Silence over boats sells public short
October 06, 2013
Despite his habit of making bewildering proclamations (''Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts''), Jim Morrison is responsible for a piece of wisdom that has resonated through the ages: ''Whoever controls the media, controls the mind''.
Control or limit the information available to people, and you frame the debate to your own ends. It's an old tactic but a good one, and it's been deployed in a surprisingly blatant way by the Coalition in its first month in office.
The new government has a bunker mentality when it comes to releasing information about asylum seeker arrivals. It insists information will come only from the new three-star general in charge of border security,
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, and from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's weekly Operation Sovereign Borders briefings.
The policy was put to its first test last weekend, and it failed spectacularly.
On Saturday, details began to trickle through about a boat filled with asylum seekers bound for Australia that had sunk the previous day off the southern coast of Java.
Fairfax's Indonesia correspondent, Michael Bachelard, reported the death toll had reached 21, with up to 33 people still missing. Most of the dead were children who could not swim.
It was AFL grand final day, and Australia was in a celebratory mood. Barbecue plates were being scraped, salads prepared and beer runs made. In Melbourne, newly minted Prime Minister Tony Abbott was at a late grand final breakfast.
But outside reporters were waiting for him, hungry for more information on the tragedy. Did the Prime Minister know about the boat sinking? Could he tell them more?
We will never know. By the time the media caught up with him, Abbott was stone-facedly refusing to respond to questions about those who drowned on their way to Australia. Morrison could offer no better. Calls to his office went unanswered.
Survivors of the boat sinking told Bachelard that Australian authorities had known of their location for 26 hours, and had not sent help.
Their story spread like wildfire. If true, it meant Australia failed to save people's lives when it could have done so. The story urgently needed a government response. But the government was silent.
Under Labor, information about asylum-seeker boats that had arrived in Australia, or had foundered on their way, was relatively easy to come by. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Customs and Border Protection released information regularly about boats that were intercepted on the way to Australia, or which foundered on their way here, including the number of asylum seekers on vessels, and where and when they had been intercepted.
Both agencies operated on a presumption in favour of the public's right to know, with the caveat that they would only release information to the media they knew to be accurate, and that would not jeopardise people's safety and Australia's border security. But both agencies have been gagged.
Given Morrison's office was not returning calls, I and many of my colleagues called AMSA and Customs on Saturday, but were referred back to Morrison's media adviser.
Morrison's media adviser's phone was switched off for hours, and calls, a voicemail, texts and an email failed to rouse a response. It was not clear whether the office was even aware of the sinking. Meanwhile, the media reported the tragedy, complete with the asylum seekers' reports of the delay in their rescue.
As a media strategy, the tactic of controlling information at all costs failed miserably, and succeeded only in allowing the media to air unverified accounts all day.
It doesn't reflect well on the government or the media, and it's hardly serving the public.
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