Sydney seige, ‘terrorism’ and violence against women

I was disappointed reading the coverage of the Sydney siege this morning on stuff.co.nz where information about the killer glosses over his acts of sexual abuse and involvement in his wife’s murder. It seems to be a concerning trend that past offences against women seem to become invisible in the wake of high profile cases of tragedies, even though this is extremely relevant to this situation. I have written elsewhere about Ariel Castro who kidnapped, raped and tortured three women for a number of years had a history of violence towards his wife and children and the alleged grooming and sexual abuse of other children. Similarly, in NZ Liam Reed who was convicted of the murder of one woman and the rape and attempted murder of another was previously charged with raping his former girlfriend but had not been convicted of those offences.

It is part of neoliberalism and islamphobia that we come to see these acts of violence as ‘random’ and related more closely with his faith than his actual use of past violence, blatant disregard for life and hatred of women. And indeed this situation is random as it involves people unknown to this man, but it is not random in the sense that given his past behaviour his actions make sense in light of his propensity for violence and sexual violence:

The gunman behind the Sydney cafe siege was facing up to 50 sexual offence charges, according to court documents
The documents allege that Man Haron Monis painted the breasts of women and raped them in his ‘spiritual healing’ sessions
The sessions are alleged to have taken place over 13 years at locations around Sydney
Documents also allege that he threatened to shoot the mother of his two sons around two years before her brutal murder
Monis was on bail and due to face court in February

So instead of a discussion about the extremely high rates of sexual and domestic violence in Australia and the failure of the legal system to act in the interests of women’s and the wider community’s safety by releasing a man who is being charged with accessory to murder and 50 counts of sexual assault and rape what comes to the fore is discussions of terrorism. Rather than a critique of the unwillingness of our societies to address the problem of violence against women, and how if the judicial system took VAW seriously then this man may have never been allowed out on bail I am reading a news article about New Zealand, where this incident is being used to justify the new anti-terrorist legislation which allows the security intelligence service to use warrantless surveillance for 24 hours on citizens and gives them the ability to cancel passports for up to three years.

This legislation highlights that the state can act in highly coordinated and targeted (if unethical) ways to intervene in and control the lives of citizens when they choose to prioritise it. (We can see this most visibly in the Northern Territory Intervention when the Australian government literally suspended the rights of indigenous Australians, see my other post critiquing this).

I do not mean to undermine the importance of this incident and its tragic outcome but rather to highlight that this incident, as well as all the other acts of domestic violence which kills on average one woman a week in Australia are all equally important and worthy of discussion, intervention and prevention.

How perpetrators become visible

*****Content warning, rape, child sexual abuse, racism, depictions of violence, colonisation***

Finally, as promised here is an overview of the piece I wrote about the Turangi rape case using the Due and Riggs article. It’s shorter than the original, which also includes an analysis of the way the perpetrator’s mother came to be blamed for her son’s actions, in a classic ‘blame the mother’ story. I am hoping to get this one published eventually, so any feedback about the ideas in this piece would be useful! I just want to preface this blog by saying that what I have written here is in no way something that is looking to justify the actions chosen by this offender or to suggest that this survivor was not deserving of the compassionate and generous response shown to her by New Zealander’s. She deserves all of the support that was given to her, as does every survivor of sexual violence. What I am interested in, is the ways that race/ethnicity change the way we respond to and perceive sexual violence and how that skews the reality of sexual violence and they way it is responded to in Aotearoa New Zealand. As well as the way it reinforces negative and damaging representations of Indigenous peoples.

