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?