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From Tampa to now: how reporting on asylum seekers has been a triumph of spin over substance

Within weeks of the ‘Children Overboard’ claims, the Howard government enforced a media blackout of sorts on asylum seekers. Tim Wimborne/Reuters

From Tampa to now: how reporting on asylum seekers has been a triumph of spin over substance

This year marks the 15th anniversary of one of the most divisive national election campaigns in Australia’s recent history: the Tampa affair.

Coming just weeks after the September 11 terror attacks, the pitched battle between John Howard and Kim Beazley drew heavily on fear and panic. The divisions of 2001 are not only still with us, but they are far deeper today.

The September 11 terrorist attacks in the US were given a sharp-knife twist here in Australia. The country was still entangled in the issue of the MV Tampa and its cargo of more than 400 desperate asylum seekers. And there was a public outcry over the events surrounding the interception of the SIEV-4 and its 223 asylum seekers – some of whom, politicians claimed, had thrown their children overboard.

The way the media frames public debate on asylum seekers and their impact on Australia was forged in this time. Three key strategies helped achieve this.

Shut down news channels

Today, news media largely relies on whistleblowers and feeds to compliant reporters to get information about offshore asylum-seeker detention centres.

What would normally pass for news sources in relation to non-security-sensitive state facilities have been more or less closed off. Journalists, other than a select few, are banned from detention centres.

Legislation was enacted in 2015 to clamp the mouths of everyone who comes into contact with asylum seekers on Manus Island and on Nauru, with possible jail time hanging over offenders.

The genesis for this remarkable attack on the Fourth Estate might be traced to October 9, 2001.

On that day, Naval Commander Norman Banks gave a phone interview to Channel Ten from the deck of the HMAS Adelaide. The Adelaide was the vessel involved in rescuing those from SIEV-4 who would later be deemed to have been throwing children overboard.

With both the journalist and the naval officer unaware of the children overboard claims that were to come, Banks sought to humanise the asylum seekers with lines like:

It was quite a joy to hold the little kids’ hands and watch them smile.

This, in the wake of the children overboard allegations and in the context of the looming election, brought a seminal shift in government-media relations on the issue of forced migration.

According to a subsequent press gallery submission to a Senate inquiry on the incident in 2002 (that is, well after the election):

[O]fficials suffered such harassment and haranguing from the [defence] minister’s staff … that by the time the HMAS Adelaide SIEV-4 incident occurred, defence [department] media had been cowed.

It’s virtually impossible today to get media access to border patrol vessels involved in asylum seeker interventions. Seemingly, still harassed and harangued, no-one speaks.

Navy footage of the HMAS Adelaide crew rescuing passengers of the sinking SIEV-4. AAP

Do not humanise asylum seekers

As with the treatment of Banks in the children overboard case, allowing asylum seekers any degree of human context is frowned upon.

As the 2001 election campaign rolled on, and the asylum-seeker issue morphed politically into one of border security, no asylum-seeker voices were heard in mainstream news media. No real engagement between the usually generous Australian people and asylum seekers was allowed.

One of the most significant blows in this strategic layout was Howard’s election launch speech. In a rare show of emotion, he railed:

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

The use of the royal “we”, in a context of dehumanised asylum seekers was a political master stroke. It set the battle lines to us versus them. “We” became not the government, but “us”, all of us, and therefore not them. It was border security in words.

The subsequent use of terms like “illegals”, “queue-jumpers”, “economic migrants” and “boat people” underscores the characterisation.

Asylum seekers were rescued by HMAS Adelaide. SafeCom/AAP

Ensure a government monopoly

In 2001, the asylum-seeker issue quickly became centred on government action and policy, not lives at sea or a human rights crisis.

Within weeks of the children overboard claims, Howard placed a media blackout on all related outreach from anyone not directly connected to, and holding, the narrow government line.

According to journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, there were:

… no press briefings from the military on operational detail: no maps, no photographs, no Q&As.

The only photos or videos released were those purporting to show children being thrown overboard.

This strategy worked to starve media of anything other than government output. Given the scale of the issue in an election news blitz, and given the “war on terror” that had been paired with the asylum-seeker issue, the need for copy was acute. News media had no choice but to report the bland, uninformative government press releases.

Politics over people

Fifteen years ago, public relations began to overtake policy in relation to asylum seekers. As Marr and Wilkinson argue:

Potential mission failure leading to negative PR was an early issue of concern in the planning of the operation [to turn back boats].

The Howard government won re-election in November 2001, via a nod, some argue, to Pauline Hanson’s anti-asylum seeker views. Hanson’s One Nation won no seats in 2001. But in 2016, it returned four senators on the back of anti-asylum seeker and anti-immigration policies.

Since 2001, both of Australia’s major political parties have shifted to harsher stances on asylum seekers. A sizeable portion of the electorate wants something harder still, driven by the PR-over-policy narrative we have been obliged to endure.

Australia has certainly come a long way in the last 15 years. Knowing how we got here might help us get back.

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