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Cops, robbers and shock jocks: the media and criminal justice policy

Sydney talkback radio has led the charge for a ‘ban on the burka’ AAP

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY: Today, Alyce McGovern and Elaine Fishwick look at how the impact a tabloid campaign has had on the law as part of The Conversation’s week-long series on how the media influences the way our representatives develop policy.

When it comes to criminal justice policy, it can be easy to assume that the stories we see on the news, read in the papers, or listen to on the radio, are the drivers for change.

Whilst we could quite feasibly assume the link between media commentary and policy is clear cut, the reality of the policy making process is often more complex than superficial analyses suggest. This is no less the case when it comes to “law and order” style reforms.

The relationship between the media and governments, as explored previously, is a symbiotic one; politicians need the media as much as the media need them.

Whilst the media are often accused of running the agenda on a whole range of issues, politicians themselves are not averse to turning to the media to garner favour and to boost their profile.

Successful politicians are those that use the media well; successful media organisations are those that maintain their audiences by linking in to the politics of the day.

With the amount spent on public relations and media across government departments, it would be naïve to assume the media hold all the power in the relationship; more likely, it’s a tangled symbiotic policy, politics, entertainment, information relationship.

A range of factors and a range of choices need to come together then to provide the catalyst for policy action and reform; the media are only part of this process.

The politics of policy

A good example of the complex relationship between the media and the policy making process can be seen in relation to calls to “ban the burqa”.

This week the NSW Parliament will consider legislation introduced by the Premier the Rt. Hon Barry O’Farrell that requires individuals wearing clothing that might conceal their identity to uncover their faces when requested to do so by NSW police officers and other government officials, including court officials and juvenile justice detention centre workers. The situations where the request can be made will also include non-criminal proceedings, such as traffic matters.

The proposed amendments come off the back of a heavy media campaign over the arrest, conviction, and subsequent successful appeal of Carnita Matthews for falsely accusing a police officer of ripping off her Islamic veil during a traffic stop.

In response to the overturn of her conviction, a media frenzy about the burqa and the threat of Islam was unleashed. Sydney talkback radio in particular was incensed by Matthews’ aquittal on a “technicality”, despite the evidence. The Premier announced his amendments to the Law Enforcement Powers and Responsibilities Act almost immediately after a week of sustained media coverage.

For the new O’Farrell government the Matthews case provides a golden opportunity to boost its political profile and to be seen as active and decisive.

It’s hard not to reach the conclusion from the timing of the proposed amendments these changes in NSW are being driven yet again by the more sensational and hysterical sections of the media who appear to be driven by an anti-Islamic agenda.

The Premier, however, has been very careful to couch his support for the proposed legislation in broad terms, arguing that it will apply to helmets, masks and other items of clothing, not just the burqa and the niqab. The penalties for non compliance though are quite draconian ranging from $220 fine to $5,500 and the possibility of 12 months jail.

Whilst the Matthews case certain provides the context for these developments, there is a broader scene to consider. The legislative amendments reflect much of the dominant international and domestic political discourse about the burqa and the niqab.

At the time of Matthews’ first court appearance in June 2010, France had just passed legislation banning drivers from wearing the niqab and the burqa.

Other jurisdictions were quick to follow. In NSW the Hon Fred Nile presented similar legislation to parliament in June 2010 in the form of the Summary Offences Amendment (Full-Face Coverings Prohibition) Bill.

Although the Bill never reached its second reading due to the Labor government’ actions in suspending parliament it is still on the list of this parliament’s business.

Since Nile’s first attempt to implement similar policy in NSW, we have seen changes to the balance of power in parliament. The recent NSW state election has seen the Hon. Fred Nile in a much more powerful political position, such that Barry O’Farrell and his government now need the Christian Democrat’s support.

Fred Nile has made his dislike of the niqab and the burqa, and aspects of Islam very clear. Like the statements made about ethics classes in schools it maybe that the legislation proposed this week is designed to cement political alliances.

Another factor which can play a major part in policy reform is the compelling nature of a social problem or a crisis, or evidence that a problem requires immediate attention. In this case, however, there is little evidence to support the fact that failure to remove face coverings is a widespread and serious social issue.

There is no doubt that sections of the media do play an influential role in setting the political agenda; that is, the range of topics that governments should be thinking about, but the relationship between the media, the policy process and law reform is far more complex than the events outlined above would suggest.

If governments acted in a knee-jerk fashion to everything that sections of the media raised concerns about, there would be little time for them to carry out their regular parliamentary activities.

This is the eighth part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.

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