More featuring Robert Haupt»

1. Robert Haupt, “What if Soeharto was an MP in NSW?,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, May 10, 1986, p. 12.
2. Robert Haupt, “Whose anguish will lead the evening news?,” National Times on Sunday, August 31, 1986, p. 12.
3. Robert Haupt, “46 die, but no Aussies,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 20, 1987, p. 19.

Robert Haupt, “What if Soeharto was an MP in NSW?,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, May 10, 1986, p. 12.

It has been wisely said that it is far easier for The New York Times to uncover corruption in the Nigerian Cabinet than in the New York City Limousine Commission.

The closer you are to home the greater the pain of disclosure; moreover, in your own backyard you’ve got to get your facts right. Distant scandals are fun; disclosures at home can affect advertisers, readers, friends and connections and are mostly no fun at all.

In all the debate about the Australian press and corruption in Indonesia, almost everything has been said but this: what a shame it is for President Soeharto that he doesn’t live further away or closer. Either way, he’d have been safe.

Take Africa. There, unless you’re a President Bokassa you’re safe from strife in the Australian press. In South America, General Pinochet manages to sail on undisturbed by the odd critical review.

At the worst that’s said of him, President Soeharto looks like a saint compared to these ogres; he’s hit, where they’re missed, simply because he’s within range.

Of course there has to be a limit to disclosure. Just as we hear of “compassion fatigue” in the face of the problems of the world, so we can conceive of “corruption fatigue” in the face of its evils.

Unable to set the whole world right, we concentrate on what’s near to hand.

It’s the logic of ends and means. Marcos was the spark that lit the fire of public interest in corruption in our region; while it flared, The Sydney Morning Herald quite properly held the Soeharto family up for inspection. That’s the answer to the anguished question: “Why now?”

But what if President Soeharto lived closer?

What if he were Mr Soeharto, MP, from say, NSW?

What, in other words, if he had, not cronies, but mates?

How would we be treating him then?

Well, carefully to start with. There would be no undocumented allegation — you can be pretty sure that Mr Soeharto MP’s wife would not be appearing in print as “Madame Tien-per-cent” — and the whole account would have been pored over by some of the best legal brains in the business.

It is entirely likely that as a result of all this caution the story would be decidedly less racy; with all the bold surmise taken out, the connections would be less clear, the import of the message blurred, the moral hard to find.

It would be just another one of those muck-raking stories that never seem to get anywhere.

And the reaction! The wrath of Mr Soeharto MP and his mates wouldn’t be confined to the T-shirted shoulders of ockers at Denpasar airport, the thonged throng turned away from the soft luxuries of Kuta Beach. No, sir. It would fall on the pin-striped shoulders of editors.

Writs, parliamentary denunciations, withdrawal of government advertising, smears at press conferences, the whole barrage of outrage — genuine and synthetic — would be thrown up in his defence.

An inquiry would be established with scope so needle-narrow that no angel could dance on its head, and the good parliamentarian — by now confiding to the popular magazines what an ordeal it has been for his wife and family — would emerge, as was once said in a similar context, “smelling like a rose.”

That’s what would have happened, let me tell you, if President Soeharto and his practices lived closer to home.

You see, it’s only almost right to explain the antagonism between Indonesia and Australia on the clash of cultures, the Javanese idea of face against our idea of a free press.

That is a good and useful way of putting it but it raises two important questions — one I cannot answer and the other I think I can.

The first is this: at what point does an evil cry out to be told, “face” or no “face”?

I’m not well enough qualified in matters Javanese to say but I know that there is such a point.

The second question is this: are we quite sure of our ground when we tell the Indonesians that the Australian press never pulls its punches?

The Soeharto franchises are in prosaic things like concrete and cloves; our leaders have a more glamorous currency in television licences and lottery shares.

It’s not a point the Indonesians would ever make — they would never be so impolite — but it stands nevertheless: the Australian media, as a whole, is not as free to criticise and disclose as the “clash of cultures” argument implies. It is hemmed in by laws, harassed by politicians and, in parts, compromised by governments.

It is no use saying that our press is freer than Indonesia’s. That is not the point.

What you have to ask is do we apply the same standard to Jakarta and Sydney?

Perhaps that opening observation might be turned into a rule: you really only have the right to criticise the Cabinet in Nigeria once you’ve got tough with the New York City Limousine Commission.

