Two mothers

The late news on Wednesday night started with a breathless update on the investigation into the Essendon AFL club’s drug program. The rapidly developing scandal was the big story of the day.

I wondered if the news was going to mention the reports filtering out of Syria, where a chemical or biological agent had reportedly been unleashed in a large-scale attack on a civilian area of Damascus.

The images appearing on social media backed reports of hundreds of dead – and a few shell-shocked survivors – many of them young children. Pale, limp, and lifeless. Not a scratch on them. A UN chemical weapons inspection team was kilometres away, but cannot investigate, as it is not an inspection site agreed upon with the Syrian government.

After a few more stories, including a tangential NRL angle on the football drugs scandal, the late news eventually reported the attacks. It was a verbal mention only, because the images were “too confronting for broadcast.”

The comment hit a nerve. I exploded. I even tweeted the network, knowing the futility of the gesture. Twitter is good for a vent.

What can I say? Fury breeds sanctimony. Sorry.

Here’s a still shot from a video purporting to show victims of the attack. Most of those in the frame are dead children. As with most footage out of Syria, I have to add the disclaimer that it has not been independently verified due to the scarcity of foreign journalists in the country.

Victims of the Syrian attack(A pro-revolution blog has compiled purported images and videos of the attack here.)

You should know that I studied in Damascus in the 1990s, and have been back since. Even pre-war, life wasn’t easy for many locals, but they maintained a hospitality and humour that left an indelible imprint. Damascus is as close to a second home as I have.

These days, I stay up late into the night gleaning murky updates from Twitter and YouTube. I carry a quiet heartbreak with me every morning as I head off to work, where I write jokes about Justin Bieber and wonder how I live with myself.

So, yes, I was edgy. But the “too confronting” disclaimer didn’t just rankle because of my interest in this story. It’s also because I feel passionately that Australian TV networks must stop wrapping viewers in blinkers when it comes to disaster in the rest of the world.

Only when Australians are exposed to the full reality and horror of life – and death – in the rest of the world will we see our own country clearly.

By international standards, Australian viewers are treated like children.  Europeans see dead bodies on their news. The Middle East too. Even the Americans may be less uptight about it than we are. But the powers that be in Australian TV think we prefer foreign tragedies delivered to us in statistics rather than vision.

Or do we? Did you see that high-speed Spanish train crash? The one that killed 79 people? Of course you did. Wasn’t the CCTV footage amazing? Let’s see that again in slo-mo. What a news producer’s dream that footage was. 79 people killed in an instant, and not a single body in shot. Great, we can run that in prime time. Ditto World Trade Centre replays.

So respect for the victims is clearly not the issue here. Indeed, I was in a TV newsroom as live pictures of the 2011 Japanese tsunami were going to air.  When fleeing locals were  about to be engulfed, the vision would judiciously cut to a different shot. There were complaints from viewers about the network switching away.

I was, and remain, appalled by those complaints. We don’t need to watch people die. But once death has visited – particularly where human cruelty or ineptitude is involved – Australians ought to see the consequences (with due consideration for the victims and the viewing demographic of each timeslot, of course).

“I don’t care,” some will sniff. “What’s happening over there has nothing to do with me.”

Well, it does have something to do with you. And me. We are two of the millions of Australians who have little idea how good we’ve got it here. And we need to start appreciating that, even if it has to be rammed down our throats.

Australian TV viewers, sheltered from the chilling excesses of humankind and the ravages of nature, fail to count our many blessings. We carry on in blissful ignorance. What makes this country great? Mateship and Phar Lap or something. Oi! Oi! Oi! No one thinks to mention incredible sanitation infrastructure, transparent elections and geological stability. We take it all for granted.

No wonder we run screaming in panic when the world shows up at our door. We haven’t got a clue. We’re left guessing, pathetically, at asylum seekers’ motives. Someone in Syria gassed your children to death? You’re making that up, I didn’t see it on TV. Nope, you’re clearly after my dole.

That’s why what’s happening over there has something to do with you. Ignorance breeds idiocy. We might choose to remain aloof – and when confronted with reality, many will – but we don’t have to be stupid.

Wednesday’s tragic events in Damascus expose the hysterical tenor of Australian politics for the sham that it is. Say what you like about Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard, but none of them are going to drop a chemical-laden warhead on your children as they sleep.

The futility of the deaths in Damascus is magnified by the intractability of the war. There is zero prospect of a meaningful intervention or solution in the foreseeable future without a major shift in the positions of Syria’s allies, Russia and China. The horrors will continue.

Late this week, ‘Sarah,’ the mother of an Essendon player, spoke emotionally to Triple M about the effects of the club’s supplements program on her family, and her frustration at not knowing what drugs her son had been given.

Welcome to Australia, where we expose our sons to chemicals in the hope that they’ll win a football trophy. ‘Sarah’ has a right to be upset.

In Damascus, another mother is also wondering what chemicals her son was exposed to. But we can’t possibly show you that footage, you poor, fragile petals. You’ll find it too confronting.

Anyway, the footy’s on.

Postscript: Since Wednesday night, small sections of footage from Syria have been run by Australian TV networks, including Network Ten. The UN chemical team is yet to enter the affected zone, which was bombed again with conventional weapons the following night.

A happy Christmas in Syria (yes, you read right)

Christmas Eve, 2012.

My mind is on Syria, as it has been all year, and throughout 2011, for reasons that are only too obvious in the news headlines.

But today, as at every Christmas, it’s on my mind for what I could call happier reasons. If only I could be reassured that those reasons aren’t now just a memory.

I’ve known and loved Syria since I studied Arabic in Damascus in the 1990s. Compared to the chaos around it back then, it was a quiet corner of the Middle East. Authoritarianism and insularity bred stability and predictability – along with problems that one was best not to mention. How things change. Continue reading