Commentary |
20 December 2019

Being a video vigilante can serve the greater good, but that doesn't mean it's always right

Originally published in ABC News.

Daniel Flitton
Daniel Flitton

The video vigilantes are among us. Take the latest viral moment, for example. The racist rant that Mildura resident Robby Wirramanda Knight was subjected to was, in a word, appalling.

As his neighbours taunted that "People like you make a mockery of true Aboriginals", he was absolutely right to reach for his mobile phone to film the sorry saga and post it online.

But that doesn't make a camera and a social media account the answer to every problem.

"Let it go viral," a cocky Robert Vigors is seen goading Wirramanda Knight mid-rant.

Vigors could never have anticipated the cost of clicks, either to his own reputation or that of the country.

The footage has seen him stripped of two local McDonald's restaurant franchises in the northern Victorian town.

The fallout has also damaged the travel agency business of Karen Ridge, who is seen in the video trying and failing to tear down an Aboriginal flag.

It serves them both right. As much as the pair can respond with claims that "there are always two sides to every story", their behaviour was obvious for the public to judge.

Not every conflict needs a platform

What made this confrontation so extraordinary — or as a journalist would say, so newsworthy — was the manner in which it offered a glimpse into Australia's dismal record of race relations.

Racism is a problem widely acknowledged, yet so often hidden. Here was a true insight, a story picked up by news outlets overseas.

And that's the point. It was revealing as a moment. Not every conflict is.

Most neighbourhood disputes are so mundane as to barely rate a Facebook like, let alone a viral video.

Yet we are in danger of too often tripping over our technology.

Video can complicate the problem

I watched — in real life, not online — another instance this week that showed how our urge to capture "content" can needlessly complicate a problem that might have been otherwise smoothly resolved.

A pedestrian was accosting a bus driver. It lasted only a couple of minutes — and no, I didn't think to film it. But the pedestrian did.

He had stalked onto the road in front of an empty bus parked on a suburban street, phone in hand, video rolling.

He panned the camera around then knocked on the side door. The driver got out, and I could hear the pedestrian complaining that the bus was parked in what he called a "handicapped" zone.

He was right. But his approach was all wrong. If this was an attempt at citizen journalism, it was a tabloid style — foot in the door, camera in the face with the journalist as part of story, rather than observer and storyteller.

The driver tried to calmly explain that another bus was parked ahead of him in the usual waiting bay as he took a short break.

But the pedestrian kept holding up his camera, insisting the bus move, by now demanding the name of the driver's manager.

The driver turned away, and the pedestrian kept filming and narrating, presumably with the intention of posting the incident online. (If he has, I've not found it.)

The driver was undoubtedly in the wrong, but surely that doesn't make the pedestrian right. What might have happened had he simply first approached the driver and pointed out the disabled parking sign?

Reaching for the camera isn't always right

Given everyone has a phone, it must be time for some ground rules for our wannabe news-breakers.

A man fishing in a Melbourne city lake was recently confronted by a phone camera wielding complainant accusing him of breaking the law — only he wasn't. Such incidents seem increasingly common.

Journalists are taught early that "dog bites man" is so ordinary an occurrence as not to rate as a story. But "man bites dog" just might.

That's the type of sentiment which makes for a viral video, at least in the news sense.

It was revealing to film boys in the uniform of a Melbourne private school joining a sexist chant on a tram in October, or to capture the extraordinary bravery in London last month when citizens sought to quell a terrorist with fire extinguishers and a narwhal tusk.

These moments amounted to news because of their exceptional nature. Trying to force a story by inserting yourself into it will never be the same.

If you see somebody doing something wrong, the instinct to reach for the camera isn't always right. Some people have jobs to resolve such situations.

The police, for example. Use the phone to first call them instead.

Daniel Flitton is a journalist and editor of the Lowy Institute's Interpreter blog.