The arrogance of the media

Have you noticed how uppity the media has been during the boat people tragedy?  The annoyance has been evident when journalists have pressed Government ministers for information about this event.  Laurie Oakes became irritated during his Channel Nine Sunday interview with Julia Gillard.  He said he had initially supported the Government’s decision not to speculate on the nature of the incident, but thought now the time was right for more information.  Gillard said the Government had no intention of going off half-cocked as did the Howard Government over the ‘kids overboard’ affair, only to admit later that the information was incorrect.  Laurie continued his probing, but to no avail.  He must have known he wasn’t going to win, so why did he press on?

This Howard Government mistake though does not seem to have eased media insistence on prising information from Government ministers.  They seem to use the public’s ‘right to know’ argument to press their case. [more]

On Sunday’s ABC TV’s Insiders Barrie Cassidy too pestered Immigration Minister Chris Evans for information about another boat with 100 people suspected of heading for Australia.  Although Evans said “I can't talk to you about what intelligence we might receive but I have made it very clear that we are on high alert for more arrivals and that we do see an increased risk at the moment.”  that was not enough for Barrie; two similar questions followed, and the same answers.  He too must have known his quest was pointless, so why did he continue?

Michelle Grattan has taken up the cudgels today in The Age “It was one thing on day one - last Thursday - to wait on the facts before saying anything about the cause. Several days on, it is unacceptable to shelter behind the Northern Territory police inquiry unless it can get a result quickly. “

Christian Kerr in The Australian’s House Rules Blog  advances the view that the Government is trying to ‘stifle the event’.

ABC TV’s Chris Uhlmann was critical of the Government’s handling of the matter.  He said it was creating a manual on how not to handle such matters.

Other journalists too are fuming at the effrontery of the Government in not releasing information to which they feel entitled.  I needn’t document them all.

So what are the facts we already have?

There was an explosion on a boat carrying asylum seekers off Ashmore Reef early last Thursday, just last Thursday.  We were rapidly told three were killed, two were missing and over 30 were burned and injured.  We were told some navy personnel were hurt but it was soon confirmed that they remained on duty.  We were informed the boat sank and the victims ended up in the water.  We were then given an hour by hour account of evacuations and the state of the burned and injured.  We were told where the victims were taken and what was being done for them. 

Colin Barnett hazarded speculation that petrol had been spread on the deck and it ignited.  He had third-hand information.  Knowing the dangerous past history of spreading such unconfirmed information, the Government declined to immediately confirm it.  The AFP, NT police and Navy investigators were charged with the investigation, and the Government left it in those hands.  It has now been confirmed that petrol was spilled, and common sense tells us it ignited, caused an explosion, sank the boat and catapulted all on board in the water. How much more do we need to know?

It doesn’t take an LLB to deduce that someone was responsible, or to suspect that the spilling of petrol was likely deliberate, and that its ignition might have been deliberate or accidental.  Just as obviously it will take time and thorough investigation to ascertain the truth.  Clearly if there was a deliberate attempt to cause damage or injury, that is a criminal matter, a matter that is not going to be resolved quickly, especially when many of the witnesses are badly injured, and almost all speak English poorly. 

So why has the media had such high expectations of instant answers?  Recent experience of the Victorian bushfires tells us how complicated it is to establish cause and relate it to effect.  A Royal Commission has started today to sort this out.  Scores of police have been making enquiries for over two months now and are still pursuing a possible arsonist.  Nobody is screaming for instant answers there.  So why is the Ashmore Reef fire regarded as an event about which there should be almost instant answers?

A video of the fire with people in the water was released at the weekend, but Christian Kerr says too late for the evening TV bulletins, and today the NT coroner has released post mortem findings of drowning in those who have died, an extraordinarily rapid response.

Of course the Opposition is clamoring for the Government to ‘come clean’, insinuating but not actually accusing it of a ‘cover-up’, saying it is ‘stalling’, a call the media echo with enthusiasm.

But why is the media so insistent?

My hypothesis is that many media operators have overinflated egos, and bristle indignantly if the information they seek, no matter how inappropriate it might be to provide it, is not immediately advanced.  You can see their indignation rising, the larger they are the more impressive it looks.  Their sense of propriety often seems sadly deficient.

