Melinda Taylor: The Spy That Got Away?
by Finn Bowen
Fri 31st Aug 2012
The Australian media is unique in its global positioning, as it represents the first-world gateway to the second- and third-world countries and economies of Asia. As such, we are not only influenced by the USA (arguably the most influential first-world country) and the UK (our colonial mother country), but also the Asia Pacific region (the fastest growing third-world industrialised nations and economies of our era). Therefore it could be argued we are beholden not only to the interests of the USA and the capitalist globalisation they represent, but also the second- and third-world countries influenced by the likes of industrialist China. So when it comes to a global standoff between a country like Libya (with strong economic ties to the Middle East and the Far East) and the USA, are we as a nation to side with Libya, or the likes of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) member states? The 2011 NATO bombing of Libya against former leader Colonel Gaddafi and his loyalist supporters, has no doubt put Australia on shaky ground with the Libyan public. So when an Australian lawyer, 36-year-old Melinda Taylor, ICC (International Criminal Court) lawyer from Brisbane is arrested on charges of espionage, how should the Australian media handle it? The television, radio, newspaper and online publishing of articles relating to Melinda Taylor and the “ICC4’s” ordeal has had to be handled with extreme delicacy in the hope of not obliterating the newfound friendship of the Australian government and Libyan interim government. The course of this essay shall cover the news values, imagery, angles and bias of a variety of media forms from a variety of countries, the issues arising from these news stories, and possible conclusions that can be drawn from them.
PART ONE: A SENSATION IN THE MAKING
On the 7th of June 2012, Melinda Taylor and three other ICC delegates were arrested in the city of Zintan by Zintani militia. Melinda Taylor was visiting Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (son of the slain former leader of 40 years) who was being held by the local militia. Upon leaving, Taylor was apprehended and accused of carrying “spying and photography equipment,” and “two documents,” (Zintan Brigade Commander Al Ajami Al Atairi; 2012). Over the ensuing week, the story hit tabloids internationally, the story resounding issues of the ICC’s authority over member states. The 9th of June saw the first online publications arising and by day two the story had reached popular breakfast news shows in Australia such as Sunrise, with an increased interest from professionals seeking to express their opinion on the matter, as well as interviews arising on foreign news channels like Al Jazeera, with the Zintan Brigade Commander giving a press conference establishing the scarce facts. Day three saw the popular newspaper The West Australian publish its first article, along with a follow up the next day, as well as an extended ‘A PLUS’ lift out guide in The Australian. Day four also saw for the first time, a radio current affairs program interest on the ABC show ‘AM’, from an array of reporters. Day five saw the sustained interest in the ICC4 case, with a multitude of television, online, radio and newspaper articles covering the story, all the time gaining public support for Taylor’s release, and outrage at her proposed “preventative detention for 45 days” (Libyan Officials; 2012). The story continued to be a sensation even after Taylor’s release on the 2nd of July 2012.
PART TWO: THE ‘NEWSWORTHINESS’ THE ICC4 REPRESENT
Patriotism is interwoven into the very fabric of Australian society, evident by our social levels of xenophobia and lack of multiculturalism. It is precisely this key term that is perhaps the reason Melinda Taylor’s case has been so widely published. That coupled with the fact she is being held by – excuse the colloquialism – ‘Arabs’. When David Hicks was taken by the USA to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation, why didn’t he receive the same level of sympathy, urgency and support in the media? Perhaps because it was the USA pressing the charges – our ‘oh so good buddies’? Melinda Taylor’s arrest comes at a time when international tensions with Libya are high, shortly following the ‘Arab Spring Uprising’ of 2011. It’s here, it’s now, it’s good versus evil, Christianity versus Islam, East versus West: everything typified by the War on Terror. So it follows, that “In ordinary times, the press adopts a distanced stance to those it covers. However, in times of crisis reporters abandon irony, cynicism, and occasionally even scepticism to see the world through a nationalistic and patriotic lens.” (Jamieson & Waldman 2004: 1) This suggests that during tough times, our sense of patriotism is exemplified beyond reason, and we dismiss any possible wrong doing by – for example – Melinda Taylor. Why aren’t we actually considering the fact she could be a spy?