In late 2011 to early 2012 New Zealand mainstream media covered in detail the rape of a five year old girl by a 16 year old youth[1] in a holiday campground in Turangi. The story of the attack was reported in the media the very next day, and coverage continued on the case for over four months. The 16 year old pleaded guilty to charges of sexual violation by rape, causing grievous bodily harm and burglary. On the 29th of February in 2012 with a starting point of 18 years imprisonment, but a discount of four and a half years due to the boy’s age, background, remorse and early guilty plea he was sentenced to 10 years for rape, 7 for grievous bodily harm and two years for burglary.  In her book “Sex, Violence and Crime: Foucault and the “Man” Question”, Adrian Howe (2008) argues men “disappear” from narratives and discussions around gendered violence. What is interesting in the Turangi case is the ways in which this perpetrator became hyper-visible in mainstream news media coverage. This piece aims to provide a comparative analysis of the Due and Riggs piece and New Zealand’s mainstream media coverage of what is known as the “Turangi case”. Similar to the findings of Due and Riggs, the media reporting of the Turangi case makes the perpetrator visible through portrayals of Māori people as degenerate and dysfunctional. In contrast to this, Pākehā New Zealand is portrayed as virtuous, with emphasis given to the $60,000 that was raised by New Zealander’s for the victim and her family (Bowen, & Kidd, 2012).  As suggested by Due and Riggs,  these media representations of Indigenous peoples serve to erase the impact of colonisation and institutionalised racism within Australia and New Zealand and have every real impacts on the health and wellbeing of Māori and Aboriginal people.

First, it is important to acknowledge that the contexts in which these articles are written are not identical[3] but these countries do share certain features as with other settler colonial contexts particularly in the major inequalities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in both Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand Māori have a life expectancy that is almost eight years lower than non-Māori and experience broad ranging inequalities in education, income, housing and employment. Similarly, Indigenous Australians are the most disadvantaged group in Australian society. They suffer from high rates of unemployment and imprisonment, low income, substandard housing and ill health. The life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is seventeen years less than other Australians and they are more likely to be exposed to violence. This disadvantage experienced by Indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand is directly associated with both historical and contemporary racism, colonisation and oppression indicators (Anderson et al, 2008, 6). Australian and New Zealand are also notably similar in terms of popular discourses of Indigenous pathology and social disorder that erase colonial violence and position whiteness as superior. So, to provide an analysis of the case I will provide some background of the coverage of the case by looking at the way these discourses of indigenity as well as discourses of sexual violence are typically presented in the media.

Ardovini-Brooker and McDonald (2002) argue that in general, the sexual abuse cases that are publicized in the media are usually cases that are considered “news worthy” or “sensational”.[4] The “sensationalised” nature of the cases also function as a type of public entertainment. This specific news coverage of rape cases downplays the extensiveness of the crime, distorting the realities of sexual abuse by positing it as a rare occurrence, sexualizing it, and furthering discourses which apportion blame to victims. Their findings show that in media coverage of rape cases, offenders were most highly scrutinized and condemned when they were minority offenders who attacked white victims (2002, 14). Offenders were most likely to be apportioned blame in the media when they were a lower class than the victim, were part of a minority group and when the rapes fit a more stereotypical “real rape” scenario (Estrich, 1987). That is, perpetrated by a stranger, at night, in a public place and involving excess physical force.[5]

The extensive coverage of the Turangi case fits within the findings of Ardovini and MacDonald as a sensational rape case. The rape was committed against a white child by a minority offender who was of a lower class.[6] The attack fit a “real rape” scenario as the offender was a stranger,[7] it happened at night time in a public campground and the abuse involved excess physical force. These “sensationalised” aspects of the case are emphasised in the news reporting:

Loper said the attack on the girl, who was on holiday with her family from Europe, was one of the worst he had seen in his 28 years of policing. The girl’s injuries, Loper said… “Are significant and heart wrenching.” (Watson, 2011, emphasis added)

Mark Loper is the Detective Inspector who investigated the Turangi case. This extract positions him as a figure of white authority that can legitimate and judge the ‘seriousness’ of this particular rape, reinforcing that there is a hierarchy of violence where some violence is ‘more important’ or ‘more serious’ than other forms of violence.

