July 8, 2010

Assertions of national identity: How the media informed Australia’s perceptions of asylum seekers post 9/11.

During the 2001 Federal election campaign, a national rights discourse emerged asserting Australia’s authority and ownership over its physical and cultural territory. The issue was one of border protection and the Howard Government’s hard line approach to asylum seekers was gathering rapid support. Predicated by the White Australia Policy of 1901 and based on themes of exclusion and inclusion, Howard’s national rights discourse fed into a multi level phenomenon - the social construct of a national white identity and Australia’s deeply entrenched fear of invasion from the north. By the end of 2001, the mainstream media was riding high on the wave of ‘illegal immigrants’ and profiteering from a campaign based on propaganda. Headlines drew public attention to the alleged ‘refugee crisis’ that had by now won Howard another election. In the media, new racism replaced old racism as reporters did their best to avoid anti-discrimination laws and our attention was redirected to the cultural and religious differences between asylum seekers and ‘authentic Australians’. This essay will argue that public perception of asylum seekers (as a category of people) has been negatively shaped and determined by the Australian mainstream media. It will further argue that repetitive negative stereotyping as perpetrated by the Australian media, has created an ideological construct, one that seeks to protect and defend an imagined national identity, against the perceived threat of deviance.

By August 2001, the issue of asylum seekers had reached a social tipping point when Prime Minister John Howard refused the landing of 432 asylum seekers rescued by a Norwegian freighter. Headlines with catastrophic connotations such as ‘Refugee Crisis’, ‘Tampa Crisis’ and ‘Children Overboard’ were used to incite fear in the community and to ‘crystallize the disturbed element of public opinion (Gosden 2006, p.4). Suddenly, our borders were ‘swamped, ‘awash’, with ‘waves’, ‘more waves’, ‘latest waves’, ‘floods’, ‘tides’ of ‘illegal aliens,’ ‘people smugglers’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘possible terrorists’. As time wore on the Howard Government’s use of symbolic political language was picked up by the media in an attempt to avoid direct reference to racial discourse. Pickering (2001, p. 172) argued that the use of symbolic political language worked to reinforce notions of deviance and to affirm the government’s branding of asylum seekers as a destabilizing social force. Such notions of deviance/ illegality were used by both politicians and the media and juxtaposed against a more desirable notion of the law abiding/genuine refugee. One example of this juxtaposition is the infamous quote made by then Prime Minister John Howard regarding Australia’s right to make specific value judgments. ‘We decide who comes into this county and the manner in which they come’ (MacCallum 2010). Howard’s comment, which referred directly to people seeking asylum, received high rotation in the media, thus giving more weight to the ‘perceived threat’ of all asylum seekers to disrupt and destabilise the normalcy of Australian social order.

The ‘breach’ or ‘panic’ and consequent attempts to ‘fortify’, ‘fortress Australia’ from the perceived threat of ‘the other’, functioned symbolically as messages to ‘reaffirm the social order and to maintain the notion of control’ (Pickering 2001, p. 179). The Pacific Solution does not merely imply, but literally suggests a governmental solution to the ‘threat’, ‘breach’ and ‘panic’ caused by ‘them/the other’ - people who have come here seeking asylum. Over time, and through media saturation, the negative overtone’s of ‘us and them’ of ‘inclusion and exclusion’ of ‘fear and safety’, ‘legality and illegality’, ‘good and evil’ ‘water and land’ were socialised and subsequently normalised within Australian society.

By December 2001, support for mandatory detention had reached overwhelming proportions with opinion polls showing ‘more than 80% of Australians agreed with the government’s harsh policy’ (MacCallum 2010). In the news media, the cultures and values of asylum seekers were commonly misused and misrepresented to justify government policy and to establish the social construct of Australia’s national identity (Gale 2004, p.322) In another attempt to establish difference, repeated referencing was made to the mode of transport (boats) used by asylum seekers, this time between contemporary, western folk who travel ‘normally’ with passports on planes. Inevitably, the trial by media was having great success convincing the Australian public about the threat of  ‘deviant immigrants’ eager to sneak in through the back door. As Pickering (2001, p.181) notes, the infamous front door/ back door motif was also used to draw distinctions between ‘legal’ immigrants and ‘illegal’ asylum seekers. Eventually, it helped to depict the latter as a destabilising social force, exploiting the generosity of hardworking Australians by trying to get a free ride (Pickering 2001, p.179). Hence, the normalisation of deviance was thoroughly achievable, because it tapped into old beliefs and value systems as well as cherished notions of what it meant to be Australian (Gale 2004, p.322).

