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The Hostage Profit Motive

Profiting from a hostage crisis is not unheard of. In times of mortal crisis, there is always money to be made, be it the victims themselves, those around them. The ridesharing app Uber succumbed to that sweet temptation of using algorithmic calculations to increase the cost of its rides during the Sydney hostage crisis. But the company was from from the only one.

Hostages – the surviving ones – can provide rich, ready-made material for networks manic on the ratings push. This is classic show pony exploitation. Mythological narratives spice those of basic survival. Personal portraits become animated with excited nervousness and supposed pathos – you were prosaic and ordinary till a politically motivated fanatic pointed a gun at your otherwise anonymous being.

While unsuspecting victims who end up in a body bag purchasing a coffee ought to be the subject of remembrance, the survivors provide a different object study. The way they cope varies. Hostages, showing that show pony promotions also have a reverse side, can also profit, though an argument is made that this is mere monetary therapy. Survivor stories have currency.

In what was a macabre display of rent-accumulation, various hostages of the Lindt Café crisis cashed in on their experiences inflicted upon them by Man Haron Monis and the law enforcement authorities. Three perished in the ultimate rescue operation, including Sydney barrister Katrina Dawson, the café manager Tori Johnson, and Monis himself.

Marcia Mikhael, a beneficiary of those deaths, and the exploits of the gunman, was careful to shed a few commemorative tears, the sort of moisture valued at $300,000, courtesy of Channel 7’s coffers. (Another figure suggested is $400,000.) John O’Brien received $100,000 for his interview. A total of $1 million has been paid by Nine’s Sixty Minutes for Fiona Ma, Harriette Denny, Joel Heart and Jarrod Morton-Hoffman.

Australian television networks, the yellow brick road opportunists of Seven and Nine, both went to the airwaves with the testimony of 18 hostages in what became a supremely distasteful smorgasbord of ratings and extended reflections. Sixty Minutes featured, at its introduction, pictures of the survivors, grimly lined up in mock defiance before the exaggerated title of “Siege Survivors”. (What happened to weightiness of the term ‘siege’?)

The cause celebre of cruelty and monstrosity was Monis himself, necessary villain deemed by press outlets “the madman”, “paranoid” and “unhinged”. All too often, one was reminded how valuable he had been to the entire spectacle, a media sensation whose opportunistic, idiotic behaviour had shed so much publicity for the crowd of the 15 minute fame.

There was much hack philosophising and mundane reflecting, flavoured only by sharp facial movements and channelled distress. “Could I have got him [Tori Johnson], could I have done something?” asked a rhetorically minded Heart, one of the workers. “He was a dear friend and I left him to die.”

Some decided to dabble in tactical observations: the hard hitting army, claimed Mikhael, should have been brought in, not the doddering police. As self-appointed logistics expert, she spoke about how, “I just think that maybe the Army would’ve been, more appropriate to be handling the situation.” Mikhael proved disconcerted by police refusals, on the phone, to acquiesce to Monis’ demands to speak to the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. “I yelled at [the police operator] and I just couldn’t believe it…”

This would have come across as a rather stinging rebuke, given the praise levelled at the police efforts by the anti-terrorist commentariat. The director of Terrorism Studies at the Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention at the University of Wollongong, Adam Dolnik, was one such individual. “My guess is the tactical team… saw a situation [where] hostages were getting harmed and decided to step in to protect those hostages, which is absolutely the right call” (Illawarra Mercury, Dec 16, 2014).

Others sought to beef up their courage credentials for posterity’s rather meagre record: they considered assaulting and disarming the gunman, even if it only remained a consideration. Morton-Hoffman spoke of his fantasises of murder. “I gave him [fellow hostage Heart] a Stanley knife… just in case” (ABC News, Feb 9). Box-cutters also figured. The plot with fellow hostage, Joel Heart, would have involved a good “stab in the jugular” artery by either one of their knives or implements. Then came the agonising pondering. “What if,” went another rhetorical point on Morton-Hoffman’s part, “I miss? What are the consequences of that, you know, who’s he going to shoot?”

There might have been spectacular exceptions. Former bank executive and multiple sclerosis sufferer, Louisa Hope, received a bullet to her foot. She initially refused media requests. In the words of Craig Wallace, president of People with Disability Australia, “She doesn’t want to be seen to be exploiting the situation and is really appropriate in what she does” (The Daily Telegraph, Jan 23). That did change – Sixty Minutes got their treasured quarry, and Hope relented. Apologists for the payments, such as victims of crime advocate Howard Brown, embraced a touch of psychology: “giving the interview will be a cathartic process for them” (Sydney Morning Herald, Jan 20). Money tends to be many a person’s catharsis.

Some did comment on the payments forked out to the victims by commercial outfits. Former Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, suggested that it was not “morally right” to accept such payments, they being in the realm of the “grubby”. These were, effectively, proceeds of a crime. But the true instigator here is no longer alive to comment. Monis, for his exploits, became a posthumous money spinner, if only in an incidental way, for various people. He is unlikely to be thanked for that.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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