The Coverage is the Real Beat-Up

Statement by Patricia Laurie Councillor, North Coast Region
NSW Aboriginal Land Council

 
In the past week, mainstream media reporting of my community of Yamba has been inaccurate, sensationalised and ridiculous.
 
The reports relate to the arrest of 15 people - three of them Aboriginal - on February 14, following a party that got out of control at an industrial area on the edge of town.
 
During the incident, several police were allegedly assaulted and two vehicles were damaged.
 
Some media are calling it the Valentine's Day riots. The Sydney Morning Herald reported over the weekend, "Holiday haven one day, riots the next."
 
"A thin strip of barbed wire running along a high fence-top behind The Sands resort says everything Yamba residents will not: this is a town divided.
 
"On one side of the street is a three-storey, gated complex of luxury villas and apartments with a lap pool, tennis courts and spa, and spacious private houses with neat gardens behind tall wooden barriers. Across the road is a derelict moonscape; a barren paddock of dishevelled brick homes and abandoned weatherboard cottages.
 
"Welcome to Yamba, one year ago declared Australia's best tourist destination ahead of Byron Bay and Port Douglas.
 
"Last weekend the once sleepy North Coast fishing village at the mouth of the Clarence River was the scene of a riot in which party-goers allegedly danced on a police car, pelted it with bricks, then set it alight after being asked to turn music down at a shed on the fringes of town."
 
"Publicly, locals put crime down to the sporadic police presence. A dozen officers are expected to cover a population of roughly 20,000 spanning three towns and can take more than an hour to respond to triple-0 calls.
 
"Privately, two groups are blamed: the local Indigenous population and the children of low-income seachange families."
 
Unfortunately, the facts of this incident have gotten in the way of an otherwise very good story. So here are a few inconvenient truths, for media planning to visit Yamba in the future.
 
Yamba has a population of about 8,000, plus at least that number again in tourists and visitors. So the headline could equally have read, '7985 Yamba residents not arrested by police'. But where's the news in that?
 
Yes, there are occasional tensions in the town, just as there are in all Australian communities. And yes, those tensions sometimes run along racial lines.
 
But on the whole, Yamba is a cohesive community. Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people work hard at maintaining meaningful relationships. It will disappoint the media to learn that no amount of misreporting is likely to change that.
 
And it won't change these facts either.
 
Figures from 2008 from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR) reveal that the Clarence Valley Local Government Area - which takes in Yamba - has an assault rate below the state average.
 
Our region is not racked with violence - it is calmer and more peaceful than most of the state. The figures also reveal that assaults against police are below the state average in the Clarence Valley.
 
But where's no news in that either. The headline 'Yamba normally a safer town than state average' is nowhere near as interesting as, 'Community in crisis' or 'Town divided' or 'Beautiful one day, rioting the next.'
 
So here's a few more inconvenient truths.
 
The Bega Valley, way down on the Far South Coast of NSW has almost precisely the same relative crime statistics as the Clarence Valley. Can Merimbula - another tourist town - expect the arrival of busloads of Sydney journalists determined to prove it's actually a community divided by race wars and juvenile delinquency?
 
The assault rate in Cessnock is higher than it is the Clarence Valley. It's higher in Coffs Harbour. It's higher in the Cooma-Monaro region which takes in the Sydney crowd heading to the snow in winter.
 
It's higher in Glen Innes, a sleepy country town due west of Yamba.
 
It's twice as high in Inverell, another sleepy country town due west of Yamba.
 
The rate of assaults is also almost twice as high in Campbelltown; in Manly on Sydney's lower north shore; in the Byron Shire.
 
But wait for it: The rate of assaults in the Botany Bay area - where the resident MP is the premier of NSW, Kristina Kenneally - is higher than in the Clarence Valley.
 
Where are the headlines about NSW burning? Surely our state's a tinderbox? A powder keg of racial violence waiting to explode?
 
Or maybe the media is just looking for something sensational to report, rather than wade through piles of crime statistics.
 
The rate of assaults on police in the Clarence Valley is identical to the rate in the Wingecarribee Shire, home to the wealthy Bowral community. But there's no 'Bowral divided' story in the SMH, just a piece about some shopkeepers lobbying to keep St Vinnies out of the main street.
 
In the Mosman area - another of Australia's most privileged regions - the number of "liquor offences" is more than three times the rate of the Clarence Valley and four times greater than the state average.
 
So why no media campaign for a federal government intervention to stop the rivers of grog on the lower north shore? It would have more factual basis than the rubbish we're being dished up about Yamba.
 
The facts are, the mainstream media coverage of the 'Yamba riots' has mostly been rubbish. It's designed to sell newspapers or improve ratings.
 
Yamba has the same tensions average Australian communities face. Nothing more, perhaps a little less.
 
The real beat-up is the mainstream media's coverage of our community.