By late 2001, it had become increasingly popular for Australians to openly display their pride for country. As Gosden (2006, p.12) suggests, for certain sections of the Australian public, there was a sense in which their identity as an Australian had become violated and diminished and pride became a way in which to reassert that identity. Van Kreiken et al (2000, p.542) describes this pride as ‘phony pride’ or ‘racism parading as pride’. Arguably, the construct of ‘phony pride’ centers on two distinct themes - territoriality and sameness. Post 911, and as a response to Islam’s trial by media in the west, parts of Australia had awoken with a sudden urge to protect and defend this sameness from what it perceived as the enemy of difference. The growth spurt in nationalism can also be attributed to a push by government and media toward a more recognisable Australian identity.

By 2003, new racism or ethnocentrism had become central to the debate around asylum seekers as the government asserted its ‘dominant white cultural attitude’ (Pickering 2001, p.178), over the cultural values and beliefs of Islam. The primary idea being put forward was that compared to ‘contemporary’ or ‘western’ social reference points, Muslims were living examples of a primitive culture, whose beliefs were inferior and archaic (Aslan 2009, p.133). In Australia, ethnocentrism was used as a way to link terrorism (deviance) to all people from Islamic nations, including those who had come here seeking asylum. In September 2003, the Howard Government introduced the ‘1800 Terror Hotline’, of which fridge magnets were dispersed to every home across the country. Howard’s terror hotline, which stereotyped ‘all’ Muslims as potential terrorists, had now physically infiltrated our homes. Australians had begun to associate asylum seekers with caricatures of Islam - as suicide bombers, terrorists, criminals, war mongers oppressors and finally as an inferior category of people whose archaic cultural beliefs could not merge with Australia’s superior cultural identity. As an ethnocentric strategy, Islamophobia helped secure the divide between ‘them’ (asylum seekers, Muslims, terrorists) and ‘us’ (‘ordinary Australians’) and created more fear around the enemy of difference (Gale 2001, p.326).

The portrayal of asylum seekers, not as people but as waves, tides, threats and possible terrorists is illustrative of the media’s direct and powerful ability to influence and control, in this case a large element of the population. As such, it is not difficult to see how as a social process, the media portrayal of asylum seekers has shaped negative perceptions. Generally speaking, the populist media are the only source or reference point for the acculturation process between asylum seekers and Australians. Without the benefit of direct social interaction, basic facts such as age, sex, occupation, likes, dislikes etc are excluded from the discourse and therefore effect the audience’s ability to form accurate perceptions. Gale (2006, p.327) argues that secular Australia’s overwhelming perception of asylum seekers is based on a series of assumptions, developed through a process of stereotyping courtesy of the media. As such, perceptions emerge of ‘them’ as one homogenous category of people, as opposed to the varied and eclectic group of men, women and children from a variety of countries, each of whom carrying their own unique experiences of why and how they have arrived here in this manner. Furthermore, in the absence of direct interaction, media representations carry even more weight and as a result are often perceived as factual because there is no comparison for truth.

