Hell has touched Sydney, yet blessed are the flower people

Terrorism came to Sydney this week in the guise of a deranged gunman — a self-styled Sheik, who took 17 hostages in a Lindt chocolate café in the CBD of one of the world’s greatest and safest cities.
It wasn’t Taliban terrorism where 141 people, most of them children, were killed in a school in Pakistan, but it was real terror for the hostages for the 16 hours and 19 minutes they were held captive. Two of the hostages died after police, hearing gunshots inside, stormed the café at 2am on Tuesday. Four of the captives and one policeman were injured, with the remaining innocent people escaping uninjured. But they and the city and the country will be scarred by the actions of a lone-wolf terrorist, Man Haron Monis, a man charged with being the accessory to the killing of his ex-wife and numerous sexual assault charges against women in his work as a “spiritual healer.” He was on bail and due to appear in court on the charges in February next year. http://bit.ly/1IV3cDt Lest we forget, he had also written abusive letters to the loved ones of dead Australian servicemen, in a bizarre protest against our involvement in Afghanistan. Prime Minister was one of the many Australians who asked why this “deeply disturbed individual” was not being monitored by security agencies. Other questions include how he got bail, Australian citizenship, welfare benefits, and a gun licence – although no one knows if he actually had a gun licence! Even the Attorney-General, George Brandis, could not confirm whether Monis had a licence. He told Ellen Fanning on ABC’s RN Breakfast it was the responsibility of the State, not the Federal government, and he might have had an illegal weapon. http://ab.co/1wimVrB
As days go by, the madness of the self-described Sheik is coming to light. He was a Shia Muslim who became a Sunni radical in the last month, and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. One of his demands to the police was an Islamic State flag to replace the generic flag he had the hostages hold against the café window – which contained the text of the Shahada, the testament of the Islamic faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of God.” Muslim organisations in Australia condemned the siege and distanced themselves from the flag and the Sheik. Monis also demanded to talk to the PM, but it’s believed police refused to grant the demands, fearing he was just looking for notoriety, which could have led to a public execution of a hostage. http://bit.ly/1xqYx8L
Many Australians spent the day watching the rolling coverage on television, covered by all the channels, including Channel Seven, with studios directly opposite the café. A Seven cameraman, Paul Walker, had the presence of mind to leave his camera on a tripod focussed on the door where the first hostages escaped, after all the media was told by police to leave the front of the cafe. It enabled viewers and news outlets to see the dramatic footage of hostages escaping, but the networks were careful to avoid showing any pictures of violence.
The two hostages who were killed were described as heroes: 34-year-old Tori Johnson, the manager of the Lindt café, reportedly tussled with the gunman before he was shot, and 38-year-old Katrina Dawson, a prominent barrister and mother of three, shielded her pregnant friend and colleague, Julie Taylor. Nine News revealed yesterday that Mr Johnson was shot by Monis at close range, while News Corp Australia reported Ms Dawson was shot in the body by the gunman as the hostages fled the café. http://bit.ly/13xgbvf The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said in a service: “These heroes were willing to lay down their lives so that others may live.” At times like this, religious leaders often fall back on platitudes, but not Archbishop Fisher, who said quite appropriately: “Hell has touched us.”
The tragic deaths of the hostages sparked a spontaneous floral tribute in Martin Place outside the café — myriad flowers presented by myriad Australians, including the Prime Minister and his wife, with the site being visited by many dignitaries: Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove; NSW Premier, Mike Baird; Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione; and the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, to name just a few. (Top of page: Family and friends of Tori Johnson pause to read messages of support at the site. Photo by Adam Taylor News Corp Australia)
December in Sydney is supposed to be the start of the silly season – the name the media gives to the summer months of December and January until Australia Day on January 26. All those people laying flowers at Martin Place would have normally just been shopping, having lunch, seeing the tourist sites, going to the beach – the things we do in summer. Now in the back of our minds, there may be a nagging concern – is this shop or restaurant or café or pub or stadium going to be the target of some crazed criminal, or worse, a terrorist. That is why Tony Abbott said on Monday: “Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society. Nothing should ever change that, and that’s why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.” Easy to say, but sometimes hard to do.
And there are fears of a backlash against Muslims. In a joint statement, the National Council of Churches in Australia, the NSW Ecumenical Council and Act for Peace said: “May this be a time when the Australian community – people of all faiths – unite around our common care for all life. We trust that the acts of one individual will not lead to discrimination against Australian Muslims.” As columnist Chris Kenny pointed out in The Australian, the Lebanese community leader Jamal Riffi says there has been no backlash this week, in fact, there has never been any to speak of, just isolated incidents. Kenny goes on: “At Sydney’s Lakemba Mosque on Monday night, a rabbi addressed the crowd, reading from the Torah, as prayers were offered for the Martin Place hostages. ‘This was unprecedented,’ Riff says. ‘And the rabbi was listened to, he wasn’t heckled’.” http://bit.ly/13zJSM4
But there have been isolated incidents this week, like the arrest of a man from Dural who allegedly made threatening phone calls to a mosque in Auburn in western Sydney and was later charged by police with threatening to destroy property. http://bit.ly/1qZpmPe And some media people have also been abused. Celina Edmonds, a highly respected reporter at Sky News, posted on her personal Facebook page on Tuesday: “At RPA (hospital) this morning I had a man yell at us – mainly anti-Muslim sentiment. Today I’ve been abused on Twitter and in the street. In Martin Place, I held the hand of a Muslim man who had tears streaming down his face – he’d been spat on three times coming to pay his respects. I told him that nothing could justify that behaviour towards him. I spoke to an Iranian woman who said she hoped people didn’t blame all Iranians. I assured her they didn’t.” But Celina showed her balance with this post excerpt on Wednesday: “Yesterday people were in shock. They were stunned. Today faced with a mass of flowers and another day on, they were truly grief-stricken. Many, many more tears today. People were overwhelmed not only by the outcome of the siege, but also the scale of the outpouring of grief. Pleased to report it was also a kinder day too, the anger and fear seemed to have gone or it just didn’t find me. Replaced by a calm resolve. Sydney united in sorrow.” And as far as those isolated incidents were concerned, the NSW Assistant Police Commissioner Michael Fuller said: “There has been some issues of hate or bias crime but it’s certainly minimal compared to the outpouring of support and you’ve all seen the flowers at Martin Place.”
