JUDITH BETTS. Dutton, the media and framing Lebanese migration as Fraser’s ‘mistake’

Mar 25, 2019

Events in Christchurch have prompted a long-overdue examination of our own tolerance of the dog whistling and hate speech our politicians and the right-wing media have engaged in for years now.  But research conducted by a colleague, Dr Mehal Krayem, and I after Dutton’s comments in 2016 found that it was not just the right-wing media who have a case to answer.  Our mainstream media have also failed to challenge politicians such as Dutton and right-wing commentators like Bolt, Devine and Henderson, over their inflammatory and misleading comments, in this case about Lebanese migration.

Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, sparked a heated public debate with his assertion, in November 2016, that the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, had made a ‘mistake’ in admitting Lebanese-Muslim immigrants affected by the Lebanese civil war during 1976-1977.  Dutton claimed that Fraser himself had admitted his ‘mistake’. In support of his assertion, Dutton claimed that ‘out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist related offences in this country, 22 are from second and third generation Lebanese Muslim backgrounds’.

Framing the admission of Lebanese affected by civil war as Fraser’s ‘mistake’ left the false impression that the ‘wrong people’ had been selected; that somehow it was wrong to have shown compassion.   This is completely at odds with Fraser’s own memoir where he says that ‘if there was a failure of government in those early months it was in resettlement programs and planning.  The proper approach to problems of integration is to find out what the problems were and what can be done about them, rather than to conclude that ‘bad’ people have been allowed in, or that it was wrong to show compassion’.

The Minister’s linking of today’s radical jihadism with admitting Lebanese fleeing war forty years ago sparked an intense media and community debate which continued for weeks. There was much speculation about Dutton’s motives in generating such a controversy, seen by many to undermine both the immigration program for which he is responsible and counter-terrorism efforts which rely on the assistance and goodwill of communities in addressing youth marginalisation.

My colleague and I conducted a framing analysis of the coverage by major print dailies – Fairfax’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and News Ltd’s Australian, and the Daily Telegraph – of the debate. A total of 54 articles were analysed: 10 from the SMH, 14 from the Age, 22 from the Australian and eight from the Daily Telegraph.

Of the 30 articles in The Australian and the Daily Telegraph 24 (80%) defended Dutton’s comments, mostly on the grounds that he was ‘being honest’ and that it was to the benefit of society to have an open conversation about the ‘preponderance’ of that community in terror-related activity . This perspective was framed as a matter of ‘fact’, as uncomfortable as those facts might be and any resistance to this framing was viewed as the damning side effect of political correctness. Articles of this persuasion offer two stances which contribute to the framing of Lebanese and Muslim cultures as ‘incompatible’ with Australianness. The first, taken primarily by Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine, ‘exposed’ the migration scheme under which Lebanese Australians were allowed entry into Australia in the 1970s – in which they claimed that the process was ‘rorted by Muslims’.  Henderson and Devine selectively and incorrectly quoted from a 1976 cabinet submission by then Minister for Immigration, Michael McKellar in support of their argument.

The second stance taken by pro-Dutton journalists urged Australian to ‘face the facts’ that there was a terrorism problem within the Lebanese community.  Here, Henderson and Devine selectively quoted from a conference paper by terrorism scholar Andrew Zammit, ‘Explaining Australia-Lebanon Jihadist Connections’.  Zammit himself has objected to the way in which his paper has been used to link present day jihadists with the humanitarian entry of Lebanese escaping civil war in 1976.   He rejected the suggestion that Australia ‘should not have given refuge to thousands of people fleeing a brutal civil war’ and questioned whether there was any link at all.  The numbers were not significantly large to make any connection with the Lebanese community and there was no evidence of family connections with those who entered under the ‘Lebanese concession’.  He did point out however the role played in their radicalisation by the stigmatising and marginalising of Lebanese-Australian Muslims by sections of the public, media and some politicians.

Nineteen (80%) of the twenty-four articles in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and the Age criticised Dutton’s linking of terrorism with past levels of Lebanese Muslim immigration, suggesting he was doing immense damage with his remarks. The issue with the articles that did engage in a critique of Dutton’s comments was that they did not interrogate the so-called ‘facts’ but rather, suggested that given the largely anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiment currently prevalent in the electorate, pointing to these links were not helpful.

In a debate with two clear frames – the ‘mistake’ or ‘truth-telling’ frame and the ‘racist’ or ‘scapegoating’ frame – our study found that it was the journalists supporting the former rather than the latter frame who quoted from independent documentation.  Furthermore, the independent documents referred to by journalists including Henderson and Devine – namely the 1976 cabinet submission on Lebanese Migration (calling for a halt to the special arrangements for war-affected Lebanese) and Andrew Zammit’s 2011 paper ‘Explaining the Australia-Lebanon Jihadist Connections’ – were ‘cherry-picked’ for evidence to support a pre-determined position, rather than a balanced interrogation of the facts. Journalists putting the ‘scapegoating’ frame did not revisit or challenge the way that original documents were being cited, perhaps assuming that a re-examination of the documents would do little for their own positions in the debate. Alternatively, journalists may have feared that to acknowledge any mistake on Fraser’s behalf risked being misconstrued as a slur on the Lebanese community, rather than an acknowledgment of a past wrong.

Ruby Hamad, a regular Fairfax columnist, explained what it felt like to be one of Dutton’s ‘mistakes’. In an article carried in both the SMH and the Age, Hamad pointed to ‘a political climate where populist parties are gaining favour on the back of a vehemently anti-Muslim platform’ and argued that ‘no-one should be demonised and dehumanised in this way’ (2016, 2016a).  She said that if citizenship is to mean anything, it should mean that ‘third generation Australians are not referred to as migrant grandchildren’. Hamad said that, for Muslims, ‘the invective being hurled at us is worse than it has ever been’ and that ‘in all my family’s close to four decades [in Australia], I have never felt so hated, feared or fearful’.

Judith Betts is a former immigration officer and now teaches at the University of Technology Sydney.  She and her colleague, Dr Mehal Krayem, are the authors of ‘Strategic Othering: Framing Lebanese Migration and Fraser’s ‘mistake’’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol 65, Number 1, 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ajph.12538  (Paywall has been removed.)


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