This concerns The Age newspaper, and in particular its coverage of the asylum seeker issue.
As a media analyst by trade I have spent the last 3 months or so looking at how The Age handles this issue, and as a result have become concerned that little things like the truth and facts, seem to be largely brushed aside in the stampede for the moral high ground.
As Noam Chomsky points out, it is often what is omitted that helps ‘manufacture consent’, along with the judicious placement of visual images, the invocation of peer-group pressure, and the reduction of complex issues to emotive catchcries.
The Age has a voluntary code of conduct which states:
"Staff should seek to act always in the best interests of the public … rather than for the benefit of sectional interests."
Also, "staff should seek to present only fair, balanced and accurate material."
And, "photographs should be a true representation of events."
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics for journalists states that a journalist should "report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis." It goes on to state that personal interest or belief should not stand in the way of "accuracy, fairness or independence". By these standards The Age falls short on this issue.
First, about 90 per cent of asylum seekers are young males. When The Age writes about this topic, published photographs in almost all cases depict children, or family groups, but certainly not groups of young males. A child or family group will traditionally elicit a different emotional response in Western culture. The Age is also miserly with the full range of available facts. According to government figures for example, more than 95 per cent of people who illegally enter Australia and seek asylum are allowed to stay after a processing period under a year. This is despite quite some evidence that nearly all are making secondary movements to arrive here and face no danger by staying in Indonesia. In fact many have been living and working there for some time. All are free to return whenever they want. Although no one likes to be detained, it’s hard to see the huge humanitarian disaster. Other media ran the story that Pakistanis were posing as Afghans, and even being trained at special camps to dupe Australian authorities. Members of the local Afghan community also spoke out in favour of mandatory detention on the basis that Pakistanis had been behind the Taliban, and they had every reason to be fearful if they were released into the wider community. In fact, some suggested even more stringent detention and screening processes. The Age gave this only cursory mention. It’s hard to imagine that ignoring these details is in the "best interests of the public".
In an interview on Lateline (21/05/01) Mark Aarons, the author of War criminals, welcome said: "there’s no doubt at all over the last 10-12 years, a significant number, dozens probably well over 100, senior Afghan war criminals have emigrated to Australia …" They include, "…. a senior official in the KGB-controlled security police, the HUD, notorious for the rounding up and slaughter of not only military ... but also of innocent civilians in the most brutal ways …"
Can The Age newspaper categorically assure the general public that no one who is currently detained, or has arrived here illegally, is a war criminal, a terrorist, a common criminal, or carrying a serious infectious disease? If they can then we must abolish mandatory detention straight away. If not we have to accommodate the fact that if people arrive with no identification, and they may have good reasons for doing so, it will take some time to establish that they pose no threat either to the wider Australian community or to smaller ethnic groups that have come here to flee persecution. This surely is what we mean by the "best interests of the public".
The issue of humane treatment recurs in The Age. Descriptions of conditions in detention include having access to Foxtel, air conditioning, regular meals, places of worship, medical attention and so forth. Annoying and boring perhaps but not inhumane. Whether or not detention should be overseen by private companies is an issue that needs to be addressed separately, and certainly a strong code of conduct needs to be in place. However it cheapens our sense of the word if it is used to describe frustration at the glacial pace of bureaucracy. People who have come from a war zone would be expected to find this an improvement.
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