According to Masterton’s news values, the ICC4 saga presents five of the nine categories: interest, timeliness, consequence, proximity and conflict (Masterton 1998: 91). The Melinda Taylor story has the Australian public up in arms, that an ICC lawyer – who is supposedly granted diplomatic and political immunity from the local judiciaries lawyers enter under the Rome Statute, signed and ratified by all ICC member countries – could be forcefully held under ‘house arrest’ for a 45 day preventative detention period. The story comes at a time as mentioned, when international tensions are high; we are still waiting to see if Libya can form its own democratic government, and how extreme the new regime will be. If the ICC4 are not released, global outrage and consequence may result for Libya, but exactly who will enforce it? Which force has the power to give Libya the slap on the wrist? The cultural proximity resides of course in Melinda’s nationality and her desperate and dangerous situation in the geographical proximity of the Middle East. The conflict of cultures and continual finger-pointing by governments and militia alike have the international community worried this crisis may escalate, prompting another Libyan revolution or severed ties between the oil-rich Libyan interim government and the western countries that intend on befriending their new oil suppliers. So as displayed, this story is most certainly ‘newsworthy’, as it has dramatic implications on a global scale, hence the weight of the issue and its unprecedented media exposure.
PART THREE: DRAMATIC IMAGERY & FALSE REPRESENTATIONS
Imagery is an essential component to reporting news stories to the greater public. Without the journalist deciphering news stories and their greater value, the already brimming tabloids and broadsheet newspapers would be too daunting a publication for the general public to dare try and comprehend. It could therefore be said, that “By arranging information…journalists deliver the world to citizens in a comprehensible form,” (Jamieson & Waldman 2004: 130–131). Whilst this is a fair point, Paul Lee points out that “For plain truth, objective reporting is the best practice. 'Let facts speak for themselves' is a good approach in reporting…For non-verifiable unfolding realities, the use of interpretive reporting will be useful because it helps the journalists to point out possible implications of an unfolding event to the readers and their community.” (Paul S.N. Lee 1999: 104) In this case, where does the journalist’s use of imagery to convey a story and the implications it may have, cross the line and become ‘incentive derived’ journalism? In the Melinda Taylor saga, strong imagery was used to ensure a strong audience bond of empathy was established with Melinda Taylor. Presenting her as the innocent Aussie girl caught up in the big bad world of politics, is of course an over-simplified and naïve image. Throughout the saga, there is one particularly recurrent image of Melinda Taylor in her graduate outfit, which was featured on The Australian’s ‘A PLUS’ lift out on Tuesday June the 12th (The Australian 12-06-2012:11). This image has been published internationally by pro-Melinda supporters, i.e. those that support the naïve view. This view is of course shared by most in the first-world countries opposing Libya, but as Stephen Reese explains, “Thus, the media role must not be regarded narrowly as equivalent to a specific satellite network, journalistic message, or world-wide audience, however vast.” (Stephen Reese 2010:348) He is of course saying that the Australian view of Melinda Taylor’s naivety is not limited to any specific paper, but due to the influences of globalisation, can be found in many publications globally.
In Sunrise’s interview with Dr. Keith Suter, his words of “…this is a woman who’s doing her job, she’s not a spy, she’s doing her job properly, but she’s walked into this absolute mess,” (Dr. Keith Suter; 2012) present Taylor as completely innocent and studious, acting solely as a civil servant of the global community for justice. Suter’s words however were juxtaposed by the display of Zintani militants fighting in the streets, the barbarous terrain seemingly no place for Melinda Taylor – a 36 year old Brisbane girl, mother and wife – just an ordinary Australian (Sunrise; 10-06-2012). However, whilst the western media represent Libya as a place of turmoil and disorganisation, Omar Al-Saleh’s report for Al Jazeera News (Al Jazeera 10-06-2012) portrays images of a completely unseen side to Libya. Al-Saleh shows shots of Zintan militia dressed in smartly pressed suits and military uniforms, orderly walking out of their headquarters. He also shows shots of the militia holding an orderly press conference, with the Brigade Commander Al Ajami Al Atairi explaining in simple terms the reasons for the ICC4’s apprehension, followed by a smartly dressed Milad Daqali (Libyan ICC Representative) declaring Libya’s capability and sovereignty “…the Libyan judiciary is in charge of the investigation…nobody has the right to interfere,” (Milad Daqali; 2012). So here we have two completely opposing representations of Libya and its delegates, citizens and militia. We are presented with two opposing representations of their abilities and are encouraged to question ‘just who should we trust?’ It is fundamentally vital though to bear in mind, the audience of Australia are only ever presented with the first naïve view of Melinda Taylor and the dysfunctional image of Libya’s current state of affairs. The general public are not intended to see Al Jazeera’s coverage of the story of portrayal of Taylor and Libya. So then the question must be asked, “Why do the Australian Media want us to see Libya the way they portray it?” Perhaps it has something to do with our strong influence from the USA, and our lack of trust of foreigners encouraged by the ever increasing xenophobic sentiments encouraged by modern Australian media?
