The government has introduced restrictive new guidelines governing journalists' access to detention centres. Walkley Award winner Nigel Hopkins argues they are unnecessary while, opposite, DIAC spokesman Sandi Logan puts the government's case.
It is a little disconcerting for a journalist to find a story he’s written being used by opposing parties to support their individual positions, but that’s what’s happened with my story about the Inverbrackie Detention Facility, which appeared in the winter 2011 edition of the Adelaide Hills Magazine.
More unusually, perhaps, both sides are right.
The issue is the way in which the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) seeks to control media access to Australia’s detention centres. Its tool is a 19-page Deed of Agreement that imposes a set of legal obligations on the media.
The story I wrote was not subject to any such agreement. Nor would there have been any penalties had I written a story that did not comply with DIAC’s regard for the privacy of asylum seekers.
To that extent, it supports the Media Alliance’s contention that the story was “a perfect example of the way in which a relationship of trust between journalist and the authorities is far preferable to the position of censorship that DIAC is now seeking to impose”.
DIAC’s national communications manager, Sandi Logan, agreed: “I want to thank you for keeping at us about your intent; your trust and word were key”, he emailed after the Walkley Award presentation.
But Logan is also right when he argues that allowing the Adelaide Hills Magazine access to Inverbrackie shows DIAC’s desire to open up access to the detention centres, albeit through a more formalised and extensive deed of agreement.
Let’s go back to the beginning. I live in the Adelaide Hills, some 45km away from the Inverbrackie facility at Woodside. The Adelaide Hills is a fairly loose-limbed community but I’m part of it and I was dismayed, in fact shocked, by the response of some people when the relocation of asylum seekers to Inverbrackie was announced.
It would have been easy to portray them as red-necked racists, but more than anything they were fearful. They hadn’t been consulted by DIAC or any other government agency and they’d been given very little information. It was a classic instance of a government “announce and defend” policy, with predictable public resistance.
Instead, I formed the view that they were ill-informed, unworldly – in that they had no idea about the nature of refugees or the circumstances that had led them to such a desperate situation – and most dismaying of all, that they were ungenerous. This was so unlike the response given to the displaced persons housed at Inverbrackie after World War II. Back then, the local community couldn’t do enough to make them feel welcome.
I wanted to write a piece showing the human side of Inverbrackie and its refugee residents, and hopefully allay some of the community’s fear, but to do that I had to go inside Inverbrackie. Unfortunately the government’s position was that unauthorised media access was now rated as a “critical incident” alongside “the use of chemical and biological weapons”.
Though that seemed laughable I decided I’d rather enter through the front door as a journalist than adopt some subterfuge as a humanitarian visitor. Instead of going to DIAC’s public relations people I directly approached Steve Johnson, DIAC’s regional manager of Detention Operations and deputy state director in South Australia, and explained what I wanted to do.
I did this because it was Johnson who had to deal with the mess – and it was Johnson who would most want community tensions eased.
That was on February 3, 2011. I told him I understood he’d have to pass my request on to DIAC’s PR people, but I wanted him to do so with a recommendation that I be allowed access. “I think many of us would agree that an urgent goal in gaining community acceptance of the Inverbrackie refugees is that they are ‘humanised’ – not seen as queue jumpers or economic refugees, or even criminals, but (for the most part) as ordinary people who through extraordinary circumstances find themselves in this situation,” I wrote.
I explained that the story would appear in the Adelaide Hills Magazine, which circulated directly to the community most concerned about Inverbrackie. I had absolute assurance from both the magazine’s proprietor and editor that we would not sensationalise the story, and that we’d respect DIAC’s concerns regarding privacy and non-identification of individuals.
The fact that I have on occasions worked in a government communications role, as well as in newspapers, probably helped me empathise with the very defensive bureaucratic response I encountered.
Having passed one deadline and still waiting on approval from DIAC, we decided on May 25 to press on with the story regardless, without Inverbrackie access. We conveyed this decision to Johnson, who obviously passed it on to Canberra. The same day he responded that access had been approved, which was most likely at ministerial level.
As far as the story was concerned, I was happy for DIAC to see that portion of the text that resulted from the actual visit to Inverbrackie – about a third of the total article – so they could see I hadn’t written a sensational piece that further demonised the detainees. They trusted me to do this – but I was not compelled to do so.
This wasn’t what I’d consider common journalistic practice, but I could see that a very defensive bunker mentality existed in Canberra. It was not surprising, given the highly sensitive politics involved and the reasonable desire of any government bureaucrat not to embarrass his minister.
The other two thirds of my article contained considerable criticism of DIAC from the local community. DIAC seems to have worn this with good grace.
DIAC did not have permission to edit my text or change it in any way, other than to correct matters of fact. There was one minor correction to a job title, but no other changes were sought.
However DIAC did want to see the photographs before publication. The photographer had sought to take pictures that did not clearly identify any individuals, but the magazine had to argue the toss over one particularly poignant picture which showed a child’s face over the shoulder of his father, who was holding him. It seemed impossible that this child’s face could be used to identify his family, who may have been a year or more on the refugee road, but it ended up being pixelated.
