Outrage at shoplifting guide

September 1, 1995

It is hard to say whether Rabelais would have been amused. Certainly no one in authority was when the editors of a La Trobe University student newspaper named after the great French satirist published an article on how to shoplift.

In fact, all hell broke loose. Every media outlet in Melbourne behaved as if this was the end of antipodean civilisation.

The Retail Traders Association was outraged and called for police action, proposing that the students and the magazine be pulped. The management of one big suburban shopping complex warned that La Trobe students might have trouble getting jobs as a result of the guide.

La Trobe vice chancellor, Michael Osborne, demanded the perpetrators offer a public apology "not the least to their fellow students whose career prospects can only be harmed by association with such appalling sentiments".

The article, written by a "Carmen Lawrence" (which happens to be the name of the federal health minister), set out the necessary steps to steal successfully from shops. It included details of how to prepare for the act, techniques for avoiding detection, and what to do if caught.

Avoid small shops as they could be struggling for business, the writers advised. "Best play it safe and go straight for the big corporate ****ers." And, if caught: "Don't act tough or be a smart arse. Cry. Bawl. Admit a guilty conscience. Beg them not to tell the cops (because) community services will take your kids off you . . ."

The Traders Association described the article as outrageous and scurrilous and said shoplifting cost Victorian retailers up to A$400 million (Pounds 192 million) a year and Australia more than A$1 billion.

But Rabelais' four editors defended the piece, claiming it was aimed at students with short-term financial problems. They pointed out that payments to students under Australia's financial aid system were 38 per cent below the poverty line and provided a maximum of A$140 a week to pay the bills.

Professor Osborne condemned the "disgraceful attempts of some students to justify the contents". He then warned that the university was considering further action. "It is an urgent necessity to devise a process that will prevent small, politically motivated groups of whatever persuasion from claiming to represent student views," he said.

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