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Seeking Asylum in Australia:
Experiences and Policies

Michael Gordon

The Media's Performance: An Insider's View

Three images of the sinking of the asylum boat SIEV X by Kate Durham
Image: Three panels from the SIEV X artwork collection by Kate Durham - see

The papers of the 2005 Monash University Conference Seeking Asylum in Australia: 1995-2005 are copied to this website with permission of the compilers (June 2007). Previously published by The Institute for Public History, The Australian Centre for the Study of Jewish Civilization and Monash University (ISBN 0-9757387-3-9). Downloadable from this website through the PDF file below.

List of papers:

NOTE: the titles of the papers in the list below are hyperlinked to their respectice copies on this website. Currently you are visiting the page for the paper that's NOT hyperlinked in the list below.

Michael Gordon

National Editor, The Age

Michael Gordon is the national editor of The Age. He has been a journalist for more than 30 years, has a commerce degree from the University of Melbourne and has written books on Paul Keating, reconciliation and Australia's treatment of asylum seekers.


Michael responds to criticisms of the performance of the media since the Tampa episode of 2001, outlining the obstacles faced by journalists and some of the ways they were overcome.

Michael Gordon

The Media's Performance: An Insider's View

I would like to address three broad questions in my remarks this morning: did the performance of the Australian media fall short on the issue of asylum seekers; what was I attempting to achieve in writing my book, Freeing Ali, and, finally, whether the issue is now less important, given that the families with children are now out of detention and that much progress has been made on other fronts.

The first question was underscored in a review of David Corlett's book by Alan Kennedy in the Walkley Magazine. David's book, he wrote, was reason for the Australian media to hang its head in collective shame.

Here was a book that should not have to have been written, because if the Australian media had been doing its job the stories of our treatment of asylum seekers and the fate of many who were sent back would be etched into the Australian psyche.

The Kennedy thesis is that only the revelations about the treatment of an Australian resident, Cornelia Rau, led to questions being asked, failing to mention that this story would not have seen the light of day had my colleague, Andra Jackson, not alerted her family to her incarceration by writing a story. He paints a picture of a gullible, lazy and negligent media that ran the easy lines about 'five-star asylum seekers', that folded like a pack of cards in the face of departmental arrogance and that failed to detect what Mick Palmer found in his report.

I'm not here to defend the craft of journalism and I am not equipped to offer a definitive view on the case of Ali Bakhtiari, the case Kennedy dwells on in his review, but I would argue that the overall performance was a good deal better than he suggests. Indeed, I think the issue has prompted some terrific journalism that has influenced public opinion and, in turn, made the Government more inclined to listen to critics of the policy.

To the extent that there were failings, I think it is worth bearing in mind three factors.

The first is the extent our government went to make it difficult to give a human face to its policy. This began, of course, with the Children Overboard affair. As the Director-General of Defence Public Affairs, Brian Humphreys, told the Senate committee investigating the children overboard affair:

'We got some guidance ensuring there were no personalising or humanising images taken of SUNCs [suspected unlawful non-citizens]'.

When Humphreys was pressed on this statement, he agreed with the proposition that 'what we have is the Minister for Defence saying in the immediate post-Tampa environment, "Don't humanise the refugees"'.

The inquiry concluded that, on the available evidence, the public affairs plan for Operation Relex, the government's post-Tampa border protection regime, had two clear objectives.

The first was to ensure that the Minister [of Defence] retained absolute control over the facts which could and could not become public during the Operation. The second was to ensure that no imagery that could conceivably garner sympathy or cause misgivings about the aggressive new border protection regime would find its way into the public domain.

But the effort to make it hard for the media to tell this story continued well after the initial phase. One key element of the policy of offshore processing was the inability of the media - or human rights activists or lawyers - to access asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. And, of course, there was the refusal to answer questions on specific cases, ostensibly in the interests of the privacy of the asylum seekers.

