Media Storm of the Month – April 2011

We expected more of a ‘foolish’ start to April in the media than Triple M’s attempt at convincing rugby league fans the Logan Leopards would become the NRL’s 17th team. Perhaps, according to some people, the foolishness was saved for Kevin Rudd’s revelation on ABC television program Q&A that suggested his old Labor Party frontbench was opposed to a carbon tax – the same policy now at the forefront of the party’s pledge. The Gold Coast Suns also get a guernsey this month for their remarkable first ever AFL win, which almost outplayed Easter. Thankfully Anzac Day got the commemoration it deserved with marches across the country attracting record crowds.

And what timing it was in the month we pay tribute to our fallen soldiers that the Australian Defence Force Academy faced a heavy media onslaught for its “misogynistic” culture after an 18-year-old female cadet was broadcasted having sex via Skype to six other male cadets. In this month’s Media Storm of the Month let’s have a look at how this situation unfolded in the media.

We all empathised on April 5 when we read about the girl identified as ‘Kate’ who said “my whole world came crashing down around me” and she was “physically ill” when she found out what had happened. As one journalist wrote however, stories about the ADF are “heroes or villains”, and ADFA commandant Bruce Kafer was the first villain.

Soon after the incident came to light, Kate attended a poorly-timed disciplinary hearing for unrelated offences and Kafer was described by Defence Minister Stephen Smith as being “insensitive” over the matter. Some media protected Kate whilst others said she was not of the “doe-eyed” kind. There were even reports she was “forced to apologise to fellow cadets” for speaking out.

Kate was sent away on compassionate leave while the seven boys continued studying. Under growing pressure from a community desperate for answers, Smith announced six inquiries including a review into the treatment of women within the Australian Defence Force. Major newspapers reported headlines like “Smith ‘in stand-off’ with top brass”.

The media’s focus turned to the culture within the ADF and, in particular, its attitude toward women. If a news story didn’t mention “misogynistic” or “homophobic” it wasn’t on the money.

Is this behaviour unique to the defence force or does an episode like this just reflect a wider societal issue? The media compared it to sex texting and other scandals in the NRL and AFL, but should we be comparing the ADF to footballers? It would probably be fair to say the community demands greater discipline from our nation’s defence force, especially in this instance when a young woman was, effectively, assaulted.

It has been interesting watching this event unfold in the media – from the initial revelations, to the advancing behind-the-scenes dramas – and it’s certainly a good illustration of the hero and villain recipe the media thrives on.

In the wake of the media hype Smith has re-focused the story to take in the debate on women fighting in the frontline by announcing plans to open up frontline military roles for female soldiers. It’s a great opportunity to have a proper debate about this.