It must be argued that of the 80% of Australians who supported the government’s mandatory detention policy back in 2001, a majority was ignorant to the most basic truth pertaining to issues of asylum. And of that 80%, the same majority would have been manipulated by the media into false perceptions of asylum seekers not as individuals, but rather as a category of people - the nameless, faceless inkblot in the newspaper, the boatload, the wave, the crisis, the enemy - devoid of all human quality and expression. To purposely withhold sensory information from the public is undoubtedly manipulative, however it merely exemplifies the media’s vision to incite fear and hostility and to conjure false perceptions in the community. Furthermore, it must be said that asylum seekers have no power over the way they are depicted in the news media (Gale 2004, p.327). The words, images and sounds are chosen specifically for what they reveal and what they conceal, and for the way in which they support and convey an agenda.
Australia has a long and established identity as a white nation of the Antipodes for non- Indigenous Australians. It must be argued however, that over time we have shed layers of this outdated identity in order to incorporate a more postmodern view of ourselves as a diverse and multicultural nation. We need look no further than to the countless other nationalities that have assimilated into the fabric of Australian society to know that as a nation we are no strangers to the concept of the other.  While it could be easily assumed that negative perceptions of asylum seekers exist simply because they challenge the traditional values of an Anglo-Celtic ideology, I argue that what we are seeing now is more complex than that. The hostility we have witnessed toward asylum seekers is precisely the same hostility that spurred the Cronulla riots, and the same hostility that drove the more recent attacks on Indian students in Victoria. Australia’s surge in ‘phony patriotism’ can at best be described, as the alliances that were made by ‘ordinary Australians’ to defend an ideology, regardless of the immoral and unethical costs. As Gale (2006, p.324) explains, asylum seekers transgress many boundaries: physical, geographic, language, legal, national, social, religious and political, and in doing so, threaten not only the physical security, but also the integrity of the nation.

Throughout this essay, notions of new racism have been explored in relation to the ethnic stratification of asylum seekers arriving here in Australia. While it has been observed that Australia is still a deeply racialised society with a strong culture of social separation, the determining factor is no longer one of race, but rather of religion and culture - Islamic culture in particular- or the media’s misrepresentation of Islam to be exact. Encouraged by the Howard-Bush alliance who claimed that they were engaged in a ‘war of civilizations’ against Muslims, Islamophobia has been growing rapidly in Australia, as a direct response to international conflicts involving Muslims. Events such as September 11, the Bali Bombings, and the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been marketed and sold by the media for the stark differences between the ideologies of Islam and Christianity.  In Australia, it is the portrayal of these events that have triggered such widespread animosity toward people of Islamic faith.
The fear of Islam is responsible for new racism in the west and in Australia it is also partly responsible for our deplorable treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. To suggest that these attitudes can be changed overnight with a change of leader is naive; however with time and given the right leadership, perceptions can be reformed and anxieties can be put to rest within the wider community. While the media has played a significant role in determining some heinous misconceptions about people seeking asylum, political battles have been fought and won by maintaining unhealthy levels of fear within the community.  It is precisely this fear that is driving both our resentment of asylum seekers and our phony national pride because it is the fear that keeps us united - the inherent fear of the terrorist attack, of the deviant other, of the ‘hordes’ and ‘waves’ and ‘floods’ and ‘tides’ and ‘boats’ and ‘bombs’ and ‘veils’ that just keep coming.

Aslan, A. (in press), Islamophobia In Australia, Agora Press, Glebe, NSW.

Coco, A. & Peake, A. 2009, Study Guide: Introduction to Sociology, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Gale, P. 2004, ‘The Refugee crisis and fear: Populist politics and media discourse’, Journal of Sociology, (online), vol. 40, pp. 321-340.

Gosden, D. 2006, ‘What if no one had spoken out against this policy? The Rise of Asylum Seeker and Refugee Advocacy in Australia’, Portal, (online), vol. 3, pp.1-21. Http:// [Accessed March. 2010]

MacCallum, M. 2010, ‘Boat People and Bloodthirsty Rhetoric’, Sunshine Coast Hinterland Times, 8 April. 2010, editorial.

Van Kreiken, R., Smith, P., Habibis, D., McDonald, K., Haralambos, M.E. & Holburn, M., 2000, Chapter 7, Race, ethnicity, national identity and aboriginality, in Sociology: themes and perspectives, Pearson Education: Frenchs Forest, pp. 542–543.


Anonymous said...

Wow all I can say is that you are a great writer! Where can I contact you if I want to hire you?

Misha Sim said...

Anonymous, thanks for the compliment! You can contact me regarding freelance work at