Robert Haupt, “Whose anguish will lead the evening news?,” National Times on Sunday, August 31, 1986, p. 12.

Bad news is a strange commodity. Some forms of it are much worse than others, but it is not easy to say why. We filter bad news, and ration our reserves of sympathy for the victims of crimes and catastrophes according to assumptions of which we are barely conscious. And the main agency conducting the rationing is, of course, the media.

The past week has shown two kinds of approach by the agencies of news to human suffering, and it is instructive to compare them. Since there is a risk of appearing insensitive, perhaps we should say at once that the anguish itself is not the issue; we are talking about responses to it. To those suffering it, it is, rightly, an absolute. The point about looking at it in a comparative way is that this is how the media looks at it: every time we witness anguish on television or in print, a judgement has already been made for us about its importance.

The first approach is exemplified by the coverage of the disappearance of a nine-year-old girls in Sydney, which has been so diligently and meticulously compiled that one is left to wonder what further aspect of the case might have been addressed. The second is shown by the treatment of the Cameroon disaster, in which more than a thousand people died and hundreds were injured. That news was, in the precise meaning of the word, relegated: consigned to an obscure place.

The immediate point that will be made by those who seek to explain such a contrast is that the facts of the disappearance were plentiful and at hand, while those of the catastrophe were few and distant. Television, in particular, relies on images for its accounts, and the Cameroon catastrophe showed that in electronic terms Africa remains the Dark Continent.

But those who put forward the familiar defence know that it isn’t the whole story by a long way. The contrast in distance between the two events is not merely geographical; it is also emotional. It is a question that takes us back to our responses, to the fact that a “good story” is not simply an important or remarkable event, but an event that evokes an audience response, the more primal the better.

Thus Bhopal, where about 2,000 people were killed by poison gas, was a “better story” than Cameroon, where 1,500 were, not because of the difference in the number of fatalities but because in Bhopal there was a culprit: Union Carbide. This allowed the story to be told in the customary way: the warnings not heeded, the safety standards not adhered to, the risk of similar accidents occurring at other plants, the argument over compensation and so on.

It may seem an odd thing to say, but Bhopal was a reassuring story because it had a meaning we can comprehend, a lesson we can learn. Cameroon, by contrast, has no resonances. A volcano erupted, lethal gas was formed, people died at night. There was no collateral information, no “angle” to the story, no heroism, no evident incompetence, not even any names. It was a story for the science correspondent, to be told in the language of geology.

Robert Haupt, “46 die, but no Aussies,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 20, 1987, p. 19.

“FIFTY FEARED DEAD”, shouted an afternoon newspaper yesterday, about the fire in the English underground railway, when what they meant was, “FIFTY ENGLISH PEOPLE FEARED DEAD”.

How do I know this? Because had the accident occurred in somewhere more exotic than London — somewhere like Sao Paulo, for instance — the report would not have got on the front page all, and in all probability not have made it Into the newspaper at all. You see, there was a terrible rail crash in that very Brazilian city not so long back — in February 1986, in fact. More than 70 people died. I can’t tell you much more than that, however, for the story made only one paragraph, way up the back of the foreign pages, in the section headed “In Brief”. Presumably none of them was English.

You can be sure none of them was Australian. Look what happened when a bus was struck by a falling rock in Colorado. “BOULDER CRUSHES AUSSIES”, shrieked one paper about this accident in which six people died. That was last August.

In May, another fatal bus accident occurred — what is known, generically, as a “bus plunge”. Forty-six died, but the coverage was limited to a paragraph for the accident occurred in Khartoum and the dead were almost certainly all Moroccans.

The whole mood is summed up in a wonderful headline from last April: “AUSTRALIANS DIE IN GREEK CRASH.” What an economical distribution of blame.

All people may be equal in the eye of their Maker, but when their passing comes to be noted by the wire services and the foreign editors there is a very rigid pecking order indeed. Should you wish your demise to be noted, there are certain precautions you can take. Allow me to set out some of the more elementary rules.