Finally, a word on the media coverage of the siege. Guardian Australia’s Amanda Meade praised most of the media for its restraint: “Police had asked that the gunman’s identity and the names of the hostages be suppressed and that chilling videos made by the hostages and uploaded to YouTube not be shown. Most outlets blurred the faces of the hostages who appeared at the window of the Lindt cafe. The identity of the gunman was kept from the public until police media gave the go-ahead after midnight and some outlets chose not to air graphic footage of a victim receiving CPR. One Seven source said there was horrific vision of a woman being shot that never made it to air.” http://bit.ly/1AE1joQ
On the other hand, Sydney Morning Herald columnist John Birmingham was scathing in his criticism of the media, particularly the rolling coverage: “What we don’t need next time some unhinged loon like Man Haron Monis takes hostages is the never ending shit show of rolling coverage across every available electronic channel. A maddy and grub like that, what do you think they most want in the world? They want the world to pay attention. And that’s exactly what Monis got yesterday.” http://bit.ly/1GOgg9U But Birmingham was just getting warmed up: “The special edition of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph was probably the low point in the full spectrum media coverage of Monis’s crime. It was wrong on every count. But if that was the definitive low point, there were many contenders. Some driven by malice. Most caused by the need to fill up dead air space or to beat the competition in the race for clicks and eyeballs. We at Fairfax were not immune. The ABC allowed one idiot talking-head after another to sprout dangerous garbage all over their 24 hour news service while many media outlets updated police tactical movements around the site of the siege. It took pleas by the police, the establishment of the exclusion zone and some determined social media shaming to cut off that information flow to Monis. And all that was needed was a news flash.”
Wow! I read Meade’s article and thought she was right, then I read Birmingham’s piece and thought he was right, too. I have been in television control rooms for terrorist attacks and disasters that called for rolling coverage, including 9/11, the Bali Bombing, the death of Princess Diana and the Black Saturday Victorian Bushfires, to name a few. When a big story breaks, it’s all hands on deck, and there’s always a lot to talk about. When you have plenty of pictures, it makes it easier. But the moment you go to a commercial break or resume normal programming, you might miss something important, so you need to stick with it. I was happy that the commercial networks kept going with the story, especially Channel Ten, which has lost so many news staff in recent cutbacks. I expected Sky News and the ABC to roll on with the coverage, because that’s what they’re good at. When I got tired of looking at the same shot of the Lindt café, and olay of the hostages being forced to put their hands on the store window, I switched over to ESPN where I could watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the Dallas Cowboys in a National Football League match being broadcast in Philly. Fortunately, I have Foxtel IQ on my television so I could fast forward through the game. I found myself going back to Sky and the ABC and Seven and Nine and Ten (SBS didn’t have live coverage when I switched over so I didn’t bother going back). I watched the coverage until 10.30pm, except for a brief eye doctor’s appointment in the afternoon. I had a feeling something would happen overnight, and it did.
I didn’t know who the hostage taker was until the next morning when I heard it on ABC 702 news and AM in Sydney at 6am, and then listened to Ellen Fanning on RN Breakfast as I went on my morning walk. I recorded ABC24 and Sky so I could watch the footage of the dramatic storming of the café when I returned home. For most of the previous day, the media did not know who the gunman was, and whether he had anyone with him (or agreed to police requests not to publish or show that information or reveal the demands Monis had asked the hostages to convey to the media). So, of course, the Daily Telegraph should not have put out a special edition with incorrect information, likely to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment, eg the headline: “IS takes 13 hostages in city café siege”
ABC head of news content Gaven Morris told Guardian Australia the most difficult part of covering the siege was the lack of official information: “ … so we were left looking at the scene trying to interpret. There was information that we knew from our own sources about who he was; there was information about the demands; we had some information on who the hostages were. We took the decision not to report any of it.”
I would normally tweet information if I thought it was something new, and could be confirmed. I was monitoring Twitter and gave up. So I can understand how John Birmingham felt. But I was happy to see that all the news channels were covering what was an important story – responsibly. In fact, Commissioner Andrew Scipione publicly thanked the media for its responsible coverage.
Now all we need is a channel that will give the same sort of coverage to the murder of more than 130 children in Pakistan by Taliban terrorists – wait a minute, we’d need a correspondent in Pakistan, wouldn’t we? Will the ABC still have one next year? Or will Pakistan be part of the restructured foreign bureaux with “multiplatform hubs” in Washington, London, Beijing and Jakarta.
Watch this space, and pray that we never have a real Islamic extremist terrorist attack.
Oh, I almost forgot. Merry Christmas. And, despite the past few days, peace on earth and good will to men and women. My prayers and thoughts go to the family and friends of the hostage victims, the survivors and all the police and services who were involved in the siege … and more power to all those flower people in Martin Place.

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