It seems to me that the public has been provided with a large amount verifiable information as it became available, and information of a speculative nature has been withheld until it could be confirmed, an eminently sensible approach to avoid a repeat of past errors in reporting.  The exact sequence of events that led to the fire, those who were responsible and their motivation, will be known in the fullness of time, which is entirely appropriate

How much more do we and the media need to know?  The media's insistence on information, no matter how unconfirmed or sensitive, looks like a manifestation of an unbecoming level of arrogance.  What do you think?

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Ad astra reply

20/04/2009Just me, Turnbull is behaving in his predictably opportunistic way. Uhlmann is disappointing. Because he's trying to be the up-and-coming political reporter, he's rather too full of himself. He was once the producer on Jon Faine's show on ABC 774 Melbourne radio and has risen to the dizzy heights he now occupies. Rising star journalists seem to have a need to outdo one another by being smarter, or more outrageous, or by getting the big scoop. Uhlmann is one of those. If you haven't read Bernard Keane's piece in today's [i]Crikey[/i], here's his introduction to [i]Asylum cover up? What asylum cover up?[/i] [quote]"You want to know a REAL cover-up? What about the Black Saturday bushfires? 173 people died. Australians, too, not wife-r-ping towelheads. Apparently some of those fires were deliberately lit. And months on, John Brumby and Kevin Rudd still haven’t told us what really happened and who was responsible. "What are they hiding? "What’s that? Something about coronial inquiries? Criminal investigations? Well, they WOULD say that, wouldn’t they. "Surely the Government is covering up SOMETHING about the explosion aboard the boat carrying dozens of Afghans last week. Maybe Helen Liu was involved. Or the bikies who entered the Lodge. There’s another cover-up. The Prime Minister hasn’t explained that either. "The incessant demands for the Government to reveal what happened aboard the vessel are absurd. There was an explosion. People died. Someone caused it, either accidentally or intentionally. Prosecutions may ensue. If and when someone on that boat is brought to trial for what occurred, the chances of a fair trial (in Darwin, despite Colin Barnett seeming to think this has some special West Australian significance) are diminished every time someone opens their mouth. "And if the explosion resulted because the people aboard thought they were going to be returned to Indonesia, what exactly does that demonstrate in relation to the Government’s handling of border protection, except that it is dealing with desperate, ignorant people? "What exactly is being covered up? "The media know this perfectly well. The same sense of entitlement that prompts the press to regularly breach restrictions on reporting of criminal cases is at work here, the view that waiting for relevant authorities to do their job isn’t good enough, that the public has the right to know whatever half-baked, ill-informed, speculative rubbish the press can lay hands on."[/quote] And so on it goes - lovely satire. The rest is at

Sir Ian Crisp

21/04/2009The fourth estate is at times similar to a shark tank. Why do journos insist on pursuing some issues with such dogged determination? Why aren’t journos out there actively campaigning for a public holiday in honour of our dear leader? I think we should leave this mater to The Political Sword’s amateur psychologist. To start the in-depth investigation by our resident psychologist we should first get a definition of the word 'transparency'.


21/04/2009Ad astra, I think the media persist in trying to gouge out answers from politicians that are merely speculation because they know that there are more stories to be had in the weeks/months into the future. Once speculative comments are out there and even if these prove to be quite wrong, they just don't die a natural death but are used as future weapons to dredge up and bite the bum of the pollie who uttered them. Politicians of every colour should, in their own best interests, be very wary of airing hearsay information to the media. It is always difficult to have to wait out the time for due process to take its course but when the true facts are finally released, the truth of the matter will not be clouded by a collection of speculative theories put out by those who knew little or nothing to begin with.

