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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Horrible, horrible news reporting

Two young high school students were expelled from a Muslim school in Melbourne for desecration of the Bible, apparently in expression of some sort of anti-Christian feeling. Evidently they urinated on it and set fire to some pages. Not very nice of course.

But why have the media seized upon this relatively trivial incident? I've just been watching 9 News, where a female journalist speaks, with a distraught throb in her voice, of "this horrible, horrible act." Oh, give me a break! There are young teenage schoolboys doing far worse things every day, including acts of violence against each other, but these are not reported in the mainstream news media. In this case, no one seems to have been hurt in any way.

These were kids who can't be expected to show much maturity, the act was rather trivial, and it did no great harm beyond the reporting of it. Besides, I'd defend adults' liberty to burn holy books, effigies, flags, or any other symbols of things they dislike. Merely symbolic destructive acts such as this fall well within freedom of speech, as the US Supreme Court has found with burning of the American flag. School students doubtless need more discipline than adults - their characters are still being formed and perhaps they don't have the same civil liberties - but setting that aside, the act was legitimate expression. The underlying problem is that the kids may have been brought up to feel this way (however, exactly, it is that they feel) by their parents or other adults. Then again, kids get ideas from all over the place.

Meanwhile, the media beat-up of the story is sickening. It is far more likely to cause social division than the original incident. And I don't see this as the same as something I defended recently: reporting on the views of a senior cleric, Sheik Hilali, which have great influence and are a matter of public interest.

Here's the bottom line: 1. These kids should not even have been expelled - something obviously needed to be done to find out what was bugging them and to see if they could be put straight about the school's attitude to religious toleration, but some frank counselling would have been quite enough. 2. The news media are not there to report the day-to-day antics and wrongdoings of school students. Talk about cracking a peanut with a sledgehammer.

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