically assuming that the reader will agree with her statements and answer “yes” when promoted with the question “all good?”. However, when she answers the reader with “No”, the reader is expected to feel cheated and incredulous, and therefore discrediting the ban against the burkini as going against common sense.

Malik begins the article with an anecdote. She recounts her experiences and perceptions of the beach as a child growing up in a Muslim family. By beginning the article with a personal anecdote, laden with the personal pronoun ‘I’, we can infer that Malik is leveraging her personal experiences as a female that has grown up in a Muslim family, to communicate to her audiences that she speaks on the matter of the burkini ban from a background of knowledge and experience.

In the second half of her article, Malik is liberal with her use of evaluative language, communicating to her wholesome disagreement with the burkini ban.

“I’m sure the ban will be a liberating experience for the Minister; because banning things and policing a woman’s access to the public space is always a great celebration of freedom and a good answer to male violence.”

In the above statement, Malik is using sarcasm to claim that the banning of the burkini, and therefore restricting access for Muslim women to the beach, is a repression of freedom for Muslim women. The warrant here is the tacit understanding that Muslim women choose to clothed modestly when going to the beach, which the author expects the audience to understand. There is little here however, in the form of justification. Instead, the author is making an ad hominem argument, implying that the French Minister for Women’s rights is not suited for his role.

Like Oriel, Malik also references the2005 Cronulla riots, stating that:

“When the Cronulla riots broke out in Australia in 2005 it seemed to confirm the metaphor of the beach as a kind of cultural battleground welcome only to a certain kind of person; the last glorious Anglo frontier against the dreaded Muslims”.

Whilst the author does not explicitly say so, it can be assumed that the above quotation refers to the worldview and perspective held by the majority of non-Muslim Australian society during the riots of 2005. The use of evaluative language such as “glorious Anglo frontier” and “dreaded Muslims” is used sarcastically, perhaps not so much as to vilify ‘Western’ society, but rather to garner sympathy for Muslim communities.

Similarly, the use of evaluative language to create a “White” versus “Muslim” narrative is also used by Oriel. Oriel throughout her article uses vague catch-all phrases such as “21st century West”, “Islamist men”, “Jihadist attack” and “free thinking Western women”, to create a sense of divide, communicating to her Australian reader that the Islamist ideas represented by the burkini has no compatibility with Western society. In other words, she is using ill defined words such as “Islamist” that the reader vaguely understands to be associated with terrorist attacks to instil a fear of the “other” or “Muslims”.

To conclude, whilst both Oriel and Malik have written on the burkini banning, their stances on the issue and the literary, argumentative and linguistic techniques used differ significantly. Although, both authors employ the heavy use of evaluative language and statements in their argumentation, perhaps a trait for articles written on issues as politically charged as this. However, whilst Oriel takes a more argumentative style of writing, in providing numerous justifications that appeal to authority, Malik approaches the issue from a more evaluative position, seeking not so much to persuade, but perhaps to provide a rallying point by which readers of the same worldview can solidify their ideas.

 

Gavin Seow