Ad astra reply

21/04/2009Sir Ian, Transparency is what democracies thrive on, so long as it’s responsible. Relentless probing of interviewees to reveal details of a coronial enquiry, where criminal charges might be laid, is irresponsible, as information revealed prematurely, or worse still inaccurately, might be prejudicial to an impartial inquest or a fair trial, if it comes to that. Interviewers need to have a sense of balance about how far to probe. My contention is that too many don’t. Tony Jones was at his hectoring worst on [i]Lateline[/i] last night trying to bully Bob Debus into answering questions that he could not and should not answer about the boat fire. Seeming to disregard the need for a proper inquiry into what might turn out to be a criminal matter, Jones persisted in trying to extort details from Debus, details that will emerge only when the enquiry is complete. Debus, who speaks slowly and deliberately, who thinks through his answers, quietly but determinedly stuck to his guns and eventually Jones gave up, seeming to be satisfied that he had his headline only after Debus indicated that there might be thousands of asylum seekers still in Indonesia hoping to come to Australia. Predictably these are today’s headlines on the ABC, and elsewhere. janice, You’re right, every word uttered on radio, TV, and at doorstops is archived for later use; we see this every day. No wonder politicians are so careful, or should I say ought to be careful. There’s no more enjoyable sport for a journalist than to quote back something said previously that is at variance with what’s now being said. Malcolm Turnbull is in precisely that position today, as he retreats from what he said yesterday about TPVs. Piping Shrike, Welcome to The Political Sword. You’re right, the Liberals are not up to the current political discourse. Turnbull seems to consult too little with his colleagues, has never mastered the skill of, or mustered the courage to enforce a modicum of party room discipline, and so he has to wing it as he flies solo, only to find that his some of his colleagues are out there contradicting him and pointing the party in a different direction. So he has to change course, as he is today about TPVs.

Ad astra reply

21/04/2009tweetiepie, I did see that on Media Watch. I hope the independent analyis is made public. Both men can be arrogant and intimidatory; both continually look for a 'gotcha' moment. But they are good journalists; they could just do better. Rx, A sound analyis. It reinforses that sinking feeling that the Government's battle for the hearts and minds of the people has to overcome not just the Opposition, but often an antagonistic media that is running its own agenda. While there's not much hope of a change of attitude among the main media players, one can only hope changes to the ABC Board might make a difference.

Ad astra reply

21/04/2009I've just posted a report on today's [i]Newspoll[/i] in comments under [i]Kids overboard all over again?[/i]

Ad astra reply

21/04/2009Piping Shrike, You'll be interested in a Scott Bridges piece in today's Pure Poison. For those who are unaware if it, it is a website estabished on the premise that “Intellectual dishonesty is pure poison…” (Edward Lazarus) and devoted to exposing intellectual dishonesty in the mainstream media, across the political spectrum. It looks particularlying at Bolt, Blair, Marr, Akerman, Albrechtsen, and whoever else wishes to stray onto the path of fatuous opinion. Bridges piece Five days, which parallels much of The arrogance of the media is reproduced below with acknowledgement. "The government has had five days (barely) to ascertain the facts of the asylum seeker boat explosion that occurred in Australian waters last Thursday. Five days to interview a disparate range of people such as Australian military personnel, the people smugglers, and the asylum seekers themselves. Gathering information would be made much more difficult given the language barrier between investigators and protagonists and the medical status of those protagonists. There are doubtless many different versions of the same story that investigators will be forced to sort, parse and analyse. "Five days to determine the definitive and final version of the sequence of events that lead to the tragic death and injury of so many. "Yet, so many commentators are furiously accusing the Rudd Government of a cover-up, despite the fact that we have seen what happens when incomplete information is relayed to the public by a government keen to score points from a tragedy. Imagine the outrage if Kevin Rudd held a press conference on Saturday to communicate the bits of the story he knew, only to be forced to admit the next Wednesday that it turns out some of those bits were wrong, or that there were new bits that changed the context of the original bits. "It’s unfortunate that some commentators seem to be desperate for the worst possible version of events to be true because it would allow them to score points in their wars against the Rudd Government. It’s also unfortunate that other commentators, such as Gerard Henderson, [b]seem to have made up their minds[/b] despite the lack of evidence to confirm their theories (my emphasis): "The explanation for what happened seems clear. It is known that, at times, desperate people take desperate and sometimes ill-considered actions. It is likely that petrol was ignited on the boat by a person or persons who believed that this was the most effective way to ensure that those on the boat were taken by the navy to Australian territory. It is unlikely that anyone intended that there should be an explosion followed by a sinking. "It’s possible that Gerard’s right, but it’s possible that he’s wrong. It’s possible that the petrol was not ignited by a person, and it’s also possible that somebody fully intended to destroy the boat and those upon it. There are also dozens of other possibilities. "Speculation is inevitable but it’s unfortunate when newspaper columnists cross the line from speculation to conclusion. The Rudd Government should release the official version of events as soon as possible, but everyone should understand that five days elapsed does not necessarily indicate a cover-up." The link is