Some journalists like Bronwyn Adcock from the SBS Dateline program were able to infiltrate one of the Nauru camps and give a graphic indication of the conditions being endured by those in offshore detention. But without official sanction it was impossible to be able to talk at length with the asylum seekers and tell the whole story.

A second factor inhibiting media coverage was the attitude of the asylum seekers themselves. Such was their fear of the power of the department and the minister that they were extremely reluctant to take a public profile. Because of the temporary status of those released into the community after being found to be refugees, they suspected any criticism of the way they had been treated would result in their removal.

In this environment, it was difficult to locate those who had been involved in such episodes as the SIEV X tragedy or the Children Overboard affair - and to convince them to tell their stories once they were located. In many cases these people had enough on their plates dealing with past traumas and the challenge of adapting to an uncertain life with limited government support. Seeking them out, I felt a bit like Edward Behr, who titled his account of his time in China and South East Asia during the 60s and 70s: Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?

Even this year I witnessed the palpable fear that public exposure would be counter-productive when I visited an Iraqi woman who had been transferred from Nauru to Maribrynong Detention Centre while she received medical treatment for an injury sustained during the Children Overboard rescue. I have no doubt that the publication of that story, including the advice from her doctor that she should be released into the community to maximise her prospects of recovery, had some influence in achieving this result. But each time I jotted a note during an interview with her husband in the detention centre the woman became visibly distressed.

A third constraint was the attitude of those members of Parliament who were working very hard within the government to soften the harsher edges of the policy. Tight discipline has been one of the hallmarks of the Howard Government and any suggestion that these MPs were inclined to go public with their campaign would set back their chances of achieving a positive result. Indeed, even when some concessions were made and given prominent treatment when they were leaked, they proved to be largely illusory. I suspect this is why, in the end, Petro Georgiou and his colleagues chose to go public with his private members' bills and force the Prime Minister into serious negotiations.

All of this is not to suggest that failings of the media can be totally excused. They cannot. Because the issue was out of sight and out of mind for many, indeed most, Australians, many media players saw little need to pursue it. It wasn't going to put up circulation or improve ratings.

Stories need both an angle and substance and, in the absence of obvious new developments, there have been times when it has been difficult to present what is happening on Nauru, or at Baxter, or on Lombok for that matter, in compelling ways - ways that enabled readers or viewers to relate to those who are suffering under our border protection policy.

Since the decision to turn back the Tampa in August of 2001, my role in writing about national issues involved devoting considerable energy to the issue of the Government's treatment of those who attempted to come to our shores without authority, mostly fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. From early in 2002, I sought approval to visit the offshore processing centre on Nauru.

My short book, Freeing Ali, draws on my experience covering the issue over the last four years and it has three broad objectives: the expose of the inhumanity of the policy; to reveal the role of so-called ordinary Australians in changing it and assisting those either in detention or on temporary visas; and to put a human face on the policy by telling the stories of people like Ali Mullaie.

The MP who led the push to change the policy, Petro Georgiou, wrote a foreword for my book that puts this period in context and responds to the Government's principal justification for treating these people with less compassion than those who waited in refugee camps and came the so-called 'right' way.

As Georgiou expressed it: 'If the uninvited offend against our preference for an orderly migration process, these stories persuasively elucidate why escaping from persecution is not an orderly process'.

But I think it is also worth stating that the demonisation of asylum seekers by the Howard Government was not a uniquely Australian phenomenon. As Erika Feller, Director of International Protection, at the UNHCR told a conference in Sydney last week:

Today asylum seekers are repeatedly mis-characterised as criminals, 'possible terrorists' or illegal migrants whose presence is to be managed as a matter of border and crime control, and whose protection needs are a secondary issue. With a taint of illegality, abusive behaviour or criminality hanging increasingly over asylum seekers, perceptions about which are genuine refugees, and what is the nature of the refugee problem, have also started to change. How a problem is characterized can be very significant to how it is managed. To put it simplistically, to see the refugee problem as an issue of human rights creates protection space. To see it as essentially an immigration issue works often to deny protection to those in need. The mischaracterization of the issue, particularly in the developed world, has contributed to a serious reduction here in the rights accessible by refugees and the responsibilities to them which States are prepared to acknowledge. [1]

Thankfully, and credit must go to Georgiou and his colleagues and people like yourselves who maintained the pressure, the situation in Australia is now much improved, with children and the majority of long-term detainees now in the community and increasing numbers of those who were on temporary protection visas set to win permanency and the right to seek being re-united with immediate family members.