Would DIAC’s new Deed of Agreement have prevented our story from being written? Possibly not, though it might have imposed penalties or censure measures that we didn’t have to face. Would I have signed the agreement? Probably, but had there been any attempt to censor the story we’d not have run it. Instead we’d have left a big hole in the magazine saying “censored” and run a separate story describing what we’d wanted to say but were now unable to do so.
In the current cautious, defensive and highly sensitive political environment I can see why DIAC feels it’s necessary to have such a formalised and extensive Deed of Agreement. But it is unfortunate – and in many circumstances there is a better way.
Nigel Hopkins is a freelance feature writer based in the Adelaide Hills. His story on Inverbrackie won the 2011 Walkley for coverage of community and regional affairs
No gag - but a duty of care
Critics of new guidelines for media entering immigration detention centres aren’t seeing the whole picture, says Sandi Logan.
The media has a strong interest in gaining easier access to immigration detention centres, and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) recognises the community’s right to know. It’s also mindful that denying access to detention facilities can give rise to unfounded allegations and inaccurate reports.
But its recently revised media access policy, available at www.immi.gov.au/media/media-access/, was never meant to be an unrestricted, access-all-areas pass. Rather, it seeks to strike the right balance between two important ideals: freedom of expression and freedom of the press on one hand, and the right to privacy of all people, including immigration detainees. So far there is every indication working journalists and photographers with The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Mount Barker Courier, Melbourne Age, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, SBS TV News, ABC News, ABC Four Corners, Network Seven (Border Security), Seven News, Nine News, and TEN News have found the policy practical and workable.
The policy is consistent with those of other agencies with a duty of care to vulnerable people. There are similar controls when the media enters hospitals, schools, aged care hostels or prisons.
Media seeking access to immigration detention facilities have always needed to sign on the dotted line. Deeds of agreement between the department and the media date back to 2000, and work on the latest version began in July 2011, at the request of the immigration minister, Chris Bowen. It was launched on October 21, 2011.
The department consulted, on a confidential basis, with a number of senior and experienced journalists and journalism academics before releasing the latest deed of agreement. Feedback varied from positive, to allegations the deed was overly legalistic and restrictive.
However it’s important to note this new access policy is simply an update of existing arrangements. Yes, it imposes on the media a set of legal obligations to ensure the department meets its duty of care to protect the privacy of detainees, but importantly, it does not gag how a visit is reported.
The ABC’s Four Corners was the first to sign the new deed and toured Sydney’s high-security Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in late October. Since then, we’ve conducted tours of Maribyrnong IDC, Inverbrackie and Wickham Point IDC. Further facilities will be opened to the media through 2012. The department ensures a spokesman is there to answer questions on-camera.
So far, around 25 journalists, photographers and camera-sound operators have signed the agreement and entered our facilities. While media would of course like unfettered access, feedback from participants so far is that the visits have been far less restrictive than they expected.
The department’s position is that it has done what it can to allow media access, while ensuring it still protects the privacy of detainees, which it is required to do under law.
While some members of the media have asserted the access policy is still akin to censorship, we have never made the deed out to be something it is not. This access is about the facilities, their level of amenity and the programs that are offered. It’s an opportunity to see daily life across a variety of detention facilities.
The department also tries to protect against sur place claims – this is when someone can rely on events subsequent to their departure from their home country to form the basis of, or addendum to, their protection claim. The most common reason for a sur place claim is public identification in the media. In the department’s view, we should not be creating opportunities (through sur place) for people to engage Australia’s protection obligations when they otherwise might not.
It’s true that people in immigration detention are free to telephone media representatives or enter into email conversations with them. However, the argument that because the department allows this, unrestricted access to facilities should be afforded, falls flat.
If someone is speaking on the telephone of their own free will, it is not tantamount to allowing recording devices into a detention facility without controls, which would clearly fall short of the department’s duty of care.
The department, along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other peak bodies, has made consistent representations to media outlets about the risks in identifying asylum seekers [relatives in the countries from which they have fled may face retribution]. We have been ignored.
Australian media outlets are now treating asylum seekers with a different set of rules and standards to other sections of the population. Identifying children in a school environment without parental consent, naming minors, detailing abuse claims or violating medical privacy (particularly in relation to mental health and self-harm incidents) are all issues where the media has traditionally adhered to a level of self-regulation, but when it comes to our clients, is regrettably absent.
This identification is often gratuitous.
Ask yourself this question: “If you were in the department’s shoes, and you owed a duty of care, would you offer unrestricted access to immigration detention facilities?” Only the foolhardy would say “yes”.
And when you are talking about vulnerable people and a degree of recalcitrance in some quarters of the media, DIAC is not in the business of being foolhardy.
Sandi Logan is the national communications manager at DIAC, and has been an active member of the MEAA since 1974, including as a speaker at its Walkley Conferences.