Ad astra reply

21/04/2009Piping Shrike, Your piece today on [i]The Piping Shrike, Blowing up in his face – another update[/i] strikes a respondent chord. It is analogous to [i]The arrogance of the media[/i]. I recommend it to visitors to [i]The Political Sword[/i]. The link is:

Ad astra reply

21/04/2009monica, So pleased you enjoyed today's offerings. The Piping Shrike and I explored similar themes - a happy coincidence.

Ad astra reply

21/04/2009charles, Where it exists, xenophobia seems to live just under the surface, but stays there harmlessly unless it's dug out. You're right, most of the people are not interested, but a thoughtless political utterance is all it needs for the press to excavate it and give it airplay. Then the hidden dragon breathes its fiery venom.

Sir Ian Crisp

21/04/2009Ad Astra, with about 120 different nationalities now in Australia the word is 'xenomania' not 'xenophobia'.

Ad astra reply

22/04/2009Sir Ian I'll add 'xenomania' to my lexicon.

Sir Ian Crisp

22/04/2009Ad Astra, did you read the SMH today? It featured a very disturbing story written by Linsday Murdoch and Phillip Coorey under the heading: Oil rig land rules out refugee claim. Without reproducing the whole article the general thrust was a report on the arrival of the asylum shoppers and their predicament from last week. Here’s part of the article: […] “Government sources said another boatload of asylum seekers was expected to enter Australian waters as early as today”. […] “The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said Indonesia’s decision to extradite the notorious people smuggler Hadi Ahmadi to Australia was an example of how to tackle the growing flow of asylum seekers”. […] “Prosecuting people smugglers is the most effective way of dealing with the problem of illegal movements of persons around South-East Asia and more broadly, Mr Rudd said. Do you think the above is speculation? Is it right for Mr Rudd to convict a person without the formality of a trial? Would such an outburst by Mr Rudd destroy the notion that any person is entitled to a fair trial?

Bushfire Bill

23/04/2009Beazley in The Age. Brilliant. Clear. Puts everything into perspective.

Sir Ian Crisp

23/04/2009PM: Well I draw your attention to what the Northern Territory Police Crime Commander said in a statement today and I’ll just read it again very carefully. “This is a police matter and recognition of such by Government and Government agencies is appreciated. Speculation has the potential to compromise an investigation.” Unquote. PM: People smugglers are the vilest form of human life. They trade on the tragedy of others and that is why they should rot in jail and in my own view rot in hell. That is why this Government is absolutely committed to dedicating all resources necessary to fight the fight against people smugglers, to maintain a hard line, tough and targeted strategy in maintaining this country’s border protection. We are dedicating more resources to border protection than any previous Australian Government and we will continue to calibrate the resources we need to the challenges that unfold, a challenge faced as I said before by governments across the world. "I think the Australian Government will soon pick Hadi up, they'll send someone here and then they'll take Hadi away, take Hadi to Australia," he said. Lawyer Joel Tannos says his client, who is of Iraqi and Iranian origin should not be extradited because he has committed no crime in Indonesia, where people smuggling is not a specific offence. Mr Rudd, who is visiting Perth today, says Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono approved El Ahmadi's extradition last night. "This action further demonstrates the absolute importance for cooperation between the Australian and Indonesian governments in dealing with the scourge of people smugglers," he said. "Effectively prosecuting people smugglers is the most effective way of dealing with the problem of illegal movements of persons around South-East Asia and more broadly." Prime Minister Kevin Rudd praised the decision, saying Ahmadi would face a range of very serious charges. "This is a very major and welcome development in the fight against people smuggling," he told reporters in Perth. "This action further demonstrates the absolute importance of the closest possible cooperation between the Australian and Indonesian government in dealing with the scourge of people smuggling." Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has revealed an alleged people smuggler will be extradited from Indonesia for prosecution in Australia. Hadi El Ahmadi is accused of sending four boats to Australia in 2001, carrying more than 900 people. Three men have been prosecuted for people smuggling in Australia this year. Mr Rudd, who is visiting Perth today, says Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono approved El Ahmadi's extradition last night. "This action further demonstrates the absolute importance for cooperation between the Australian and Indonesian governments in dealing with the scourge of people smugglers," he said. "Effectively prosecuting people smugglers is the most effective way of dealing with the problem of illegal movements of persons around South-East Asia and more broadly." I did read what Sir Ian had posted. I got a surprise when I found out that even our PM doesn’t know how to use quotation marks. From the Kimberley to Katoomba, from Dapto to Dirranbandi…no matter where you live in this great brown land you’ll find the news filtering through. It is only a few who remain untouched by this phenomenom…this miracle of being informed. Would our PM realize the danger of speculation? Would our PM put a conviction before a trial? Would our PM and government be a party to the apparent illegal extradition of a ‘person of interest’? Sir Ian, stop posting folderol. *Ad Astra, I apologise for hogging bandwidth.

