I recently came to a striking realisation: I am a racist. What’s more, I have been for years. It was essentially a ferry disaster that brought me to this realisation.
Back in 1987 I was working as a foreign editor on the Melbourne daily tabloid newspaper, the Sun News Pictorial (now the Herald Sun). When I think back over my career, my memories tend to be signposted by major news stories: deaths of the Popes, Reagan shot, John Lennon shot, Melbourne’s Hoddle Street shooting, end of the Berlin wall; the big stories.
Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian
One such story was the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy. On 6 March 1987 the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized after leaving the Belgium port of Zeebrugge. Almost 200 people were killed.
At the Sun we gave this tragedy blanket coverage, devoting six full pages of the paper to it. I remember being deeply moved as I read the copy from our correspondents and news services, recounting all the personal tales of people who had lost those dear to them in such tragic and shocking circumstances.
We continued to cover every subsequent development of the story until the investigation’s final findings many months later.
Ten months after the Zeebrugge tragedy there was another ferry disaster. On 20 December 1987, the oil tanker Vector collided with the ferry Dona Paz in the Philippines, spilling oil onto the water that then ignited. More than 4300 people perished in what must have been the most horrific of circumstances. Only twenty four survived.
This is considered to be the worst peacetime sea disaster in history, yet I had completely forgotten about it until recently. It was not career-defining story for me; I was reminded of it while doing a Google search.
Memories are formed by strong emotions. If an event provokes a strong emotional reaction in us we will always remember it: first day at school, first kiss, first love, getting a football for Christmas, elation, heartbreak.
The reason I forgot about the Dona Paz tragedy is because it did not provoke strong emotions in me at the time. Not like the Zeebrugge incident. This concerned me.
I recently went back through the archives to see how we treated the Dona Paz story compared to the Herald of Free Enterprise. We gave the Dona Paz a mere eleven paragraphs across the top of page two. At the time we thought the death toll was 1500, and yet it didn’t even make it to the lead item on the page. Why?
While emotions are markers for memories, they are also the key to a good news story, particularly in a tabloid newspaper like the Sun. If we don’t feel the emotions, then chances are our readers won’t feel them either. If they are not getting their emotional fix outrage, horror, shock, sadness, fear, surprise, humour, love they will stop buying the paper.
So why didn’t I feel strongly about the Dona Paz? There was certainly horror, but the horror was not enough to give it the blanket coverage of the Herald of Free Enterprise, also a foreign story.
The reason I didn’t feel the same depth of emotion, I now realise, is because I am a racist.
Although I could never have admitted it to myself at the time, the fact is I felt the Filipinos were less human than us. By ‘Us’ I don’t mean Us Christians the Filipinos are about 85 per cent Christian and I don’t mean Us English speakers again the Filipinos mostly speak English. I mean Us of the First World. We who have cars, electric toothbrushes, leaf-blowers and wall-to-wall carpets. We who get really annoyed when we can’t find the Tabasco sauce in the supermarket. We who hate it when an episode of our favourite TV soap says ‘Continued next week’. Us.
None of Us were aboard the Dona Paz; it only killed 4386 of ‘Them’. But many of Us were on board the Herald of Free Enterprise.
So what exactly did I believe was the difference between Us and Them?
Thinking back I would have to say that I believed ‘They’ didn’t love their children as much as We love ours. They wouldn’t grieve over the loss of their husbands, fathers, sisters, mothers, wives, lovers, colleagues and friends to the extent that We would. To Them, life is cheap. To Us, life is precious. I had to believe this because I could not have done my job if I believed otherwise.
Catastrophes involving mass casualties happen to Them all the time. They would arrive on my desk in the newsroom perpetually: plane, boat, train and bus wrecks, fires, floods, famines, earthquakes, landslides, epidemics and massacres. There seems to be at least one of these happening somewhere out there all the time. And they always seem to involve huge death tolls. Of course, we would report them. However, unless there was some link to at least one of Us, we would keep the reports brief.
Community attitudes are very much a product of the media. Yet in the media we too often tell the community what we think they want to hear. It’s the chicken and the egg: our readers can’t feel any affinity for people they know nothing about, and we won’t report on them unless our readers feel some affinity for them.
By far the most effective and efficient way to provide our readers with their daily emotional fix is by following celebrities. Readers know these people, so, love them or hate them, they will always react to news about them. Britney’s breakup, Hugh’s high-jinx, Kylie’s cancer, or just what Brad has for breakfast: it’s easy pickings if you want to sell papers or magazines, which, of course, is the bottom line in the media, as with any other business.
Could we in the media have made people care about those who died on the Dona Paz? I believe the answer is yes. Michael Buerk did it with the famine in Ethiopia twenty years ago. He did it by turning the victims into people people like Us. Who could ever forget those iconic images of the tragic yet noble mother cradling her dying child? That is what journalism should be about.