PART FOUR: ALTERNATE ANGLES & DEFINED BIAS
Journalism is storytelling, and is constructed by “arranging information into structures with antagonists, central conflicts, and narrative progression,” (Jamieson & Waldman 2004: 130–131). The Australian Oxford Dictionary defines ‘bias’ as “n. an opinion or influence that strongly favours one side in an argument or one item in a group or series.” (The Australian Oxford Dictionary 2nd Ed: 70). So therefore could it be suggested that bias is the basis for engaging journalism? I believe so. In the saga of Melinda Taylor especially, we see two views: the first being the Australian press’ view that she is merely a “pawn in a broader political game,” as quoted from Australian Lawyer’s Alliance President Greg Barns (Leanne Mezrani; 2012). The second view of course is that of Libyan Officials: such as Ahmed al-Jehani, Libyan ICC Representative, who portray Melinda Taylor as a dangerous spy, revealing “During a visit, the lawyer tried to deliver documents to the accused, documents that have nothing to do with this case and that represent a danger to the security of Libya.” (Al Jazeera News; 2012) Pronounced bias is rife in the ongoing saga of Melinda Taylor, so how do we know who to trust?
On day two of the media saga, Sunday the 10th of June, ABC News conducted an interview with ‘ICC Special Advisor’ Prof. Tim McCormack, whom provided insight revealing “The rebels [Zintani militia] don’t want Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to be tried in The Hague, they want him to be tried in Libya and presumably they want him to be convicted and for him to be executed.” (Prof. Tim McCormack; 2012) Channel Seven’s breakfast show Sunrise, interviewed their own ‘Foreign Editor’ Dr. Keith Suter, who clarified, saying “…ironically this is a woman who’s doing her job, she’s not a spy, she’s doing her job properly, but she’s walked into this absolute mess…”, further adding, “…the problem is with this [Zintani] militia that’s running with its own agenda and is not necessarily fully answerable to the Libyan government…” (Dr. Keith Suter; 2012) So here we have two complementing statements further portraying Melinda Taylor as the innocent Aussie lawyer caught up in a whirlwind of politics. However despite the growing international interest in the Saif al-Islam case, ‘Libyan ICC Representative’ Milad Daqali warned “…the Libyan judiciary is in charge of the investigation…nobody has the right to interfere,” ( Milad Daqali; 2012). This could of course be seen as a defensive cover-up, attempting to disperse negative media attention on the newly reformed Arabic state. However Zintani Brigade Commander Al Ajami Al Atairi strongly and unmistakably confirmed Taylor was equipped with “spying and photography equipment,” and “two documents”, one “inciting Saif al-Islam to demand his trial at the ICC, to say that Libya has no laws and that he is being treated badly in his prison,” (Al Ajami Al Atairi; 2012). So here we have two clearly conflicting arguments and points of view. However should these two alternate angles be considered bias, or simply a difference of opinion? Is there a difference? These are questions, I believe, are down to the audience to decipher for themselves.
PART FIVE: SOCIAL ISSUES & DRAWING CONCLUSIONS
So now we are presented with the main issue, the crux of the matter: Why has the story of a Brisbane lawyer been so heavily publicised? I believe it to be strongly linked with the news values presented in the saga, and the possible global consequences it represents. Or perhaps more cynically, we can link the heavy publicity to a marketing ploy. As Mark Pearson illustrates, “The concentration of media ownership raises the issue of the commercial pressures upon journalism brought about by the promotion or defence of a news organisation’s corporate interests.” (Pearson 2000:60) Nothing sells better than a home girl being taken hostage by the perceived enemy. As Sarah Niblock aptly suggests, “It is the areas of feature articles that best lend themselves to playing a key role in the marketing function” (Niblock 2008: 53). Melinda’s story is perfect for gaining audience empathy and support, the result of which would encourage the general public to purchase a paper and read the latest on her situation, following her progress and the evidence closely. This in turn has the potential to create mass outrage, should her case be handled ‘unjustly’, in the eyes of the audience. For this reason, the publishing media sources must tread carefully not to incorrectly represent details for fear of public reprisals initiating all-out war with our newfound oil-supplying ‘friend’ Libya. This immense connection contrived by the news media sources between audience and Melinda Taylor, is arguably the primary role of feature journalism: “The social function of feature journalism … has therefore primarily been to en¬tertain the audience and connect people on an emotional level through the exposure of personal experiences of perceived public value.” (Steensen 2011: 59) In this case, perhaps the actual news value is not of importance, but rather the level of emotional connection between ‘victim’ and audience, which encourages a greater consumption of media and therefore marketing.
WHAT OF THE SAGA FROM HERE?
