Mandatory prevention

Carrie Cox reports her findings on why it’s so hard to report on asylum-seekers.

“When information which properly belongs to the public is withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them and – eventually – incapable of determining their own destinies.” – US media critic W Lance Bennett in ‘News: The Politics of Illusion’

Like most ageing journalists, I believe in the fundamental importance of a free press. I believe that when information is deliberately withheld from the public, even if said public is perfectly content with the news coverage on Shane Warne’s Twitter feed, democracy withers and the four horsemen of the apocalypse saddle up.

Such beliefs, however quaint and dramatic, led me two years ago to embark upon a study into the Australian media’s coverage of issues and events associated with asylum seekers. Yes, that old chestnut. In arguably no other field of public policy is there a greater disconnect between the media and the most original source of relevant information – asylum seekers themselves. It is a disconnect born of logistics (Australian newsrooms are generally a long way from remote detention centres and boats bobbing about in the Indian Ocean) and wilful obstruction by government and public officials.

Incredibly, the impediments to information-gathering that first inspired my research two years ago — most notably the unprecedented ‘Deed of Agreement’ governing media access to detention centres and the drip-feed approach of the Immigration Department’s communications team — now seem relatively benign. The new Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s undisguised contempt for the media and his recent retraction of weekly press briefings make his departmental predecessors look like journalistic silly putty.

Regardless, I do not believe this renders my research outdated or redundant. If anything, I hope the opposite is true, and I hope much more research and interrogation happens at this site of asylum seeker coverage, particularly inquiry that focuses on the processes of news production, not simply the products themselves. It is a good thing that journalists continue to better understand what it is we are actually doing out there and why we are doing it.

An Honours thesis is a terribly restrictive thing and news is an unwieldy beast to deconstruct and measure, and so the proof in my final pudding is small. Small but interesting. I elected to do a framing theory comparison of every piece of government-produced and media-produced (specifically The West newspaper) information related to asylum seekers over a six-month period straddling the introduction of the Deed of Agreement in 2011. This revealed a very close correlation between the government’s and media’s framing of asylum seeker issues over the study period, with the most dominant frame being politics (compared to, among other things, humanitarian framing). I won’t bore you with pie graphs and percentages here, however these are available.

To better inform these relatively quantitative results, to give them life and colour as it were, I also interviewed a large cross-section of journalists and editors working in the area of asylum seeker reportage, as well as the then head of Immigration’s communications unit, Sandi Logan. Logan was a critical get because he had over time become “the” voice of the department; the one-key padlock to information. None of the journalists I interviewed failed to mention Logan in their comments (former 60 Minutes reporter Liam Bartlett: “He’s a control freak, a maverick without a licence … the fish rots from the head down and the whole thing is predicated on his directions”).

Fortunately Logan was only too willing to speak me at length, explaining that asylum seeker coverage is a two-way street. “Some journalists,” he said, “have proven themselves that they can’t be trusted. They seem to think that [asylum seekers] are expendable, they use them and exploit them. I mean, they have become in some instances, not all because some of them are very good and respectful in the space that we’re working in, which is a highly contested space, but some of them have become part of the toxicity of the debate and they have done absolutely nothing of any professional esteem, in my eyes, to convince me that they should be working on anything less than News of the World or some cheap tabloid daily.”

The generous and insightful reflections of all interviewees enabled me to draw several conclusions about the raw data; namely (1) that while asylum seeker issues may be inherently political in nature, the dearth of asylum seeker voices born out of restrictions upon the media likely contributes to coverage dominated by politics and policy; (2) that the government, as ‘first framer’ is certainly exerting influence upon the media’s coverage of asylum seeker issues; and (3) that many journalists would like to pursue less politicised coverage of asylum seeker coverage but are impeded by restricted access to asylum seekers in detention. A small sample of reflective responses follows …

On restricted media access to detention centres:

“I think if people understood the issues better, there would be a more informed debate about it, but it’s difficult to have that debate if the asylum seekers simply have no voice. The treatment of the asylum seekers is suppressed by the Government, so how can you possibly have an informed debate?” – The West editor-in-chief Bob Cronin

“You literally can’t get near the people who want to tell their stories to you. Detainees used to have mobile phones and you could call them and they could call you but that’s all been stamped out, with some occasional exceptions. You see pictures of people getting off a boat, you see numbers and nationalities [but] to me it doesn’t tell you enough.” The Australian’s WA bureau chief Paige Taylor

“Journalists would love to be able to speak directly with detainees without interference and would respect their privacy, given the chance. How else can we counteract the rubbish some politicians say?” – former West journalist Flip Prior

“Why don’t they go to the service settlement providers? Why don’t they go to the Hazara, the Tamil, the Sinhalese? We’re not the only players in this space. I would say that if journalists have told you it’s too difficult, I’d say to them they are lazy. Get off your backside, get out there and be a proper journalist.” – Sandi Logan

On agenda-setting:

“The Government is setting the agenda simply by restricting our access.” – West journalist Kate Bastians

“DIAC hasn’t won the war [but] I think they’ve done enormous damage. Look at how ridiculous this situation is. The minute [asylum seekers] are released into the community, can you go and knock on their door and talk to them? Of course you can. This is the absurdity of it all. If DIAC don’t think themselves a player in creating an atmosphere of xenophobia, then they are dreaming.” – Liam Bartlett

“Any suggestion that the reporting of refugee issues is filtered through DIAC is untrue. Reports come from all manner of sources – refugee advocates, community groups, politicians, day-to-day events in detention centres or at sea. DIAC is just one voice in the debate.” – West journalist Andrew Tillett

“I think they [the Immigration Department] have lost the agenda rather than captained it. I don’t think they have managed to put a positive face on the receipt of refugees. All we see are problems, riots, defensiveness. An agenda has not been set. It’s been allowed to evolve and to evolve in a negative way.” – freelance journalist and Walkley Award-winner Nigel Hopkins

“I think there is an attempt [by the department] to stop these stories being told [but] I think we’ve done a pretty good job at telling those stories.” – Bob Cronin

On the ‘Deed of Agreement’:

“For the first time in a long time, we’ve actually formalised arrangements so that the media knows it’s not about what side of the bed I wake up on or the Minister wakes up on or another public servant wakes up on in the morning and says I wonder whether we should give the media access today or not. We actually have a policy in place. It’s not about vetoing. It’s about saying to all of the media before they come in, these are the ground rules and it’s not open to negotiation at the end.” – Sandi Logan

“ … we’re never going to agree to have our information controlled in any way by the Government.” – Bob Cronin

Of course, irrespective of the views outlined above, and the many not included due to space, there remains the possibly unanswerable question: does the Australian public even care? If the media had unfettered access to asylum seekers and the capacity to publish their back stories and put a human face on the politics, would there be an audience for this? Is there an as-yet untold asylum seeker story that could achieve the cut-through of Sarah Ferguson’s wailing cows in the 4 Corners’ live cattle expose, ‘A Bloody Business’? Discuss.

Regardless, my quaint, dramatic belief remains that the public has a right to information about the government policies it funds, and that furthermore journalists have a right to access, check and challenge this information. How else, as W Lance Bennett put it at the outset, are we to capably determine our own destinies?

* Carrie Cox is a WA-based journalism tutor and freelance tutor. For copies of her thesis, ‘Mandatory prevention: the impact of media restrictions upon asylum seeker reporting in Australia’, email the author at carrieon@bigpond.com