The fact that this particular case attracted so much media attention is partly because the case fits within the reporting of a “sensational” rape case in the media, but it is also consistent with the findings of Due and Riggs who argue these negative media representations function as part of a systematic racism in the media which focuses primarily on negative stories about Indigenous people, helping to reinforce dominant negative stereotypes. Thus, it is significant here that only 9% of rapes in New Zealand are reported to police. From this only 55% suspects are apprehended and of those 31% go to court. 13% of those cases will end in conviction and not all those convicted will serve prison time (McDonald & Tinsley, 2012). Within these statistics, Māori are over represented at every stage of the criminal justice process. Māori people make up 13% of the population and 50% of the prison population.[8] This is six times higher than one would expect given the relative rate of non-Māori in prison (Marie, 2011; Department of Corrections, 2007). This over representation is mirrored by Māori being over represented as victims of crime.[9] Research shows that the over representation of Māori in the prison population is the result of justice system bias and amplification whereby systematic factors that operate at different steps of the criminal justice system make it more likely for Māori individuals to be “apprehended, arrested, charged, convicted or imprisoned” with the result that Māori “accumulate” within the system in greater numbers than non-Māori and are also dealt with more severely than non-Māori (Department of Corrections, 2007, 5).

There is now much research on the ways that mass culture contributes to and reproduce racism and negative stereotypes of Māori people (Gregory et al, 2003). Research shows that Māori are consistently underrepresented in the news and when they are represented the reports are often negative. Gregory et al (2003) argue that:

Māori are not given their share of “voice” given their status as Indigenous people who have been unjustly treated in the colonisation of Aotearoa and according to their rights guaranteed by the treaty which acknowledged their sovereignty and social equity. (54)

Stories and symbols of Māori and Māori violence have carried over into current news reportings of Māori, who are categorised in a binary of “good” or “bad”. “Good” are those that fit into Pākehā society and bad includes those that do not because they are “stirrers” (such as protestors), receive special “privileges” based on their Māori identity or are violent (Gregory et al, 2003, 53). In this coverage of the Turangi case, the offender is never explicitly identified as Māori.[10] However, the use of Te Reo in the articles helps to emphasize his ethnicity:

He stood silently with his head down. About a dozen reporters were present in court and his mother read to the court a karakia he had written. (Bowen, 2012)

Judge Cooper said…“You are responsible for your actions but your whanau and your extended whanau are responsible for your upbringing which has involved a young man who has committed a serious crime.” (Francis & Watson, 2012)

In this way the offender and his family are already marked as racially other and thus are set apart from Pākehā New Zealand. Media coverage of the Turangi case portrays this “imagined reality” of Māori people as criminal, gang related and violent. Many of the articles cover details of the youth’s upbringing in order to reinforce these stereotypes:

His mother and father – whose families held ties to Black Power and the Mongrel Mob respectively – split up when [offender] was 3. [Offender] had been involved in Child, Youth and Family care, and years of “bad parenting” had exposed him to violence between his parents and from his father, alcohol and cannabis at an early age, and also sexual abuse – the most recent episode when he was 15. Defence counsel Catherine Ewen said [offender] did not see his mother, who lives in Auckland, between the age of 13 and 16, while his father had been a Mongrel Mob member for as long as he could remember. (Watson, 2012)

Here the use of ‘families’ in the plural helps to create an understanding of many, or all, Māori families as gang related. In doing this, Māori are therefore equated with negative connotations of gangs, including a capacity for crime and violence. The reference to Child Youth and Family Services serves to legitimise the media claim of “bad parenting” and subsequently creates a causal relationship between bad parenting and violence, alcohol and drug use and sexual abuse. Furthermore this discourse helps to reiterate prominent discourse of “Māori child abuse”, as opposed to just ‘child abuse’[11]  (Marie, 2010, 283). There is no coverage of whether resources and support were provided to this young man and his family, whether support will be made available to him given his experiences of violence and sexual abuse, or about the insufficient funding for culturally specific programmes based on tikanga Māori principles within New Zealand (Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence, 2009, 3). Instead these “voyeuristic” images (Stringer, 2007) are presented to us as what Marcia Langton describes as a type of “war porn”, where images of Indigenous people are played out in the media in an “obscene and pornographic spectacle” which disguises the real suffering that Indigenous people endure on a day to day basis (Langton, cited in Due and Riggs, 2012, 5). In turn, this works to simplify the complex situations faced by Indigenous peoples in New Zealand and diminishes our capacity to create effective and appropriate solutions to the issues of social inequality and violence.

