Which journalists do you trust on asylum seekers?

What a flurry of articles on asylum seekers we’ve had over the last couple of weeks.  Journalists have not taken a consistent position on this subject; there seems to be a wide variety of opinions about how the situation has occurred and what should be done about it.  This piece tries to dissect out what prompts a particular journalist to take a particular line.

You will recall that the recent debate on the economics of the GFC was bedevilled by a cacophony of voices.  We discovered that there was a wide variety of opinion, and that opinion often seemed to be based more on the economist’s favoured theory of economics than on a balanced appraisal of the facts.  We heard from the pump-priming Keynesians, those enamoured of Friedrich Hayek’s free market capitalism, and those advocating Milton Friedman’s monetarist, anti-regulation policies.  Their writings reflected those paradigms.  Few gave a balanced appraisal.  There were articles about this on The Political Sword in February: The problem with economists and September: What value are economists to our society In the same way, many writings on asylum seekers seem to be constructed around the writer’s belief system about asylum seekers, rather than an account of the facts and a balanced appraisal of them.

As in just about everything, people’s views are distributed along the bell-shaped curve, with at one extreme the view that Australia does not need immigrants, or at least not a lot of them, that if they do come they should arrive in an orderly way and not try to jump the queue as ‘cashed-up illegal boat arrivals’, and that they should be exhaustively assessed in detentions camps, preferably overseas, no matter how long it takes.  There are suspicions that terrorists may sneak in.  These are the strong border protectionists. 

At the other end of the curve there are those who believe that Australia can afford to be much more generous in accepting asylum seekers, that their identity, security and health assessments should be done quickly and humanely in congenial surroundings, and that those who are eligible should be quickly assimilated into the community.  They are outraged by attitudes that cast asylum seekers in a less-than-human light.  These are the open-door advocates.  Some of these approach the issue from a moralistic stand point.

I expect most people sit around the middle.

If we look at the most recent articles, there are only a few that take the extreme ‘protectionist’ line.  Media opinion seems to have shifted towards the other end of the spectrum.  Whether it accurately reflects public opinion is unclear – there are few data on this.  However, Asylum boat had holes drilled in hull in The Age of 22 October by Nick Butterly, Andrew Probyn and Lindsay Murdock reminds us of the tactics that some boat people have used and apparently still do, to gain access to Australia.  And when Wilson Tuckey said that there could be terrorists hidden among genuine refugees on the arriving boats, some columnists, far from castigating him, agreed that he might be right.  Malcolm Turnbull eventually repudiated such slighting of refugees; Julie Bishop was not prepared to go that far, nor were some other Liberals.  Their comments were widely reported – the Tuckey view was expressed by the media without having to endorse it.  So the ‘protectionist’ journalists did get some air play.

Many articles lean towards, but don’t actually fully endorse the open-door approach.  The editorial in the current Weekend Australian, More straight talk, we're Australians says “...eight years after September 11, Tampa, and an election won by John Howard amid hysteria on asylum-seekers, Australia is in a calmer and more compassionate frame of mind. There is more awareness of the plight of people caught in desperate conflicts overseas and an understanding that while boat arrivals are emotive, most asylum-seekers come by air. Time has defused much of the passion of the past and politicians should nurture and build on these sentiments.”  These are heartening sentiments; whether they reflect community opinion is another matter.  Because the editorial writer holds this view, an intelligent discussion with the Australian people, who ‘can walk and chew gum’ at the same time, is seen as now overdue.  One can only hope this view is accurate.  George Megalogenis supports the editorial with an analysis of recent polling that shows “the polls were unmoved this week, notwithstanding the headlines and heated exchanges over the Sri Lankan asylum-seekers”  in a piece Political capital has left debate.  In similar vein, The Piping Shrike questions the need for Rudd’s strong rhetoric in A losing game for Labor – an update, a sequel to A losing game for Labor

