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Barry O'Farrell's belly put to torch by moral panic

One of the tests of character of the modern politician is how well they stand up to moral panics. NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell wins some brownie points from me for relatively masterly inactivity over the past few weeks as Sydney's tabloid media worked itself into a frenzy over the need to do something about king-hits.

It is true that by late in the week O'Farrell was beginning to respond to the mounting hysteria - particularly of The Sydney Morning Herald - about the need for his being seen to be doing something. But even if the cabinet caves in to every action on which the Herald and the Telegraph have insisted, O'Farrell will have outlasted all of the NSW premiers back to (but not including) Neville Wran.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell says his government will consider a range of new measures to crack down on alcohol-fuelled ...
NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell says his government will consider a range of new measures to crack down on alcohol-fuelled violence. Photo: Ben Rushton

Bob Carr would have surrendered within an hour of the first harrumph from Alan Jones, and Kristina Keneally would have lasted only a mini-second longer. Even John Howard, who had a good deal more staying power than Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and, we now know, Tony Abbott, would have succumbed to the clamour by early this week.

O'Farrell's lack of alacrity in marching to the united media tune was the more odd because the media was dropping dark hints that he, or his government, would not act because it was hopelessly compromised by his party's close association with the alcohol lobbies. These, it is said, do not want anything done that would be bad for the volume of sales.

The Liberal Party in NSW is hopelessly compromised by its association with the alcohol lobby, whether as manifested by party donations or by the number of party office-bearers and elected representatives who have made their careers from attending to the needs of pubs and clubs.

But then again, pre-emptive kowtowing to Big Grog (or Big Gaming, or Big Development) is a largely bipartisan matter in NSW, with the Labor Party equally an instrument of the same lobbies. Such lobbies can take the odd blow without too much complaint.

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The alternative innuendo, which also tends to sting O'Farrell, as it will soon sting Tony Abbott, is a ''nagging narrative'' that his inaction is a function of his being weak, indecisive or indolent. He is not, apparently, the sort of action-man with an instant response to any problem, able and willing to reverse policy after a single phone call from Ray Hadley.

O'Farrell has made something of an art form of seeming calm and deliberate, rarely flustered, and never panicking - a leader for caution, careful thought and principled policy rather than a hand puppet for the shock jocks, the local constabulary, and the more excitable and conservative of the Liberal members.

This is very frustrating for newspaper editors, not least in the silly season, when editors conceive the notions of campaigns, by which they identify major new problems in urgent need of dramatic action, and for which, once the politicians fall into line, the newspapers can claim credit.

That the problems may not be major, or new, or that action may not be necessary, or, if it is necessary, not urgent or what is demanded by those who have confected the campaign, or that whatever is done might be better done with deliberation and discussion rather than in blind panic, seems to be neither here or there.

A 1994 essay by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda in Moral Panics and the Media, (Open University Press, Maidenhead) describes the NSW situation, and the 50 before it, well enough.

We begin with a heightened level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group or category, and the consequences that behaviour presumably causes for the rest of society. It need not be about king-hits. Next time it could be about leaving children unattended in cars.

The increased concern is by no means necessarily because of an

increased incidence of whatever it is. At first it might be one incident on a slow news day, or because the silly season makes journalists hungry for stories with themes. Or, by coincidence two incidents in a row, or editorial copycatting of a campaign a newspaper has run somewhere else.

Suddenly we notice something that has been happening all the time. Or perhaps a lobby group (a police union, say, or a non-government agency whose funding turns on such panics) creates a bandwagon with media partners along for the ride.

No one can easily win arguments when reporters simply shop around for the adverse response that suits. Increasingly, every opinion of the crusaders becomes a self-evident fact and every adverse conclusion proof of cupidity, stupidity or complacency.

It is of the essence of a moral panic that the problem must seem bigger than it is. Even one injury or death from a king-hit is too many, but an impression is created that there are hundreds, and that things are getting worse by the minute, particularly because the politicians, or whoever, are not doing something. Tired and angry emergency doctors, sick of stitching up, reviving or failing to revive victims, are interviewed. Next week they will be saying the same things about traffic accidents. Police, criminologists and self-appointed ''experts'' on victims or perpetrators will jump on board. And the opposition. And of course, the friends and relations of victims, coping bravely with the devastation, and co-opted into hoping something good can come out of the tragedy.

Massive exaggeration is the order of the day, reinforced by continual reiteration of the same incidents, almost as if they are new, indignant self-righteousness, and an increasingly disproportionate volume of space devoted to the problem.

