You’ve got to hand it to 60 Minutes. Snatching children from the arms of their grandmother on the streets of a foreign capital may well be the most ethically ambiguous thing Australian journalists have done for a story, but never let it be said they aren’t giving topping that a red hot go.
The once-reputable “current affairs program” this week sought to outdo itself by indulging Australia’s thirst for at least two of its unquenchable pastimes: piling on Australians in overseas prisons, and condemning women’s sexuality.
The media furore around 22-year-old Cassandra Sainsbury, charged with attempting to smuggle 5.8kg of cocaine out of Colombia, was plenty questionable enough already, flitting erratically between sympathetic coverage on the “terrifying,” “overcrowded” and “dirty” prison she is awaiting trial in, to gleefully contradicting her claims of being a volunteer firefighter.
But the team at 60 Minutes really upped the ante on Sunday night, outing Sainsbury as a “former sex worker.”
I’m confused as to the relevance her former occupation has to her current charges. Is this meant to cast doubt on her character? If so, Channel Nine are unequivocally implying that women who engage in paid sex work are morally defective.
Curiously, 60 Minutes had no qualms shattering Sainsbury’s privacy but respected the anonymity of those who, claiming to be former co-workers, accused her of scamming them for money. Perhaps we can’t blame them for the public flogging; if they are telling the truth, then this makes for juicy revenge indeed.
But let’s be honest, helping aggrieved former co-workers seek revenge wasn’t why 60 Minutes ran with this story, or why it garnered such high ratings.
Headlines that scream Sainsbury had worked as “a prostitute” for months before her trip to Colombia serve no purpose other than implying a link between her former occupation and her alleged crime.
This has implications for sex workers – as Lucie Bee writes here for Junkee – and for all women, who have yet again been reminded that our sexual history, be it personal or professional, is always fair game to be dredged up and used against us.
But the accusations thrown at her during the show, that she “is manipulative” and “a compulsive liar” even faking her own mother’s death, also imply something else: that being a low-level drug mule and having a bad moral character are two sides of the same coin.
We all have (ultimately irrelevant) opinions on whether Sainsbury knew about the 18 bags of cocaine in her luggage. However, acting as a drug mule is not necessarily something people do because they are bad people. As Sainsbury’s lawyer indicated to 60 Minutes, sometimes it’s just people driven by financial strife into making a terrible mistake.
As Fairfax has previously reported, Sainsbury has been charged amid a rise in female drug mules. In neighbouring Argentina, a 2011 study found that nine out of every 10 foreign women in prison for federal drug offences were found guilty for acting as mules.
A whopping 96 per cent were first-time offenders.
This haunting photo essay from 2010 delved into the world of the Capital Penitentiary for Women in Brazil, where all foreign female prisoners are held. At the time, there were approximately 400 women housed there, most of whom were low level drug mules, mostly from South Africa, one of whom told the journalist: “You cannot say any woman who does this is a greedy woman or a cheap woman. If you look at the women here and you listen to their stories, you will see these are mothers, sisters and wives. People that had decent lives but circumstances drove them to do this.”
Their stories vary but they all seem have at least one thing in common: they were approached at a dark time in their lives, struggling financially, and offered “easy money.”
It’s easy for us to scoff but is it so unreasonable that we approach this issue with compassion, that we replace salacious accusations with a public conversation that looks at the factors that drive people to take this terrible risk?
It has always struck me as odd that so many Australians seem to take such perverse delight watching their co-patriots have the book thrown at them in countries with harsher laws and harsher prison conditions than our own.
“Think of the drug addicts that have been saved,” and “I reserve my sympathy for the families of those who lose their lives to drugs,” are common justifications given for this policy of zero sympathy.
But in the same way that the foetuses pro-lifers wish to save lose their value the moment they are born, and returned army veterans are forgotten once their fatigues are hung up, this attitude to drug addicts is starkly hypocritical.
We only seem to care when we can use their suffering to condemn others; even though at least one Colombian officer involved in Sainsbury’s case has described mules as victims of the drug trade.
You don’t have to feel sorry for Sainsbury or any of those already sentenced to prison, and the cases of relatively privileged westerners like Sainsbury are markedly different than that of drug mules from “developing” countries, where income inequality is starker and more difficult to overcome. Perhaps this accounts for at least some of our mocking; how could they be so silly as to throw it all away?
But this issue is bigger than any individual case because the more we apply a policy of zero compassion, the more context we strip away, the less we talk about the real stakes.
What can we do about the desperation that compels people to believe there is such a thing as easy money in a world of hard drugs and harder punishments? Why are people living in poverty so easily preyed upon when authorities know this happening? And – a question I am very keen on discovering an answer to – how does nabbing low level drug mules help stem the drug trade?
That last question is pertinent because not only do so many mules not succeed, they were never meant to: often the person who tips off law enforcement is the very person that recruited them.
There is no comfort in claiming the drugs they carried will never hit the streets if they were only ever a decoy to distract authorities while a bigger shipment made it through.
Perhaps scapegoats is a better name for them than mules. For they bear the burden of our hypocritical attitudes to drugs as well as the burden of guilt, even though low-level drug offences are – like so many other crimes – not necessarily indicative of an absence of moral character but a presence of financial desperation.
Meanwhile, shows like 60 Minutes reduce their complex lives to the lowest possible denominator, hooking us on the same reductive and irresponsible debates on crime, sexuality, and moral worth.
Indeed, the Daily Mail has now thrown fat-shaming into the mix, claiming Sainsbury was an “unpopular” sex worker because she was “a little tubby.”
Regardless of our thoughts on her alleged actions, it should go without saying that this kind of media coverage serves no purpose other than to turn a deadly trade into cheap entertainment. And that does nothing to help anyone.