The coverage of the Margaret River tragedy shows the sensationalism about the spectre of Port Arthur obscures the greater discussion we need to have.
When great-grandpa died, Nanna closed the door to his bedroom. It remained untouched until after her own death. Later, I asked Mum why. Mum told me “people sometimes do that when someone they love dies. But I don’t think it’s very healthy.”
Mum could have been describing sectors of the Australian media as coverage of the Margaret River tragedy has unfolded. Initially, the reporting was subdued. It stuck closely to facts given out by police, focussing on the impact of such events on first responders and local communities and refraining from undue speculation, sensationalism or blame.
Then the ABC labelled the deaths “Australia’s worst mass shooting” since Port Arthur in 1996 – a headline repeated around the world. It is an accurate statement but the ostentatiously soundbite-sized quotes from one of their own employees about “the number of guns in Australia” make it hard to believe technical correctness was foremost in the anonymous writer’s mind.
It seems the ABC deliberately chose to revert to the lurid and painfully simplistic “Port Arthur narrative” that gets rolled out whenever firearm violence is discussed in Australia.
The narrative currently runs: in 1996, after a massacre in which 35 people were killed, we changed our gun laws and stopped mass shootings…but we need more laws to stop mass shootings. And the laws work because there are fewer gun-related deaths…but there are as many guns in Australia now as there were before Port Arthur, so we need more laws. Because otherwise…Port Arthur.
Like an elderly widow closing a bedroom to cope with grief, this illogical narrative has shut the door on questions about why people commit such horrific crimes. It has kept us unhealthily frozen at a point in history when we were all too willing to accept the reassuring belief that gun laws are the “solution” to violence.
It is a narrative that is finally falling apart.
While the ABC – followed by mucky breakfast TV shows desperate to salvage their ratings – were busy trying to whip up a moral panic about guns, the Margaret River community, police and politicians did not play to the script. Instead, they started talking about understanding the reasons. They communicated their feelings about loss, support and pathways to healing. They spoke compassionately and articulately about loneliness, isolation and adversity.
And in an unprecedented break from the established narrative, WA Premier Mark McGowan said: “We have some of the strongest firearm laws in the world … It’s hard to work out what we could do differently.”
By Monday the ABC quickly and quietly backed away from what it had eagerly tried to start on Friday, coyly suggesting that any debate about gun laws was just something going on overseas.
Of course, the practice of connecting Port Arthur with any mention of firearms has become so embedded that even the most ethical journalists seem to struggle to rise above it. One sharp lesson is unlikely to change rhetoric that has been years in the manufacture. Some will seek to preserve their treasured narrative at all costs.
Distastefully, this is already apparent. Lobbyists who were silent when the definition of a “mass shooting” was fiddled upwards so they could turn a blind eye to the Hunt family murder-suicide suddenly cry great crocodile tears for the children in that family. Activists who have spent years trading on the line that Australia does not have mass shootings have developed an abrupt interest in how family mass homicides are “different”, conveniently forgetting they have always counted those incidents in order to say we had “13 mass shootings before Port Arthur”. And so on.
As WA Nationals MP Terry Redman said: “I don’t think the debate will be triggered locally as it will be from outsiders putting their views in from outside.” By invoking the Port Arthur narrative to push their own agenda about the Margaret River shootings, media outlets have shown how out of touch they are with the broader community and exposed a conceit that has gone largely unchallenged for years.
It is truly appalling that it has taken more deaths for the Port Arthur narrative to be put under long-overdue scrutiny. However, the confronting reality is that in the two decades since we accepted that comforting narrative and stopped asking difficult questions, we have missed many opportunities to learn about the “why” of such events.
In the weeks and months ahead, as the media glare on Margaret River fades, we can take from this awful event a positive. We have the opportunity to move forward as a country, reject trite rhetoric and show a new maturity about how we respond to violence. After an unhealthy 22 years fixated at one point in time, we can finally open the door, air out the room and start letting some daylight in again. No matter how much we might have loved that narrative, it’s time to let go.