State of NSW: Setting the agenda on crime in NSW

Are police or the media leading the debate on crime in NSW. AAP

With the state election in NSW approaching, and the predicted demise of the reign of Labor, there is no more perfect an opportunity to reflect on the way in which law and order issues have come to characterise politics in NSW over recent decades.

So far the law and order debate during the current election campaign appears somewhat milder than previous manifestations, but it would be foolish to suggest that law and order is no longer the bread and butter of a successful election campaign.

Kristina Keneally has already signaled her intentions to draw the Liberals into a law and order auction in an attempt to rekindle Labor’s chances in the polls. If anything, the position we find ourselves in now is incredibly telling about just how predictable the two major political parties in NSW have become in the race for votes.

Whilst there have been signs of a more muted law and order campaign, at least from the Liberals, both major parties are certainly not shying away from some of the perennial promises that emerge every election.

Each party has promised to provide more police with tougher powers and better resources; Labor focusing on outlaw bikie gang concerns, the Liberals on high-tech crime fighting equipment. Over the past few decades, law and order issues have become one of the most important electoral linchpins both locally and internationally. Elections have been won and lost on the strength of the law and order policies put forward by political parties. As Australian criminologists Russell Hogg and David Brown contended in their 1998 book Rethinking Law and Order, law and order has become an issue “of considerable electoral significance”, where political parties espouse ‘get tough’ rhetoric on matters of crime in an attempt to placate community fears about crime.

Leading this movement towards populist politics has been the increased influence of the media and, in particular, talk back radio commentators or ‘shock-jocks’, such as Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, John Laws and Steve Price, on debates over law and order. Talk back radio has regularly been accused of selectively distorting and manipulating public perceptions of crime, creating a false picture that promotes stereotyping, bias, prejudice and an oversimplification of the facts.

The recently retired Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery warned about the impact of such imagery on the perception of the public on criminal justice matters, arguing that talk back ‘entertainers’ create a completely improper foundation from which to develop policies for law reform.

Fears about terrorists, asylum seekers and refugees, and ‘ethnic’ gangs, to name a few, litter the airwaves, providing motivation for the public and politicians to unite against these perceived threats to our shared safety and security. The ability of the media to manipulate such fears became no more apparent than when mobs of people converged on Cronulla Beach, spurred on by a talkback call to arms, to rescue the ‘Australian way of life’ from ‘Middle Eastern grubs’.

One of the reasons why the issues raised in talk back forums are so influential comes down to the perception amongst politicians that such programs represent the thoughts and opinions of the ordinary citizen.

Talk back programs regularly lead the rating surveys, especially in Sydney, where figures such as Alan Jones and Ray Hadley attract a mainstream audience that far outweighs their nearest rivals. Politicians can tap into the fears whipped up by such media commentators for political advantage. In the case of the Cronulla Riots, then Premier Morris Iemma proposed to introduce a twenty-five year maximum prison term for anyone convicted of assaults on lifesavers. At the time, criminologist Scott Poynting described the manipulation of fear over ‘ethnic crime gangs’ by Labor as a symptom of the racialisation of crime.

Such knee jerk solutions have become part and parcel of the political reaction to media campaigns. Where we might expect politicians to be reliant upon the views of experts and research to guide policy formation, development is commonly driven by media opinion and calls for action; they pay greater attention to the wave of popular opinion when formulating ideologies and policies around law and order, often letting debate be dictated by the most vocal of commentators.

Former Premier Bob Carr, himself a savvy media operator, regularly appeared on Alan Jones’ program, gaining favour for his no nonsense approach to law and order. With the majority of the public forming their opinions about crime from what they see or read in the news, the relationship between politicians and the media is one of significance.

Media attention to crime matters captures the attention of the public and, perhaps unsurprisingly, politicians too. Political parties, especially at election time, campaign strongly on law and order issues, often reducing quite complex crime problems to easily digestible ‘sound bites’ for news broadcasts on television, radio and in newspapers.

Nowhere has the significance of law and order issues been more evident than here in NSW. Since coming to power we have seen successive NSW Labor premiers introduce a myriad of legislative amendments aimed at appeasing an increasingly vocal public. For example, police powers have been increased in a range of areas, including summary offences and terrorist-related operations; tougher bail laws were introduced in the aftermath of the Cronulla riots; elevated maximum sentence penalties were established following a series of high profile ‘gang’ rape cases; and laws have been tightened around the cross-examination rights of the accused.

In the aftermath of his controversial departure, former NSW Police Commissioner Peter Ryan argued that the media were too influential in NSW. Indeed, he felt that government decisions, including his own sacking, were often made in response to media criticism and critique. When we see reports claiming that government ‘spin doctors’ earn salaries in excess of those paid to government department heads, it is hard not to be cynical about the importance placed on media representations.

What we have witnessed in NSW, over successive terms of the Labor government, has been a shift in the way in which criminal justice policies are formulated and implemented. Policies are not always based on informed and detailed information and debate; rather they are often prompted by emotional and moral ‘commonsense’ understandings of crime, driven in part by media ‘moral panics’ over law and order concerns.