BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. For you and me, Australia is a commonwealth democracy on the other side of the world where winter is summer, kangaroos hop around and English is spoken with only two or three vowel sounds, nice opera house, sharks in like the drinking water. But to the National Rifle Association, Australia is a nightmare. That's because of its gun laws. In 1996 a man armed with an AR15 assault rifle murdered 35 people in Port Arthur Tasmania which led to dramatic restrictions on private ownership of semi-automatic weapons and the $300 million buyback of more than half a million firearms. And this has contributed to a nearly 60 percent drop in firearm suicides and more than a 40 percent drop in the firearm murder rate. Which is why the country is the NRA is bête noire. It's a laboratory population 25 million that disproves the gun lobby biggest of big lies.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: The only thing--.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The only way.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: That the best way.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The surest way.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: To stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
CROWD: [CHEERING] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And so when a far right Australian political party sent emissaries to the NRA in the company of a native Aussie gun rights group, each saw an opportunity in the other. What neither the NRA nor the politicians from the one nation party knew was that the meet up was orchestrated by investigative journalists from Al Jazeera and surreptitiously filmed by a man who had operated under deep cover for three years to penetrate the gun lobby. Peter Charley is executive producer of Al Jazeera North America investigative unit based in Washington DC. He is the mastermind of the sting and was behind the two part documentary "How To Sell a Massacre." Peter, welcome to OTM.
PETER CHARLEY: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with the players. What is the one nation party and what was their interest in the NRA?
PETER CHARLEY: The one nation party is a right-wing anti-immigration party that's been gaining traction in Australia for probably about 20 years. It's embraced by the countryfolk of Australia and reviled by the people in the cities. It's caused a great division within Australia. It's interesting the NRA was an interest in forming bonds with powerful and wealthy gun proponents in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: Then there was their partners in this expedition for money and collaboration. The organization gun rights Australia, in the person of a kind and nondescript fellow named Rodger Muller.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: From Australia to the land of the free, Rodger Muller travelled to the NRA convention in Louisville from down under.
RODGER MULLER: We're here at the NRA conference to learn more about what the NRA has done. We're had some great conversations--[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: He purported to one eventual repeal of the country's gun restrictions but--.
PETER CHARLEY He is a man I hired to infiltrate the NRA. When I formed Gun Rights Australia, I started looking all around Australia for an appropriate person to pose as the leader of that group–and then I thought of Rodger. He's someone out known for about 20 years, an acquaintance of mine from the days when I lived in Sydney, Australia. You know, is affable kind of guy who could walk into a room put everyone at ease and he also had time on his hands. So I was able to pluck him out of his trailer and send him over to the United States and guide him very carefully through a series of meetings with the NRA and various other gun lobby groups.
BOB GARFIELD: Now when I say deep cover, I mean deep. Rodger was freaking Serpico. Who knew about this double life?
PETER CHARLEY: Rodger and I knew about it and my bosses. Rodger kept it from his family and his friends and the community he lived in. And that caused him some difficulties of course with people seeing someone who was a jovial beer drinking kind of Aussie mate suddenly talking about the need for more guns in Australia and talking about his friends he was developing at the NRA. And one point, on Christmas day, a stranger came up to him and punched him in the face and said, 'you do not ever change Australia's gun laws.'
BOB GARFIELD: You recruited him to pose as a true believer to con the NRA and One Nation, simultaneously. What were you hoping to snare these people in?
PETER CHARLEY: I happened to be driving past the NRA headquarters when on my car radio I heard a report of another mass shooting. And I looked at the building as I was driving past and thought, 'what on earth are they saying in there about what I'm hearing out here.' And I thought, 'well, there's only one way to find out what the true unguarded comments are and that is to infiltrate that organization.'
BOB GARFIELD: You very quickly did find out what they say at the wake of tragedies. It's always been plain to see but here we've got to see it articulated in private. It was unsurprising but nonetheless sickening.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: If your policy isn't good enough to stand on it's own, how dare you use their deaths to push that forward.