So what can we really derive from the Melinda Taylor media saga? That the untimely arrest of a young Australia citizen and mother, Melinda Taylor working justly for the ICC and the greater good of civil liberties and global justice, was framed or misunderstood by senior Libyan officials and militia and wrongly held in custody while being investigated on charges of espionage? Or perhaps that this 36 year old, going under the cover of an ICC lawyer but secretly doubling as an ASIO agent, was foiled in her attempts to communicate between the son of a fallen dictator, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Libya’s most wanted outlaw Mohammed Ismail? Are we to believe the western media’s representation of Libya as a chaotic desert region of northern Africa, where militiamen in Toyota utilities capture foreign delegates in between shooting local uprises? Or the sophisticated representation of Libya as an extension of the civilised Middle East; where, thanks to their superior military intelligence, apprehended an Australian spy, just short of her swapping documents which would have endangered the national security to Libya? It’s a tough choice, and not a decision to be taken lightly. Short of being an all-out conspiracy theory, the latter option could expose the grossly irresponsible betrayal of public trust the deceptive western media has committed. This of course would be horrific not only to the Australian public, but the financial situation of the exposed media outlets and their editorial credibility. Perhaps the Australian audience shall see in the forthcoming weeks, whether Melinda Taylor’s ‘actions of espionage’ is investigated, or whether the consequences of her actions go completely unreported, perhaps indicating media censorship from the Australian government…or even ASIO.
PEER REVIEWED ARTICLES:
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall., and Paul Waldman. The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
Steensen, Steen. "The Featurization of Journalism." Nordicom Review 32.2 (2011): 57-59. Print.
Niblock, Sarah. “Features”, in Franklin, Bob. (ed.) Pulling Newspapers Apart: Analyzing Print Journalism. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Lee, Paul S.N. "Does Journalism Seek Truth Out?" Australian Journalism Review 21.1 (1999): 104. Web. 10 July 2012.
Reese, Stephen D. "Journalism and Globalization." Sociology Compass 4.6 (2010): 348. University of Texas. Web. 9 July 2012.
Pearson, Mark. “Advertorials and the Trade Practices Act: why the 'Golden Tonsils' saga might prove costly in the long run.” Australian Journalism Review 22.1 (2000): 60. Web. 10 July 2012.
Masterton, Murray. “A Theory of News”, in Breen, Myles. (ed.) Journalism, theory and practice. 1998. Web. 9 July 2012.
"Bias." Def. 1. The Australian Oxford Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1996. Print.
Friday 9th of June, 2012:
"Australian ICC Lawyer Detained in Libya." Gulf News. Al Nisr Publishing LLC, 9 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://gulfnews.com/news/region/libya/australian-icc-lawyer-detained-in-libya-1.1033721.
Stack, Brittany. "Australian ICC Lawyer 'arrested' in Libya." The Sunday Telegraph. News Limited, 9 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/australian-icc-lawyer-arrested-in-libya/story-e6freuy9-1226389995890.
Sunday 10th of June, 2012:
Al-Saleh, Omar. "Libya Arrests: ICC Delegates Accused of Espionage." Al Jazeera News. The Al Jazeera Network. Doha, Qatar, 10 June 2012. Television. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/06/2012691162090413.html
"ICC Legal Team Held Over Saif Al-Islam Visit." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Publishing, 10 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/06/2012691162090413.html.
Field, Donna. "Australian Lawyer Detained in Libya." NewsOnABC. ABC. Brisbane, QLD, 10 June 2012. Television. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug9P92bSvs0&feature=relmfu
“Grave Fears for Detained Aussie Lawyer.” Sunrise. Channel GWN-Seven Network. Adelaide, SA, 10 June 2012. Television. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvxra1RWhgU&feature=related
Monday 11th of June, 2012:
Callinan, Rory., Flitton, Dan. "Libyan militia hold Aussie lawyer" The West Australian [Perth] 11 June 2012: 25. Print.
Bourke, Latika. "Australian Lawyer Moved to ‘Preventative Detention’” NewsOnABC. ABC. Brisbane, QLD, 11 June 2012. Television. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z83isuPa2Bg&feature=relmfu
"PM Calls for Lawyer’s Release” Seven News. Channel GWN-Seven Network. Adelaide, SA, 11 June 2012. Television. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meP1JoKebS0
Hall, Ashley. "ICC Concerned for Lawyer's Safety in Libya." AM. ABC Radio. Sydney, NSW, 11 June 2012. Radio.
Lane, Sabra. "Foreign Minister Carr Seeks Contact and Release for Detained Lawyer." AM. ABC Radio. Sydney, NSW, 11 June 2012. Radio.