This is the crisis of the hour, mounting by the minute. We are all concerned. Why is the Premier swanning around on holiday instead of attending to it personally?

Altogether best if the perpetrators are of the ''other'' - from a group who are not ''us'', or to whom we feel hostility. ''They'' are the enemy. ''We'' are decent and responsible and respectable folk. ''They'' are deviants, bad guys, undesirables and criminals - manifestly not readers of the Herald. Not even readers of the Telegraph, usually the favourite of the criminal classes.

One can thus stereotype them, attack them, convict them without trial, campaign for their perpetual incarceration, and even make sly innuendo about their ethnicity.

A consensus must be created about the seriousness of the threat, and the need to do something. Something is usually massively oversimplified. It might be more severe punishment, even if the problem is already severely punished, although not as severely as is possible. It may be some pet hobby horse of some lobby - for example, the ''Newcastle solution'' of earlier pub closures, made to sound as if it would work on all occasions for all manifestations of the problem. The Herald has developed a special attachment to this as the self-evident panacea for all the evils associated with assault.

In the course of drumming up the panic, reporters are dispatched hither and thither, getting predictable comments from the predictable lobbies, including outright abuse of anyone who does not go along with the ''consensus'' the media is creating. Thus the Herald, in a story labelled ''exclusive'', signals that the most important news of the day is that some Geelong academic of whom no one has previously heard thinks O'Farrell is ''unbelievably stupid'' for commenting that the 1am and 3am closing times might not prevent 9pm assaults.

This stupidity, apparently, comes from the belief of the academic that ''the evidence is that people are in the pubs a lot earlier when you have earlier closing times''. This evidence is based on an anecdote that hardly anyone is out on the town at 11.30pm in Geelong, where closing times are said not to be regulated, compared with venues in Newcastle, mostly full by 9pm, which are. QED.

Alcohol-fuelled violence, particularly that inflicted by young men on each other, is a big problem, particularly in places where large numbers of people consort at night. It has been, in Sydney at least, for about 226 years come Sunday week, and it has inspired many moral panics over that long period.

The theme of the King Hitter, even before the Darlinghurst Razor Gang days, is encapsulated in Lawson's 1892 Captain of the Push:

''Gosh! I hate the swells and good 'uns - I could burn 'em in their beds,

I am with you if you'll have me, and I'll break their blazing heads."

… Would you lay him out and kick him to a jelly on the ground?

Would you jump upon the nameless kill, or cripple him, or both?

Speak, or else I'll speak! The stranger answered, 'My kerlonial oath!'''

The weekly toll of victims has been in decline for many years, even if one ignores, as this campaign does, the major class of victims, women - spouses, girlfriends and others known to the perpetrators. As a class of victim, these outnumber other young men - even strangers not themselves looking for trouble. For a long time, packs or gangs of men went around looking for trouble, sometimes with cutthroat razors. Thirty years ago, when the problem was of about five times the modern dimensions, the police response was to put in a lawless police unit, the 21 Division, led by a lawless thug, Inspector ''Bumper'' Farrell, to reciprocate in kind, to general applause from the media. All the more so if the perpetrating class were obviously different, such as Bodgies, Sharpies or Skinheads.

Nowadays, some of the thugs are of ''Middle Eastern appearance'', some owning, others acting as bouncers at, popular venues. Not a few primp their appearance and attend gyms and martial arts classes. Some are closely involved in merchandising drugs, sex, gambling and entertainment in Kings Cross. A number are regularly lionised by the media, including in gossip columns about ''celebrities''. This very process brings in young wannabes from the outer suburbs. Not all victims were not themselves looking for trouble, but most of those recently killed did nothing to provoke their assailants.

Reporters from the Herald and the Telegraph, who are apparently experts in these matters, say many get ''pre-loaded'' with alcohol at home before they set out on their expeditions, and/or fired with ''rage'' from use of steroids, cocaine and body building drugs. Perhaps this - along with alleged patterns of more and younger people, including girls, going out to get wasted, rather than merely for a good time, is new, calling for a new response. Perhaps even the Newcastle panacea.

But it might be better demonstrated in a calm and reasoned public debate, without such a sense of drama and urgency. One should never trust a kneejerk response from a NSW politician. From the time they tried, sentenced and executed Henry James O'Farrell within 40 days of his trying to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868 - nothing much good has come of indecent haste or panic. Particularly when the newspapers are part of the popular hysteria.