Twirling towards freedom

Boats and journalists: Just add water

It takes a special kind of hypocrite to complain about the media “sledging” the Australian navy, a week after berating journalists for not knowing where the national borders lie. But Scott Morrison, as he’s proved this week, is a special kind of guy.

On Wednesday, the Immigration Minister furiously rejected allegations aired by the ABC that the Australian navy beat and inflicted burns upon would-be asylum seekers who were picked up in Indonesian waters on 6 January after their boat was turned back by Australian officials. “The Australian government is not going to put up with people sledging the Australian navy with unsubstantiated claims when they have high levels of motivation for spinning stories in order to undermine this government's very successful border protection program,” Morrison said.

The motivation for sharing stories such as this, which Morrison correctly points out is very high indeed, is that as the government won’t report the facts, it is left for the media to do so.

Journalists at home and overseas have increased their efforts to break through the government’s shroud of secrecy surrounding the treatment of asylum seekers ever since Operation Sovereign Borders came into effect. Well, some have.

On Wednesday, The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair offered his summary of the ABC’s reporting of the mistreatment claims.

Accusing the ABC of libel, not paying attention, and being “blindly trusting of asylum seekers,” Blair mused:

“Really? How, exactly? All we have here is some burned hands. There is no evidence at all as to the cause, apart from the word of Somali boat passenger Merke Abdullah Ahmed: 

‘They physically harmed us. Some of the passengers onboard, they tried to complain and speak about just their problems. They just punched [them] ... and, you know, fall down on the ground,’ he said. 

Yeah, right.”

Then, with sources reminiscent of Who Weekly’s “a close friend of the couple”, The Australian yesterday reported (and I use the word loosely) that, “The Australian has been told two of the asylum seekers already had burns when the navy picked them up.”

Told? By who? And if it’s a credible source, why not simply name it?

Morrison himself has asserted that the ABC should not have aired what he says are “unfounded, unsubstantiated, outrageous allegations,” seeming to believe that the national broadcaster should fall in line and refrain from relaying information just as his government is doing. Morrison denied that an independent investigation was required, saying, “I think I’ve made my position on this crystal clear.”

What is Morrison’s denial based upon? Has there been an investigation?

The Prime Minister, for his part, supported the merits of a good old fashioned ‘he said’/‘they said’ argument-settler. “There’s absolutely no evidence for them,” Abbott said of the allegations from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. When asked what, in his mind, constituted evidence, the Prime Minister merely asked, “Who do you believe? Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who were attempting to break Australian law?”

It was yesterday revealed that the government will assist the Indonesian authorities with their own investigations, preparing to hand over video and documentary evidence if requested. Of an investigation on home soil, there’s been no talk.

At home, the government risks losing control of its propagandist keywords. It’s not just ‘illegals’ that breach Sovereign Borders; Australian warships do it too.

The world is a more complicated place than the government line would suggest, and while Australia’s abysmal treatment of asylum seekers continues to poll well in the heartland, the international community is paying attention to the damage being wrought to our ‘single most important relation(ship)’ to the north.

Unless Morrison learns to manage the media more delicately the situation will deteriorate for him and his government. While some media outlets will continue to kowtow to Morrison’s penchant for secrecy (What up Shanahan!), others are begging to buck against Morrison’s refusal to comment on events that happen on the water.

The water is still there, and newsworthy events are still happening, and the blanket denials of facts that don’t fit the narrative will not disappear them. Morrison needs more in his playbook than bluster, smarm, hypocrisy and his trademark hubris. This kind of response has become entirely predictable, yet Morrison is still spooning it out to hungry journalists like instant mashed potato - just add water. 

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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