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Bushfire TV

Bushfire TVLast week I wrote somewhat glibly about the perceived 'hell' of life in suburbia. Turns out the word was better suited to my more rural neighbours. Since I wrote that column, Victorians living beyond Melbourne's suburban sprawl have experienced hell first hand, as the worst bushfires in Australia's history charred life and land.

For me, like for many living in the suburbs, interstate or overseas, the horror was mostly vicarious. I spent much of Sunday watching helplessly the increasingly horrific news reports. I watched with dread as the body count grew with alarming rapidity. And was disturbed by revelations that at least some of the fires were deliberately lit.

At such times, grief and anger are the various faces of a pair of dice spun in mid air. The way the dice topple can be affected in one way or the other by the tone and nature of media reports and by the public statements of influential figures.

When newsreaders announced that arson was involved, it prompted the dice to topple on the side of anger. The thought of a malicious hand in this saga sickened the gut, and quickened the desire for vengeance.

Doubly so when, during a live cross on Channel Nine's Today show on Monday morning, PM Kevin Rudd said of the firebugs: 'What do you say about anyone like that? What do you say? I don't know. There's no words to describe it other than it's mass murder.'

The PM wasn't alone in his anger. On Sunday, a new Facebook group appeared, with the name 'Get the fuckers who lit the Victorian bush fires Feb 7th 2009'. As the days progressed and the death toll rose, such sentiment seemed prevalent: the arsonists ought to be 'burned at the stake'.

(One acquaintance of mine proposed a more imaginative form of poetic justice; 'Lock 'em up for life, but first make 'em sit and watch while you burn everything they own.')

But there is a difference between justice and vengeance. Few would dispute that the victims deserve the former. Rudd's words seem to fuel a desire for the latter. They are probably inaccurate — 'murder' entails intent to kill, whereas in all likelihood the aim of the firebugs' compulsion was property damage, and not loss of life. That is not to diminish the seriousness of the offense. But there's little to be gained by such inflamatory statements.

Of course, for me and other such armchair critics, to whom the fires came no closer than the television screen, it is easy to take the moral high ground.

Easier than for the survivors of the Kinglake firestorm, those who were lucky to escape with their lives when many did not. Easier than for Marysville residents, as they survey the blackened carnage where their town used to be. Their height of emotion should not be easily dismissed or disparaged.

The vast majority of the media coverage has emphasised this aspect. The personal stories arising daily from such devastated, decimated regions see the dice fall the way of grief more often than anger.

This is helped when familiar faces are attached to the tragedy. It seems most people will have a story, often at a remove. For my own part, a colleague of my wife's lost his home — but, thankfully, not his life — at Strathewen, a town now known for the dire statistic of having lost 15 per cent of its population to the bushfires.

For those who don't have such connections, former Channel Nine newsreader Brian Naylor was the first familiar face to be attached to the tragedy. Grief was crystalised by the strange, heightened sense of loss attained when the famous die. It was heartbreaking to witness the obvious grief of Channel Nine news anchor Peter Hitchener, at the news of the dapper, well-liked Naylor's death.

At the time of writing, membership of the aforementioned Facebook group is 729. This compares with the group 'In memory of those who have died in the Victoria Bush fires and lost homes', which has 15,779 members. If that can be taken as a reliable indicator, then perhaps the dice are loaded, and for now public feeling, like the majority of the media coverage, is weighted towards grief and solidarity rather than anger and vengeance.

Red Cross Bushfire Appeal

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.


Topic tags: victorian bushfires, mass muder, arsonists, kevin rudd, peter hitchener, brian naylor, kinglake, marysville



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Existing comments

Excellent commentary Tim.

Mark Dowell | 12 February 2009  

It is all too easy for outsiders like Tim Kroenert to take the high moral ground and condemn the P.M. for a natural outburst of extreme anger at a time when he was under pressure of a kind very very few of us ever experience. The selection of this outburst from all the thoughtful, sensitive and measured statements made by Mr Rudd since black Saturday is both unfair, unhelpful and perhaps even self-righteous.

David Dyer | 12 February 2009  

nice work

melissa taylor | 01 April 2009  

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