Some articles take a descriptive approach.  Stephen Fitzpatrick and Matthew Franklin in The Australian of 23 October in PM Kevin Rudd's $50m Indonesian solution emphasises the possible cost, without comment.  No comparison with existing costs or the cost of the ‘Pacific Solution’ is given.  Labor all at sea on asylum promises in the SMH by Lindsay Murdoch, Mark Davis and Phillip Coorey while reporting the latest, highlights the continuation of the voyage of the Oceanic Viking in which the asylum seekers are “condemned to another three days at sea”.  The use of ‘condemned’ suggest the authors disapprove of these arrangements.  There are now articles pointing to the adverse conditions that are said to exist in Indonesian detention centres.  In The Age articles by Michelle Grattan A leaky boat to Indonesia seems Rudd's preferred solution and Chaos as Jakarta diverts asylum boat indicate she is unimpressed with what is going on.  No alternative approach is suggested.

The moralistic approach though is the hardest to brook.  Tony Abbott, well known for his moralizing and pontificating, in Rudd’s desperate on boatpeople issue says “The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. Now, he calls the people who help asylum seekers to get to Australia ‘vermin’ and the ‘vilest form of life’. Even by the standards of politics, the Prime Minister is a shameless hypocrite who wants people to believe that he has a border protection policy that is both hard-line and humane.”   What more is there to say about that moralistic judgement; it’s what we’ve come to expect from Abbott. 

But we expect more from the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann.  Rising from talk-back producer for 774 Melbourne’s Jon Faine to political analyst for the 7.30 Report in place of Michael Brissenden, he now has his own ABC blog, and this weekend, I think for the first time, has become a MSM columnist.  As I understand it, Uhlmann was at one time studying in a seminary, which may explain his overtly moralist blog piece, Rudd squanders chance to practise what he preaches which was reproduced almost word for word in The Weekend Australian in St Kevin's halo may choke him.  It doesn’t take much to imagine what the tone of his pieces were.  He too evokes the image of the Good Samaritan.  He says: “...Rudd has made a parade of his beliefs and is given to cloaking political arguments in moral garments.  So the Prime Minister was faced with a choice. The narrow gate was to make a complex argument, to explain what he was doing, and to try to change the tone of Australia's debate about asylum-seekers. The wide path was to play the hard man and tub thump. His life was not at risk. The state he had to speak boldly to was run by him. All he was risking was an approval rating of 71 per cent.  And Rudd chose the wide path.”  Moral judgement delivered!

His blog attracted 34 comments, most applauding the quality of his article.  I found it overbearing.   I left the following comment, which I reproduce here as it reflects my feeling about this pontifical piece: “You judge Kevin Rudd to be morally inconsistent, you accuse him of parading his beliefs and cloaking many political arguments in moral garments, and you condemn him for making moral judgements. Yet you yourself make moral judgments about him.  Chris, it’s a risky business running a moral argument against someone whom you accuse of running a moral argument. 

“You laud the Opposition for having a moral compass ‘that at least has the virtue of pointing, roughly, in one direction’ even I suppose if that happens to be in the wrong direction. Are you saying that it’s more important to be morally consistent, than it is to make the ‘right’ moral judgement?

“You seem to be carrying many respondents along with you. But none of them, or you yourself, has explained what is inconsistent, morally or otherwise, in being tough on people smugglers yet humane to those seeking asylum. It’s not all that difficult a concept. In my view Rudd is on the right track.  As a political commentator, it might be wise to stick to politics and leave the moralizing to others.”  I need say no more.

There has been much talk about Rudd’s ‘contradictory’ dual messages of ‘tough on border protection and people smugglers’ yet ‘treating asylum seekers humanely’, and he’s accused of ‘speaking out of both sides of his mouth’.  That’s exactly what he’s doing, and the message that seems contradictory is not contradictory at all.  How many times have you encountered in family life, in business, and in social relations the necessity for being simultaneously tough and humane?  Given that the better journalists are possessed of reasonable intellect, why is this duality so difficult to comprehend and explain to readers? 