As an absolute first priority, keep well clear of Bangladeshi ferries. Those who perish on them must do so simultaneously and in such phenomenal quantities in order to gain our attention that the attention you would get simply wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Let me show you what I mean. In August, 1986, an overcrowded ferry — the only kind of ferry that ever catches the attention of the wire-service bureaus in Dhaka — slid beneath the waves of the Dhaleswari River taking 500 souls with it. This was covered in the Australian press in a paragraph. Four months earlier, a Bangladeshi ferry disaster cost between 700 and 1,000 lives (there was no follow-up report to settle the question), and a whole nine paragraphs appeared. Now, compare this with another accident that occurred midway between these two events in Bangladeshi nautical history. I refer to the Great Pier Incident, in which a ship got out of control and sliced a gap in a pier with absolutely no loss of life at all. This achieved around 25 times the amount of coverage of the Bangladeshi accidents and their 1,200-1300 deaths put together. Why, you ask? Silly question. This pier is Southend Pier. White people walk on it. It’s the longest pier in the world. It’s an English pier.

You may squeak into the papers from a lesser catastrophe on the sub-continent, but you’d have to be lucky. In May, 1986, clearly a bad year for ferries, the passing of a mere 40 Indians, lost with a ferry on the Ganges, got a paragraph. They had been on their way to a wedding, and members of the band enlivened the narrative by floating to safety clinging to their drums.

Incidentally, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, which put Zeebrugge on the map last March, cost 187 lives, and achieved enormous coverage. Many of the victims were English.

Next, after steering clear of ferries in Bangladesh, you should think very seriously about going to Bangladesh at all. Floods, you see. In August, 1987, at least 700 people died in floods, and possibly as many as a thousand. The newspapers gave the disaster a dozen paragraphs. This is exactly the space devoted, two years earlier, to a flood in which precisely four people died. But then, they were New Zealanders.

I can give you no better illustration of your chances of rating a headline if you wilfully go ahead and perish by inundation in that part of the world than two events which occurred in August, 1979. A dam burst in India, killing somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people. A “freak tidal wave” (the only kind of tidal wave to make it into the papers) killed 11 people on the Riviera. The space the papers gave to these two strokes of misfortune was virtually identical.

And so we come to trains. If yon are to expire abroad in this way, I can’t recommend anything ahead of British Rail. True, the death of 12 people in Maryland last January was given a good ran, while the 50 who died in Canada in February 1986 and the 43 in France in September 1985 were all noted adequately. But British Rail is undoubtedly the way to go.

Certainly, steer well clear of Mexico. In July 1982, 70 Mexicans were allowed to perish with but two paragraphs to their name — and a third paragraph a few days later when it was discovered that the dead weren’t 70 at all, but 120. Three hundred expired in Ethiopia in January, 1985, with but a solitary paragraph, while hundreds went in Tanzania with only a mention in tbe “Stop Press”. And worst of all, when 130 Algerians caught the train to oblivion in January, 1982, they had to be supplemented by 57 who had happened to go in the same way, on the same day, in — well, you could almost supply the name of the place yourself by now – far away India, in order to make a paragraph.

Keep clear of Sooth America, too. I have already spoken of the futility of becoming involved in railway disasters in Sao Paulo, but the true anonymity of death in South America is shown by the landslide. When it occurs within reach of civilisation, a landslide can be news: last February, a landslide which narrowly failed to kill four people made big headlines. You see, the landslide was in New Zealand and the four were Australians.

But take Venezuela. Anywhere between 200 and 1,000 died there in September without raising more than a paragraph. In Colombia, 100 died and 500 went missing in a landslide that got three paragraphs. Mind you, that was better than what happened when a slide buried crowded buses (yes, they’re all crowded in South America) and 200 died. The coverage of that amounted to one paragraph.

I could go on. But let me finish with aeroplanes. I can suggest no better fate here than to disappear on an Air New Zealand flight to Mt Erebus in Antarctica: that loss of 257 lives has a file of its own in the newspaper libraries, with hundreds of articles on it.

Only this week, the Continental Airlines crash in Denver was given a great deal of space, over several days, to the departure of 26 people. A month earlier, Alitalia despatched 37 passengers in an encounter with a mountain in a slightly less fashionable part of the world, northern Italy: in my newspaper, 12 paragraphs. No, don’t go in northern Italy.

But above all, promise me this. Never die in a plane crash in the Philippines. Last June, 50 people went when Philippines Airlines ran into the landscape of Luzon, to the fanfare of three paragraphs. Three paragraphs!

It will seem unfair, when I remind you that the massively-covered plane fire at Manchester airport saw the departure of a mere four souls. Unfair, that is, until you remember that they were English.