Operation Manus Overboard

Two days ago, reports of a ‘disturbance’ on Manus Island began filtering through to mainland Australia. Manus Island MP Ronnie Knight described the incident as a ‘minor matter’, a fight amongst asylum seekers. As the hours ticked by rumours fluttered through Twitter: of rioting by detainees, mass breakouts, reported attacks on asylum seekers by local civilians and police using sticks and machetes; that shots had been fired.

Facts were hard to come by. Reports by local journalist Nick Soloman suggested that asylum seekers had broken down a fence and clashed with security forces and PNG police. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison addressed the media on the matter, in which he all but threw down a smoke bomb and left using a Batman-style grappling rope, sinister champion of the night that he’s becoming. In between trademark slippery answers he confirmed that 77 asylum seekers had been treated for injuries, with one airlifted to Australia after suffering a fractured skull, that shots were fired, one detainee suffered a gunshot wound to the buttock (was shot in the back) and one, an Iranian national, was killed.

That’s pretty much all the public has heard, at least officially. As the news broke, The Australian, and The Age gave the issue thumbnail headlines, both running it below other salient stories of the day. The Daily Telegraph ran a thumbnail as well, along with the headline “Police ‘fired on asylum mob’,” below the fold and far less prominently than the story “Oprah sews herself into BAFTA gown.’”

Not long ago, the murder of an asylum seeker ostensibly under Australian protection would have been front and centre for days. Now though, the media has been scolded about jumping to conclusions based on circumstantial evidence, no matter how powerful it seems. Indeed, as he was reluctantly admitting that yes, shots had been fired, and yes, somehow found their way into at least one human being, Morrison explicitly warned the media of the dangers of “joining the dots”.

There’s an old trick that farmers used to use to train their cattle dogs against picking up poisoned bait left out to cull dingos. They would indoctrinate their new puppies by leaving out a cut of kangaroo with a plug of tobacco secreted within. The puppy would gobble the meat, become violently ill, but for the rest of its life it would know to stay away from tempting cuts of kangaroo lying about the farm. Thanks to the warning shots fired over the bow of the ABC recently in the wake of the burned hands affair, elements of our media — while not quite the servile lapdog the government seek — are thinking twice about taking the bait.

So, without evidence, the mediascape is avoiding speculation — apart from a smattering of outraged editorials from left-leaning mastheads — mostly reporting Morrison verbatim, which is as he wants it. The international perception of Manus Island and our role there is now one of speculative horror, which is exactly as the government wants it. As the UN expresses concerns, as human rights groups around the world decry us, it only strengthens the Coalition's credentials on border control.

The message is twofold; by placing ‘illegals’ in detention on what seems to be an increasingly lawless vassal state, the government is doing the best it can to protect them, but if they buck against Australian protectionism, they will get what’s coming to them. As Morrison told reporters in Darwin, ''Those who are breaching the perimeter fence and going out of the centre, then this is a disorderly environment in which there is always great risk.'' His speech is one part Orwellian spin doctor, one part standover thug: never admitting wrongdoing, always intimating worse to come. There’s been a subtle twist to the spin. It’s no longer about hiding the truth, it’s about intimating that unimaginable horror will happen to those who dare to cross Operation Sovereign Borders: machetes, bullets, vicious locals. It’s redolent of the children overboard affair, insofar as these 'illegals' are so averse to being told what to do that they’ve put themselves in harm’s way. Morrison, Abbott and the Coalition get to add wild machete-wielding militia to their media toolkit, alongside protectionist posters and the much-maligned graphic novel – all without ever getting their hands dirty.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott told ABC radio, “If you come to Australia illegally by boat this is, I’m afraid, what happens to you. As far as this government is concerned the way is shut.” A familiar refrain and the punctuation of a message that is far more illustrative than any graphic novel the government could put out.

 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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