As argued by Due and Riggs, these constructions of Indigenous peoples as pathologically violent help to re-center white voices as “neutral arbiters of right and wrong” (2012, 8).  This is evident in the use of the case as a vehicle to advocate for tougher sentencing, even though this offender’s sentence was the harshest sentence ever handed down in New Zealand to a youth for an offence other than murder. Monopolizing on the racist representations of Māori people in the coverage of the case, Tamsin Marshall, a representative of the Sensible Sentencing Trust told One News (2012) that the:

[Offender] should have got at least the whole 18 years for his crime and as a deterrent to other people who might be “in that world” where they commit such offences. Asked if it was significant that judge “had a go” at the teenager’s parents, Marshall said: “Absolutely. They should be held to account completely and utterly. They should probably go to jail themselves.”

We can infer from her comments that “in that world” implies a world of Māori gangs, alcohol and drug use, criminality and violence. Even though there is no evidence to prove that longer sentences are an effective prevention method, indeed McDonald (2012) argues that New Zealand high sentences for rape actually contribute to New Zealand’s low conviction rate, by deterring offenders from taking responsibility for their crimes, the media continue to report on calls for harsher sentencing instead of opening up a valuable discussion about institutionalised racism and the overrepresentation of Māori men and women in prison.

An important consequence of these discourses is in the way they erase the historical context of Pākehā settler colonialism in New Zealand while enacting colonialism through the mainstream media. This has been described as a form of “elite racism” (Anderson et al, 2008, 6). Hokowhitu (2011) argues that colonialism requires a limited system of representation or “regime of truth” concerning minority groups that constitutes them as degenerates based on their racial origin, because allowing them individuality would undermine the justification for colonial rule (71). Within these news media representations this absence of examination of colonial power is evident. Following Renan, the way the news media “forgets” the violence of colonisation acts to create an image of Pākehā New Zealand which overlooks the reality of inequality in New Zealand, which is fundamentally important to discussions of racism as well as sexual abuse.   In a study looking at the perceptions of non-Māori and Tauiwi focus groups in New Zealand media, Gregory et al (2003) found that participants felt that the mass media generally reflected Pākehā viewpoints worldview, values and interests. In accordance with this, and also with Due and Riggs’ notion that the negative construction of Indigenous peoples also works to construct whiteness as virtuous, within the media coverage of the Turangi case there is much space given to the representation of Pākehā communities in New Zealand:

“The community was bewildered by a crime of such severity.”

“There was a deep sense of shame within the Turangi community.”

“Unless communities take a stand…similar things will happen again.” (Watson, 2012, One News, 2012)

The responses and actions of Pākehā New Zealand to the attack are also covered in detail:

Crown prosecutor Fletcher Pilditch said: “Heads were shaking the breadth of the country and the community was bewildered by a crime of such severity committed on a victim so young. There was a deep sense of shame within the Turangi community and throughout New Zealand that one of our own had committed this offence on a visitor whose family had come to New Zealand to enjoy a holiday.”  “We heard today too that the Turangi community raised more than $13,000 for our daughter. We are again amazed at the generosity of New Zealanders and thank this community. We know what happened was a random act of evil and will never hold Turangi responsible for it.” (Watson, 2012)

Waikato District Health Board said the girl’s family had been inundated with letters and emails from people who were appalled and ashamed at the attack. They wanted the family to know that the attacker was not representative of all New Zealanders. (3 news, 2012)