Ad astra reply

23/04/2009Apologies folks for the delay in responding to your comments posted late yesterday and today. I’ve been in transit. Sir Ian and Just Me, it’s taken me a while to sort through the arguments and counter arguments about what Kevin Rudd said, and to find the SMH article so I could save it to file. The key sentence in the SMH article, around which some of your assertions about Rudd revolve Sir Ian is: [quote]The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said Indonesia's decision to extradite the notorious people smuggler Hadi Ahmadi to Australia was an example of how to tackle the growing flow of asylum seekers.[/quote] As I read that paragraph, I did not attribute the words ‘notorious people smuggler’ to Rudd, but to the authors; I presumed they had inserted those words to explain to readers the alleged crime for which Ahmadi was being extradited. Otherwise readers might not know who he was. I looked for quoted instances of where Rudd might have used those words, but did not find them, nor were they in your linked items Sir Ian. In fact all the quotes in several places of what Rudd said were remarkably consistent. In one of your links Sir Ian there was a comment by Indonesia’s immigration authorities about Ahmadi’s reputation [quote]“At the time of the arrest, immigration authorities described Ahmadi - who has allegedly used more than a dozen aliases - as a ‘big fish’ in people smuggling.”[/quote] As I understood it from news bulletins, the allegations about Ahmadi were coming from Indonesia; presumably they have been echoed by the authors of the SMH article. In all probability Rudd also believes he’s a ‘notorious people smuggler’ and that’s why he wants him put on trial here, but I cannot find any instance where he’s been quoted as saying so. So Sir Ian my answers to your question are: Would our PM realize the danger of speculation? Yes. He said so in reference to speculating about the nature of the incident on SIEV 36, a legal matter; and he would certainly know the danger of speculating about legal matters involving individuals. Would our PM put a conviction before a trial? No. Would our PM and government be a party to the apparent illegal extradition of a ‘person of interest’? No. It seems to me it is only Ahmadi’s lawyer who is asserting that Ahmadi’s extradition is illegal – on the grounds that he has broken no Indonesian law. I doubt if that argument would stand up to legal scrutiny here, or for that matter in Indonesia.

Ad astra reply

23/04/2009Thank you BB for the Kim Beasley article link. He nails it well; after all he was there at the time. It’s noteworthy that there is not nearly the furore over the Sri Lankan boat arrival as there was about SIEV 36. Of course there was no fire, no explosion, no deaths. But there may be other reasons. Are the public and the media ‘over the asylum seeker issue’? Are they focussing on more crucial matters – the state of the world’s economy, the state of Australia’s economy, unemployment, and the upcoming budget? Perhaps the juxtaposition of the awful calamity in Sri Lanka as its army prepares to overwhelm the Tamil Tigers and the arrival of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, sheets home the very reason that so many are seeking asylum here. I predict that with each new boat arrival, the media will try its best to drum up interest and intrigue, and breathlessly insist that it ‘puts the Rudd Government under pressure’. Pressure to do what will not be revealed.
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?