From Morrison, all the news fit to suppress

The people of Christmas Island have telephones. Quite a few have email addresses and access to the internet, too. So do journalists - and, as it happens, so do asylum seekers who regularly use such communications to contact their smugglers and their families to broadcast their safe arrival.
By · 28 Sep 2013
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28 Sep 2013
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The people of Christmas Island have telephones. Quite a few have email addresses and access to the internet, too. So do journalists - and, as it happens, so do asylum seekers who regularly use such communications to contact their smugglers and their families to broadcast their safe arrival.

Most people on Christmas Island also have a view of the Indian Ocean.

Visit the supermarket or wheel in to the service station in the main township and you look straight on to the bay where asylum seeker boats tie up to buoys. Amble down to Flying Fish Cove for a cooling dip and you're right next to the wharf where the island's barge brings asylum seekers ashore.

Any distant reporter seeking to know when a new boat has arrived simply needs to pick up a telephone and call a contact on the island or send an email.

For the past few years, journalists haven't been required to make the call. The government has done it for us, shooting out press releases every time a boat turns up.

No more. A cannonade of protest has erupted from the media and the new Labor opposition over the Abbott government's decision to sink the practice of issuing an alert each time a new boat noses across the horizon. Censorship, the critics cry.

It's not really. It would be if the government tried to silence any free citizen on Christmas Island from speaking to anyone who calls. That would amount to a bit more than censorship. It would be martial law. Fact is, almost everything concerning asylum seekers has long been subject to government censorship anyway. The latest development is little more than the withdrawal of a government service that masqueraded as transparency.

It is, of course, a ham-fisted change, which is about what you'd expect of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. His best argument is that he doesn't want people smugglers alerted of arrivals. Here's a news release: the smugglers already know. They get the call from their clients as soon as land is sighted.

Morrison is a zealot on the asylum seeker front whose language sounds as if he'd dearly like to be a hard-arse general. No one ought to be terribly surprised if he actually did believe that his belligerently titled Operation Sovereign Borders could make boats disappear by turning the off-switch at public relations headquarters.

Government press releases, in fact, have regularly - and long before Major-General Morrison - served as little more than convenient disguises for suppression of wider truths. While the previous government issued numbers of boat arrivals, it made sure the passengers were never granted names or faces. Once ashore, they were, and still are, whisked away to detention and, on the rare occasions when journalists have been admitted to detention centres, so many restrictions are placed upon them - no talking to the detainees, photographs to be submitted for approval, faces pixelated, long legal undertakings signed before entry - that the exercise is all but pointless. All in the name of privacy, of course, for people who often are desperate to be heard.

Asylum seekers are "clients" and their guards and everyone else "managing" them are required to sign confidentiality agreements that mean they can't legally reveal to any outsider what goes on behind the wire. Approach an employee of Serco, the British multinational that has long run the camps, and they'll run for cover or tell you to get lost. Police, immigration officials, customs agents or navy personnel are equally mute.

Only "authorised" public relations or "media liaison" officials have been permitted to offer official information. And that boiled down to little more than what was available in carefully vetted press releases. Another boat, another faceless number of asylum seekers.

In the absence of much else, the raw numbers of boats and their passengers often became the basis for news stories.

Governments of all colours abhor giving information about what goes on within their purview. Australia's freedom-of-information laws have become so perverted by the blackout pen and the sheer cost of using the system that they deserve to be renamed Freedom from Information.

Governments want the media to rely on press releases that offer nothing beyond the most basic facts, which is why they all spend large amounts of public money on public relations departments that crank out huge numbers of regularly next-to-useless emails. The bigger the secrets, the bigger the PR department. Defence PR, unsurprisingly, is by far the biggest.

Immigration, it happens, has had one of the more upfront PR operatives. The department's chief spinner, Sandi Logan, has been in the habit for some years of using Twitter to make announcements, argue his department's stances and sometimes take direct issue with critical reporters. Commander of the High Seas Rear-Admiral Morrison has now told Logan to put a sock in it. The minister's office will handle things from now on, thank you, and Mr Logan's Twitter account has been "retired".

It's time for journalists to remind ourselves that we have telephones and email accounts, even if our expense accounts don't amount these days to too many flights to Christmas Island. Time to use and build contacts among islanders - which the better immigration rounds reporters have done for years anyway - and go to them for information about asylum boats and asylum seekers. Time to try to build pictures provided by ordinary citizens of goodwill who are not yet subject to martial law, and who can see what's happening from the front door of their township's supermarket and who, through casual conversations in the island's bars and cafes, may get worthwhile information from those who "manage" and guard the arrivals.

The British newspaper publisher Alfred, Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922) famously defined news as "what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising".

We should thank the Minister-General, Scott Morrison, for reminding us.
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