In his piece in The Weekend Australian, Rudd plays it tough to win high ground Paul Kelly tries: “Despite its political discomfort, exaggerated moralism and diplomatic scramble, the Rudd government emerges with more credit over the boatpeople surge than do its opponents on the Right and Left.”  Later he had this to say: “As former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief Michael Costello said in my book The March of Patriots: ‘My view is that we should take as many migrants and refugees as possible. But we have a duty to ensure we don't just reward those who get here by boat and we have an obligation to ensure that any refugees we accept meet the standards we require as a country. There can be no open door to Australia.’ This is an established Labor position.”  Rudd seems to be following it.

Then Kelly addresses what he sees as another ‘contradiction’: “Rudd's tactics this week were founded on a contradiction: he seeks to calm yet escalate the issue.   As a responsible PM, Rudd kept appealing for calm, sought to defuse the arrivals, aware that he had to reassure Jakarta, told the public that under Howard 15,000 boatpeople arrived compared with only 1700 under his own period and declared that ‘this has been a problem in the past, it's a problem today’.  Yet against the opposition he was an attack dog playing the man.”   Rudd’s capacity to take seemingly paradoxical positions simultaneously still mystifies many journalists.

Guy Rundle on The Stump at Crikey gives Kelly a going over in two pieces Shipping spiel ship ship shipping spiel and Kelly goyle on the Outside on Insiders in which, while not disputing that Rudd is speaking to two audiences, disputes who they are.

Back to asylum seekers, Rudd seeks to placate those concerned about border protection and the ‘threat’ posed by those seeking asylum on the one hand, yet at the same time attempts to reassure the open-door advocates that asylum seekers will be treated humanely.  It is reminiscent of his dual message during the GFC – warning of the possible devastating effects that threatened the nation, yet at the same time trying to build public confidence that the Government’s measures would avert a financial tragedy.  Much of the media commented quizzically on this apparent contradiction, when it should have been using its intellect and communication skills to explain it.

There have been many other articles, and there are many other aspects of this complex matter that cannot be addressed here – the so-called ‘Indonesia solution’ is one.  They will have to wait for another time.

So where are we now?  Has Rudd got the balance right so far?  Is it, or is it not congruent to talk tough at the same time as talking humanely?  Is he catering well enough to the wider electorate with its diversity of views?  Is he showing so-called ‘leadership’, that incidentally some would define as doing what they think is right?  Is he on track for a rational, humane and generally acceptable resolution of the seemingly intractable problem of asylum seekers reaching our shores? 

How well has the media understood and explained this complex problem?  How well has it handled the so-called ‘contradictory’ messages intrinsic to this issue?  Have journalists been slave to their ideological position in analysing and reporting it?  Is journalistic moralizing sound practice?  All loaded questions.

Who has done a soundly professional journalistic job?  Anyone?

What do you think?


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Sir Ian Crisp

25/10/2009None of them. AA, you say that some Australians would be in the strong border protection camp. Residing in that camp is ALP MP Mr Michael Danby. In June of this year he said that loopholes in Australia’s laws could be exploited by criminal elements, including people smugglers and potential terrorists who may want to evade or subvert our border protection system. Considering Mr Rudd joined the combined apoplexy following Wilson Tuckey’s utterances about potential terrorists, with Rudd calling for Tuckey’s disendorsement, do you think Rudd will ask the ALP machine to disendorse Danby? Now that Rudd has asked Indonesia to be our cat’s-paw there seems to be little difference between the Indonesian solution and the Nauru solution. We are now witness to an influx of Sri Lankans who are suspected Tamils. It would seem to be a stupid policy to settle both Tamils and Sinhalese in Australia. Surely the more prudent approach would be to send people of one group or the other to Canada or the UK perhaps even the USA and members of the other group to a distant country. Some groups are immiscible and should not be made welcome in Australia. I would rather our journos reported the truth minus the emotion.


