A tale of two headlines

For weeks, the media displayed rare sympathy for two men, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who have now been executed in Indonesia. Rare indeed. It was an outpouring of humanisation and understanding that is almost never extended to the downtrodden in our society – not to refugees, not to Aboriginal people, not to Muslims accused of plotting terrorism, not to unionists and certainly not to convicted criminals.

On 30 April, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front page branding Indonesian president Joko Widodo “cruel” and an article labelling the executions “an act of barbarity … the brutal torture and state sanctioned murder of two Australian citizens in a foreign field”.

But nine years ago, when the death sentence was first handed down to Chan and Sukumaran, the Daily Telegraph was singing a rather different, and more familiar, tune. On 15 February 2006, its front page read: “NO SYMPATHY: Their drug operation would have destroyed thousands of lives – now they’ll pay with theirs.”

It’s a dramatic example of the sheer cynicism of the media, not to mention the politicians who have echoed their line. The right suffered a minor identity crisis over the executions.

On one hand, it is embedded in its DNA to promote a vicious, lynch mob, “shoot the bastards” law and order agenda, especially when the perpetrators are brown-skinned. On the other hand, it can’t pass up an opportunity to whip up a patriotic frenzy around the popular theme: civilised, modern Australia versus barbaric, backward foreigners.

People are right to oppose the death penalty, but the selective outrage from the media was not about humanitarian sentiment. It was about nationalism – and selling papers.