This focus on the shame felt by Pākehā New Zealand, and the large amount of money that was donated to the girl and her family serves a dual purpose. First, it again marginalises Māori people within New Zealand, positioning them as the racialised Other who are “not representative of all New Zealander’s”. This is reinforced in the fact that, presumably, some of the members of the Turangi community that raised money for the victim and her family were in fact Māori, but this is not given any media focus.  For the mainstream media coverage t overlook this serves to overlook the agentic responses of Indigenous people have to responding to violence within their communities, a theme which is also identified by Due and Riggs. Second, it works to create an image of New Zealand where sexual abuse is a rare occurrence and is responded to with appropriate resources and services. This is counter the lived experience of many people in New Zealand, considering we have the highest sexual abuse statistics in the OECD[12] and some of the worst child abuse and poverty statistics in the United Nations (Beaumont, 2011; Duff, 2011). Further to this, the $62,000 raised for the young girl and her family is not reflective of the way New Zealand deals with sexual abuse. The Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence (2009), found that support services for survivors of sexual abuse and rape are geographically inconsistent[13] and insufficiently funded across the board (2009, 34). Within the last year, 1.5 million was cut from the community and volunteer sector (Levy, 2011) and $6 million per annum was cut for counseling support (McGregor, 2012). This year’s budget sees $200 million of the Social Development budget “reprioritised” into welfare reforms aimed at getting solo parents back to work earlier. The Community Response Fund, created to help the not-for-profit sector, who has experienced increased demand during the recession, has been discontinued (Trevett, 2012). Baird’s (2008) concept of child fundamentalism is also evident here. If we consider how many cases of “sensational” child abuse are publicized in the New Zealand media it is significant that this girl and her family were donated such a large amount of money whereas other victims are not. Part of this response can be attributed to the discourse of child fundamentalism which positions the girl as “young and defenseless” (nzherald.co.nz, 2012). I would argue that it is also partly because the family is foreign and this attack disrupted Pakeha New Zealand’s ‘violence free’ image. Thus it was important to show that “New Zealand is a beautiful place with friendly caring people not monsters.” (nzherald.co.nz, 2012) With the media gaze so focused on this incident as an example of pathologised Māori violence, Pākehā are constructed as virtuous and clean of social problems and so this reporting also works to the detriment of examining sexual violence within non-Indigenous communities.

The argument made here is that the mainstream news media coverage of the Turangi case is in keeping with the findings of Due and Riggs. Similar to their analysis, the news media coverage of the Turangi rape case revealed a prominent discourse of Māori people and their families as inherently dysfunctional and having a capacity for violence and for crime. In comparison to this construction of indigenity, Pākehā are presented as virtuous and violence within their communities is disavowed or at least, not tied to ideas of culture or ethnicity. Barbara Baird’s theory of child fundamentalism is also identified, but is extended in that it can be seen to apply both to the victim and to the perpetrator. . In speaking about the Turangi case in this way, the media silences the voices of minorities and makes hyper-visible the views and attitudes of Pākehā people, in order to make invisible the hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender and class that exist in New Zealand and that are fundamental to the perpetuation of racism and sexual abuse.


[1] I have chosen not to use the offender’s name as the paper is interested in the representation of the teenager rather than the teenager himself.

[2] Indigenous Australians represent 2.3% of the population and make up 14% of Australia’s prison population and they are 12.9% more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians (creativespirits.info, 2008).

[3] While there is no comparable government policy to the intervention in New Zealand it is interesting to note that elements of the intervention program are being introduced by the National Government. The new welfare budget aimed to get solo parents back into the work force will introduce ‘payment cards’ to unemployed youth, similar to the cards used for welfare quarantining in Indigenous communities (Trevett, 2012). While this does not target Indigenous people directly a disproportionate amount of unemployed youth are Māori or Pacific Islander’s (Youth in the NZ labor Market, 2009).

[4] In this reading “sensational” cases are those that involve someone of notoriety or an “exceptional” circumstance such as gang rape (Ardovini-Brooker & McDonald, 2002).

[5] In terms of adult sexual abuse stranger rape makes up roughly 3% of all rapes and the majority of rape involves coercion (Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 2010).

[6] The offender’s job as part of a Turangi pruning gang is made known to us by the media (Watson, 2012).

[7] In child sexual abuse cases 85% of offenders are known to the victim (McGregor, 2009).

[8] Maori women make up 60% of the female prison population (Department of Corrections, 2007).

[9] Māori women are twice as likely to experience sexual violence (TASV, 2009)

[10] Before the offender’s name was released TV One did explicitly identify the offender as “16 and Maori” (One News, 2012).

[11] 60% of notifications made to CYFS are made by non-Maori families (Merchant, 2012)

[12] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

[13] 70% of New Zealand’s female population has access to crisis support, some areas of the country have no access (2009, 3).

[14] This discourse was not identified in the Due and Riggs analysis, but Barid argues that motherhood for Indigenous women in Australia is barely a viable subject position in colonialist discourses identified by the state and the Indigenous man is often marked as violent or neglectful (2008, 300).

[15] The offender’s father went to prison for assaulting his current partner the day after the teen was sentenced (3 News, 2012).