25/10/2009Ian Crisp thinks none of the journalists has performed a competent professional role and he should know. I take my hat off to you, Iansie - good solid upstanding man that you represent yourself to be on this blog. However I'm not sure what you mean when you state "suspected" Tamil. What inference are you hoping people will take from the meta-language you use. Your thoughts on this topic could be seen to be miscible - is it possible that we could extent the example to sending offshore other groups who we do not want to associate with? As to the question initially posed "Who has done a soundly professional journalistic job?" I think that to do a professional job means that you try to check the facts and keep abreast of the current situation. On this basis, and on this alone, I agree with Ian's initial comment that none of the journalists has done a good job.

Ad astra reply

25/10/2009Sir Ian If logic prevailed you may be able to argue that Danby should not be reindorsed, but this is a political process, not a logical one. Until the ‘Indonesian solution’ has been defined, comparison with the Pacific Solution is not possible, but to begin with those confined in Indonesia presumably will not have attempted the hazardous sea journey to Australia, an immediate advantage. I would hope that the conditions of detention and vetting processes would be similar to Christmas Island. We need to see what eventuates before rushing to judgement. Having visited Sri Lanka many times I can testify to the tensions that have existed for many decades between extreme elements of the Tamils and the Singhalese. But I can also tell you that the majority of Tamils and Singhalese do live together peaceably in most parts of the island, and there are many mixed marriages. It would be difficult to have a separatist policy in Australia. There are many of both groups already living here – Melbourne has a large Sri Lankan population, yet there is little, if any tension. It is, as usual, the extreme elements that cause most of the problems. bilgedigger I suspect many will join you and Sir Ian in your view that our journalists are not doing a good job, at least on this issue.


25/10/2009Sorry, Ad, I cannot answer your question. The more they bang on about this, trying to beat up a 'crisis' where none exists, the more they sensationalise a non-issue in the hope of boosting their Liberal political buddies, the more they sacrifice coverage of real issues to give prominence to this trivia - the less time I have for the mainstream media. I've stopped buying newspapers, don't watch commercial telly, hardly watch the ABC, won't subscribe to pay-tv, and will not pay for News Ltd content. Who do they think they're trying to impress? Surely anyone influenced by this noise is already rusted into the conservative camp.


26/10/2009Unfortunately the media seem to have ditched real reporting in favour of personal opinion, which makes them as irrevelant to the whole picture of an issue as the personal opinions of every citizen whether or not they've bothered to rationally weigh up facts against fictitious information. It irks me no end to hear it said that the so-called 'Indonesian solution' is the same as Howard's Pacific Solution. It is not only that these assylum seekers attempting to get to Australia by boat are saved the hazardous trip. Those boats which do manage to get to Australian waters are brought to Christmas Island where they are assessed - those boats that are intercepted prior to making Australian territorial waters are taken back to Indonesia and detained there for assessment. A far different scenario than all 'boat' assylum seekers being shunted around the pacific and detained on a pacific island to await an Australian PM's pleasure. Then, when the media and coalition scream and rant to the world (and Indonesia are not deaf) that the Indonesians are barbaric and mistreat those refugees in these centres is stupid, downright irresponsible and such rhetoric is detrimental to gaining the co-operation of our regional neighbours to make any inroads into solving the problem. While there are many many people who see Australia as a safe haven where they can make themselves a good life, and Australians themselves are willing to welcome and provide such, the facts are that this country is not able to take them all. The Rudd Government is taking the right course in seeking the co-operation of our regional neighbours to stamp out the people smuggling profiteers who crowd desperate people onto leaky boats. Only when the smugglers and their desperate clients come to the realisation that the ploy is unlikely to work any more will the boats stop coming. The media became superfluous to our society when they ceased collating and presenting facts. Personal opinion can be had from every Tom, Dick and Harry one meets anywhere but the facts are not so easy to find. IMO only Paul Kelly presented a real picture of what the Rudd Government is doing, even though he couldn't resist firing off a few broadsides in the process.

