In 2014 Alphonse Mulumba ran as a Labor candidate for the Parliament of Tasmania. While unsuccessful, Mulumba's popularity exceeded the expectations of many and cemented his presence on the Tasmanian political scene.
In this piece Mulumba reflects upon his experience as a political candidate and the power of language in media and politics.
ANCHORING: HOW MEDIA AND POLITICS PERSUADE
- Alphonse Mulumba
On the evening of June 24, 2014, I knew I had to love the media. After having put my hand up to run for the Parliament of Tasmania, I knew that above all other means of communication, the media was a powerful tool I could use to get my message across and one I would have to learn to deal with carefully and with wisdom.
After the announcement of my candidacy, I recall a thought provoking experience. In their reporting, ABC television described me as a “former refugee” who was the first man from the Democratic Republic of Congo to run for the Parliament of Tasmania.
Following the television report, I remember my family questioning the choice of words and not being very happy with it. To them, these points of reference could be interpreted as both a positive sign of resilience and an inhibiting factor to me being elected. To them, the report wasn’t really the problem, but it was the idea it conveyed of me that concerned them.
In psychology this is called anchoring or focalism. Anchoring is a cognitive bias that explains the natural tendency to rely on and believe the first piece of information or evidence presented to us. This piece of information is the anchor. An adult human being makes over 35,000 decisions in a day and anchoring plays a critical role the judgements and decisions we make on a daily basis.
In a practical way, once an anchor is set, it affects your judgments and creates a bias in decision making. For example, if you go to the market to bargain for a brand new car, the initial price set on the car automatically sets boundaries in your head on how low you can bargain and influences your whole approach to bargaining. The same thing applies to many other things.
So by referring to me as a former refugee and migrant, and depending on people’s political affiliations, people’s minds were immediately anchored toward either a positive or negative view of me. This highlights just how important and critical the language used in reporting is and its divisive nature. Terms like boat people, invaders, queue jumpers, illegal maritime arrivals, and takers of Australian jobs are only a few of the many examples that can be referred to when exploring how language has been used to anchor and legitimise certain political agendas.
The media often presents anchors that influence judgement about migration, refugees and asylum seekers.
In 2015 the Brisbane Times featured a story on Blaise Itabelo, a friend of mine who decided to run for local government. The headline read "African refugee’s bid for council seat" and went on to explain:
"An African refugee who fled war-torn Congo will run for a seat on a southeast Queensland council when he gains his Australian Citizenship. Blaise Itabelo, who has lived in Australia for four years, says he will nominate himself as a candidate for Division Five in the Logan City Council so he can fully participate in Australian democracy".
When Blaise unwillingly dropped out of the race, the title of the Courier Mail on 23 February 2016 read: "A refugee has missed out on running for Logan City Council because of a ‘bureaucratic bungle’ to become an Aussie citizen".
The recurring theme of ‘refugee’ and ‘African refugee’ identifies Blaise not as a former refugee, but refugee full stop.
But here is the truth. At a very young age, Blaise fled war-torn Congo to Tanzania where he lived as a refugee under the protective wings of UNHCR and the Tanzanian government. A few years ago, Blaise had the life-changing opportunity to be resettled in Australia and was told before and after arriving that Australia is his new home. Blaise was born Congolese and lived in Tanzania as a refugee; but the moment he put his feet on the tarmac of an airport in Australia, his refugee status should have ended. Because it’s impossible to be refugee in your home. When you are home, you are home.
What the media does, and sometimes unknowingly, is it reassigns a past status that continues to shape someone’s life in their new home. Here is my question to you: When do you think Blaise’s refugee status will end? What I deduce from the the Brisbane Times and Courier Mail reports is NEVER.
On 21 June 2013, ABC 7.30 reported on another friend of mine, Isaiah Lahai: "A refugee from Sierra Leone has told his story of violence and hope in his new homeland". Like in the case of Blaise, I see another contradiction here: how can you be a refugee in your homeland? This is a man who won the Pride of Australia 2014 Tasmanian Award!
Without a doubt Australia’s media has improved in recent times in their dealings with issues and topics relating to this specific demographic.
The 21st century waves of migration requires the Australian media to grow, just as our population grows.
Media and politics play an important role in educating our society on how to interact with new communities. Both should be a channel toward inclusivity and promote unbiased messages that open minds. They should communicate in effective language and contribute to discussion on public policy, enabling conversation anchored by public perception as opposed to the decision makers. It is the duty of the Australian media and political parties to promote active citizenry and opportunities for constructive public debate.
Photo credit: Lucie Cutting