Indeed, the great pleasure for me this year has been in seeing the before and after situations of virtually all the last 54 on Nauru - the utter despair and hopelessness of their situations on Nauru and the enormous joy and optimism once they are in the Australian community.

But, sadly, the story is still a long way from being over.

On Nauru as we speak, there are still two asylum seekers, who were told their claims for refugee status were valid but that they were considered a security threat to Australia as a result of the assessments by ASIO. Both say they cannot understand why they received adverse findings, though both expressed frustration when I was in Nauru at the way their ASIO interviews had been conducted. One has very bad eye sight and is suffering greatly from being alone.

There is also the issue of permanency for those who have recently been found to be refugees. If someone is found to be a legitimate refugee after spending nearly four years in detention, how is it fair that they wait until their temporary protection visas expire in three or five years before being eligible to be re-united with the families here or even visit them in their country of birth?

Assadulah Qazahkil, from Afghanistan, and Mohammed al-Shammari, from Iraq, both have wives and six young children they have not seen for around five years. They have been found to be genuine refugees, yet they have no idea when they might see their families again. It isn't fair. The contrast, of course, is the approach New Zealand took in not only accepting so many who were intercepted on their way to Australia, including on the Tampa, but in locating their families and bringing them to New Zealand to start new lives.

And there are many other unresolved questions, too, including those that go to the support for those who are now trying to rebuild their lives in the community.

Then there is the issue of those who remain stranded in Indonesia, including those on Lombok. A number of these people have refugee status. At least one has immediate family members who are Australian citizens. A number who were intercepted, either by Indonesian or Australian authorities en route to Australia, have been found not to be refugees under the terms of the convention, but cannot be returned. A solution must be found for them and Australia has a responsibility to find that solution.

As the UNHCR stated in December 2004 on the concept of effective protection as it related to Indonesia:

Asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia do not have lawful residence in the country, and are tolerated by the authorities, thus risking arbitrary detention by local law enforcement agencies, and even refoulement under the Immigration Law. Despite UNHCR's intervention, legal regularization of the status of asylum seekers and refugees with the authorities has so far been unsuccessful. There is no lawful access for these persons to the labour market and thus they are not able to work legally, which obviates any adequate and dignified means of existence. There is no possibility of exercising any civil, economic, social or cultural rights. Durable solutions are not guaranteed either, and there are considerable numbers of UNHCR recognized refugees who are rejected for resettlement, and who remain without any prospects of a durable solution. Furthermore, there are no options for family reunification, nor any systematic means, established by the State, of identifying specific protection needs of refugees, including those with special vulnerabilities, nor of addressing them. [2]

And there is more. At least three refugees who are in the community on temporary protection visas have wives and children who have been stranded in Jordon for more than three years after being forced to flee from their homes. Surely it is time for these people to be afforded permanent protection and assisted in being reunited with their families.

In short, I believe that while there is much to be thankful for as 2005 draws to a close, the job for those who support a more humane policy is not yet done - and the task of the media in covering the story is not yet complete.


1. Erika Feller, 'The responsibility to protect - closing the gaps in the international protection regime and the new EXCOM Conclusion on Complementary Forms of Protection', presentation to the 'Moving On: Forced Migration and Human Rights' conference, Sydney, 22 November 2005:

2. 'UNHCR's views on the concept of effective protection as it relates to Indonesia':