Lyn 1

26/10/2009Hi Ad Thankyou for another quality piece today, with as always interesting links provided for us. Who has done a soundly professional journalistic job? Anyone, Yes Ad Astra you haveand also the links below:- http://grogsgamut.blogspot.com/, http://www.pipingshrike.com/ Ad did you see sixty minutes channel nine last night, I think the segment on The Human tide was very fishy. Fisherman questioned is Australia soft on Boat people, yes was the reply. Then the interview with a very well dressed person taking a call on his mobile phone was asked about 2 failed attempts to get to Australia. I did't see any proof provided by channel 9. These 2 people that were interviewed could have been set up by anyone for all I know. Link to segment: http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-au&brand=ninemsn&tab=m163&from=39&vid=458F3723-12F0-4420-B897-F295229E7114&playlist=videoByTag:mk:en-AU:vs:0:tag:AUnews_AU60minutes:ns:MSNVideo_Top_Cat:ps:10:sd:-1:ind:1:ff:8A Then we have the spectacle of Turnbull asking 3 questions today in Question time in relation to 60 minutes and these 2 dodgy interviews. Turnbull is still going in without a bat he leaves himself wide open every time. In question time last Thursday Kevin Rudd bashed Turnbull to pulp and again today Janice how right you are, I agree with the whole of your comment. On Sky news agenda this afternoon David Speers Questioning Anthony Albanese about stopping John Howard from getting the position for the National Rugby League, within 1 minute of the question been asked right before my eyes the writing comes up underneath Anthony Albanese does not support John Howards appointment.. That is not what he said at all completely out of context. Rx excellent comment. Sir Ian, the question of Danby, this is just distortion of the truth by Turnbull and Bishop. I read the transcript of what Danby said in his speech, it is quite clear, he has been taken out of context big time. In fact what Julie Bishop said was blatantly distorted and untrue. Sorry can't find the link at the moment but I will. Ad the other thing is it has been reported that Kevin Rudd's solution is the same as the Pacific solution, well if that is true why then are Turnbull and Bishop flogging this won't be an election winner anyway.

Sir Ian Crisp

26/10/2009Lyn 1, Mr Danby MP was speaking to the Migration Amendment (Protection of Identifying Information)Bill 2009 on Thursday, 18th June. He said: “Any loophole in our law can be exploited by criminal elements who may want to evade or subvert our border protection system. They include identity thieves, people smugglers, potential terrorists, drug runners and those who traffic in illegal sex workers. Any such loopholes must be closed as quickly as possible.” I’m prepared to forgive him because what was not reported was that the brute Julie Bishop had twisted his arm up his back and made him speak the unspeakable. Mr Danby also owns a Nazi uniform but it’s OK because he is a member of the ALP and as such is forever in a state of impeccancy.

Ad astra reply

26/10/2009Rx, janice What you have said is the main reason newspapers are struggling. I was in transit most of today and picked up Melbourne’s Sun Herald while having a sandwich. What an appalling paper that is – there’s almost no news worth reading. Its journalism is pitiable. And what a beat-up the media is perpetuating over the discharge of the Tamils from the Oceanic Viking off Bintan. What is all this about? The Tamils were picked up in Indonesia’s surveillance area at the request of the Indonesians who had no vessels in the area – the Oceanic Viking did what it needed to do under the law of the sea, and is following Indonesian orders regarding where to discharge the asylum seekers. Why is this being represented as a failure in Australia’s immigration policy? Why all the details of Afghans allegedly being beaten up by Indonesian guards on Bintan? Why the sudden media interest and the pleading statements by the Greens and condemnatory utterances by the Liberals? Don’t even try to answer that! It’s simply to make a story and some political capital. How pathetic. The likening of the ‘Indonesian Solution’ to the ‘Pacific Solution’ is spurious. Those doing so are either disingenuous or stupid. Lyn 1 Thank you for your complimentary words, and for the links. [i]The Piping Shrike[/i] article was well argued. I couldn’t get the 'grogsgamut' link to work. I’ll play the msn link tomorrow – it’s getting late now. The commercial media specialize in such beat-ups – they make no attempt to validate the facts they present or the veracity of those they interview. They take their utterances at face value, only of course if they are saying what they want to hear. Shameful journalism.

Lyn 1

26/10/2009Hi Ad I must have done something wrong here is the link again http://grogsgamut.blogspot.com/ Cheers Lyn 1
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