RODGER MULLER: That's really good. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from the rhetoric you heard in these conversations, you also hear the NRA advising their Australian counterparts how to ghost write op-eds for politicians.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We'll pitch guest columns in the local papers. A lot of times will write them for the local sheriff in Wisconsin or whatever. We'll help them and they'll submit it with their name on it so it looks organic. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: How to cultivate friendly reporters to give big play to stories when guns are successfully used in self-defence.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: You have somebody who maybe worked at a newspaper, maybe he was covering city hall or a crime reporter, who were robbed, had their home invasions, whatever it might be, that could have helped had they had a gun. That's what’s going to be the angle of these stories. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And over and over we hear them reminding the Aussies to pander to women's sense of vulnerability.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: If the mom’s against you, dad’s like I'm going to fight that fight. Right?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Haha.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And the kids aren't going to be allowed to. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And the other thing we heard is that, clearly, the NRA is itself very eager to take the Australia example out of the gun control conversation.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In the United States, a lot of times they go, 'well look at Australia.'
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Mmhm. There's the problem
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Look at Australia and then we have to fight that argument continually. [END CLIP]
PETER CHARLEY: The NRA has made no secret of the fact that they are very unhappy with Austrialia's gun control laws. And when one nation came to them with the suggestion that they didn't like Australia's gun control laws either, it was music to NRA's ears.
BOB GARFIELD: The innerworkings and the PR techniques of the NRA are infuriating to witness especially in the wake of these bloodbaths. But, I'm not sure that "How To Sell a Massacre" actually located, excuse the expression, a smoking gun. Is there something that has the potential to sway public opinion?
PETER CHARLEY: In some areas I think the answer to that is yes, specifically the political arena of Australia where shock waves are still reverberating after these disclosures that a political party travelled to a foreign country to seek advice and funding from a powerful gun lobby group while offering to water down Australia's cherished gun laws in the process. That is, to use your term, a smoking gun of sorts. As far as the NRA side of the story goes, I don't think there is anything in the revelations that would necessarily shock people. Although, they may be appalled at the attitude being displayed by NRA officials in guiding people through the steps required to hose down public anger and outrage after--.
BOB GARFIELD: The abject killing cynicism.
PETER CHARLEY: Yes, that's right.
BOB GARFIELD: About sting operations, in general, they are deemed journalistically unethical. They're founded, after all, on a lie. First of all, were any laws broken US or Australian?
PETER CHARLEY: Laws were not broken. Yes, there was subterfuge involved. We created a fake gun rights organization. Rodger Muller, even though that's his real name, was adopting a fake persona in order to persuade people to allow him into the world. My view on this is the nature of the material we gathered is of such enormous public interest that I believe it relieves us of the constraints that would otherwise be imposed on us–at least according to the Australian journalist code of ethics. The MEAA, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, there is a provision for the ethical constraints that would normally apply to be overridden if the public interest is sufficiently grave, which I'm convinced it was here. It is something that shouldn't be undertaken lightly. We were treading very carefully into this area. We sought extensive legal advice and had to clear a series of hurdles in the editorial world of Al Jazeera in order for us to receive permission to start moving forward with the use of concealed cameras.
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe especially in this day and age when the press is just so widely and increasingly distrusted, it seems to fulfill the worst suspicions about our trustworthiness. Your timing possibly could not have been worse.
PETER CHARLEY: I take your point but I don't know how timing could have ever been better. Either because the number of mass killings that are taking place in the United States is staggering. The response of the NRA, as we now know for certain because they disclose their playbook to One Nation, is to stay silent. So I think if we were ever going to step into this contentious world of infiltration and the use of concealed cameras, I think now is the time to do it. Accusations of fake news or fake reporting, well they're are bound to occur anyway and I'm prepared to take that on the chin.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter thank you very much.
PETER CHARLEY: Thank you Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Charley is executive producer of Al Jazeera's is North American investigative unit and mastermind of the sting that resulted in the two part documentary "How To Sell a Massacre.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show On The Media's produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Xandra Ellin and Sherina Ong. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson our engineers this week with Sam Bair and Josh Han. Brooke is out working on a phenomenal special series and they swear to me should be back one of these days.