African Australian community leader Kot Monoah and Victoria’s police commissioner Graham Ashton announce the establishment of a taskforce to help tackle youth crime in Melbourne. Photograph: Ellen Smith/EPA

Violence by African Australian youths has been a mainstay of the media silly season over summer, with incidents involving young African men making front-page news and being politicised in spats between the federal and state government.

Meanwhile the issue has been politicised thanks to statements by the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, blaming the Victorian government for going soft on the issue.

But how real is the supposed spate of African gang violence in Melbourne’s suburbs? In at least one case, it seems that the media’s reporting is having a toxic observer effect.

A scuffle described by the media last week as “the latest gang flare-up” involving African teenagers was in fact entirely provoked by the journalists who reported it, according to Victoria police.

The article, published by the Daily Mail on 3 January, was billed as an exclusive and headlined “Police SPAT ON and abused as officers arrest African teenagers outside a shopping centre in Melbourne’s west in broad daylight – in latest gang flare up”.
An article on the Daily Mail in which they reported on purported gang violence in Melbourne. Photograph: Daily Mail

But according to Victoria police, there was no “gang” involved and no “flare-up” until the aggressive behaviour of the Daily Mail photographer provoked a group of teenagers who were innocently socialising at the shopping centre.

Two days after the article was published, the Victoria police executive director of media and corporate communications, Merita Tabain, wrote a confidential email to the editors of Melbourne’s main media outlets expressing concern that aggressive behaviour by journalists might “exacerbate the current tensions”. She gave the incident at the Tarneit Central shopping centre as an example.

Tabain wrote that the incident had been provoked by the photographer’s decision to “move in to take closeup photos of a group of African teenagers socialising”.

“The teenagers had been doing nothing of public interest prior to the photographer’s decision to move in and take the photos and [the group] reacted to the photographer and what he was doing.

“This led to police being called in and a scuffle ensued in which police were spat on and arrests were made. After the event, the photographer acknowledged that his actions had provoked the incident and apologised.”

Yet the article published by the Daily Mail made no reference to this. It did claim that abuse had been directed at the Daily Mail photographer and reporter.

The article included a number of closeup shots of police struggling with a youth and talking to others. The text of the article described the “flare-up” as coming amid “fears that a new gang of African youths is rising up in the city’s west” and described it as part of “a spate of violence and crime” in the area.

The Mail’s piece also quoted, and included a photograph of, Nelly Yoa, described as a “leading Sudanese youth worker”. Yoa was quoted by a number of media outlets including the Guardian, ABC and News Corp after he contradicted claims from senior police that there was not a problem with African gang violence in a New Year’s Day opinion piece in the Melbourne Age.

But now, the Age opinion piece has been augmented with an editorial note saying that several assertions made by Yoa in that article “have been challenged, exaggerated or found not to be true”. The Age article also said parts of the piece were plagiarised, a claim Yoa denies.

Needless to say, none of this is regarded as particularly helpful by those on the front line of dealing with crime, including Victorian police.

When contacted by the Guardian, Tabain confirmed the authenticity of the email, but declined to provide further comment.

The email, marked “confidential – not for publication” was sent to the editorial heads of the main media organisations that have been reporting on so called gang violence – the Herald Sun, Macquarie Media, Channel Nine, Channel Seven, Network Ten, Fairfax Media, the ABC, SBS and the Australian. Guardian Australia was not included.

“Victoria police does not want to see further incidents such as [the Tarneit incident] and I am therefore respectfully asking that you remind your media teams about the importance of not inflaming situations or inciting conflict, and acting responsibly at all times,” Tabain wrote.

Previously, police had called on the state’s media to stop referring to African youths behind recent riots and vandalism as “gangs”. The deputy police commissioner, Andrew Crisp, told 3AW the week before that there was no evidence that gangs were responsible for a riot in Werribee. The police commissioner, Graham Ashton, has rubbished Dutton’s claims that Victorians are too scared to go out at night.

The Daily Mail was contacted for comment but had not responded by deadline.


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