"Australia Demands Libya to Release Defence Lawyer for Saif." Gulf News. Al Nisr Publishing LLC, 11 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://gulfnews.com/news/region/libya/australia-demands-libya-to-release-defence-lawyer-for-saif-1.1034124.
“The Full Story Behind the Arrest of ICC Four-member Team in Libya." The Tripoli Post. 11 June 2012. Web. 10 July 2012. http://www.tripolipost.com/articledetail.asp?c=1&i=8540.
Soguel, Dominique. "ICC in Libya for Lawyer Accused of Spying." News.com.au. Fairfax Media, 11 June 2012. Web. 12 July 2012. http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/icc-in-libya-for-lawyer-accused-of-spying/story-e6frfku0-1226390681271.
Tuesday 12th of June, 2012:
Fairfax Media. “Lawyer accused of coded note ‘crime’” The West Australian [Perth] 12 June 2012: 26. Print.
Nicholson, Brendan., Rout, Milanda. "Aussie ‘In Plot to Move’ Gaddafi." The Australian [Sydney] 12 June 2012: 1, 3. Print.
Loudon, Bruce. "Caught in Libya's Web of Reprisals." The Australian [Sydney] 12 June 2012: 11. Print.
"Libya Timeline: How Events Unfolded After Gaddafi." Gulf News. Al Nisr Publishing LLC, 12 June 2012. Web. 9 July 2012. http://gulfnews.com/news/region/libya/libya-timeline-how-events-unfolded-after-gaddafi-1.1034898.
"ICC Lawyer Could Be Freed If She Tells About Ismail." The Tripoli Post. 12 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://www.tripolipost.com/articledetail.asp?c=1&i=8557.
Vincent, Michael. "ICC Demands Release of Australian Lawyer Melinda Taylor." AM. ABC Radio. Sydney, NSW, 12 June 2012. Radio.
"ICC Lawyer Could Be Freed If She Tells About Ismail." The Tripoli Post. Al Nisr Publishing LLC, 12 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://www.tripolipost.com/articledetail.asp?c=1&i=8557.
Farr, Malcolm. "Fears Aussie Lawyer Melinda Taylor Has Been Shifted to a Libyan Prison" News.com.au. Fairfax Media, 12 June 2012. Web. 10 July 2012. http://www.news.com.au/national/aussie-lawyer-missing-in-libya/story-e6frfkvr-1226392792582.
Kyriacou, Kate. "Detained Lawyer Melinda Taylor 'woman of Integrity'" News.com.au. Fairfax Media, 12 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://www.news.com.au/national/detained-lawyer-melinda-taylor-woman-of-integrity/story-e6frfkvr-1226391661923.
"Gobierno De Facto Libio Pretende Extorsionar a Funcionarios De La Haya." Telesurtv.net. La Nueva Televisión Del Sur C.A., 12 June 2012. Web. 10 July 2012. http://www.telesurtv.net/articulos/2012/06/12/gobierno-de-facto-libio-pretende-extorsionar-a-funcionarios-de-la-haya-8782.html.
Wednesday 13th of June, 2012:
Bourke, Latika. "Australian Lawyer Moved to ‘Preventative Detention’” NewsOnABC. ABC. Brisbane, QLD, 11 June 2012. Television. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z83isuPa2Bg&feature=relmfu
"Anxious Wait." NewsOnABC. ABC. Brisbane, QLD, 13 June 2012. Television.
"ICC Envoys Visit Colleagues Held in Libya." Gulf News. Al Nisr Publishing LLC, 13 June 2012. Web. 10 July 2012. http://gulfnews.com/news/region/libya/icc-envoys-visit-colleagues-held-in-libya-1.1035359.
Kyriacou, Kate. "Lawyer Melinda Taylor Arrested in Libya Meets with Australian Ambassador." The Advertiser. News Limited, 13 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/lawyer-melinda-taylor-arrested-in-libya-meets-with-australian-ambassador/story-e6frea8c-1226394904965.
McMeekin, Alison. "Aussie ICC Lawyer Melinda Taylor 'well' but No Early Release from Libyan Prison." The Daily Telegraph. News Limited, 13 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/archive/world-old/aussie-icc-lawyer-melinda-taylor-well-but-no-early-release-from-libya-prison/story-e6frev00-1226393908531.
Friday 15th of June, 2012:
Mezrani, Leanne. "ALA: ICC Can't Protect Melinda Taylor." Lawyers Weekly. Reed Business Information, 15 June 2012. [Online] Accessed: 12 July 2012. http://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/ala-icc-cant-protect-melinda-taylor.