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78 people in a leaking boat ...

By Crispin Hull - posted Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The vast bulk of journalists honestly try to get it right. But the media does distort. And the distortion costs Australian society dearly in the way of poor policy making by politicians who keep a warier eye on the ballot box than on the overall long-term public good.

A recent example illustrates the distortion of events by the media. This example is the 78 Sri Lankan refugees and the fear of them felt by many Australians. The fate of the 78 refugees has filled the airwaves, the newspapers and the internet. They are newsworthy. And newsworthiness blots out information.

A leaky boat filled with refugees on the ocean is an image that can dominate page one or the opening of a news bulletin. And the story gets top billing because it tugs at our emotions: fear in many and sympathy in some. Emotions and imagery drive the news and therefore drive policy. Information and facts are almost ignored.


But what is the real picture?

In the two years of the Rudd Government less than 40 boats have arrived containing fewer than 1,800 people. Literally a drop in the ocean - less than half a per cent of the total number of people migrating to Australia in that time.

This compares to 47,000 people in Australia now who have overstayed their visas.

But people overstaying visas do not make for dramatic news pictures. There are no images and no emotions of fear aroused. So policy-makers can pay less attention to them. But politicians have to react to news imagery and the fear it engenders, and they do so with a vengeance.

The latest figures (October 9, 2009) show that of the 47,000 visa overstayers, just 131 are in detention.

Come by boat, though, and you are locked up in disproportionate numbers - almost all refugees initially and many of them for a long time. Even so, the “problem” is drastically over-stated. Fewer than 1,000 people are in immigration detention centres - three quarters of these are on Christmas Island - where media images and legal and medical help are harder to come by. Another 300 are under restricted-movement regimes.


Irrational fear is part of the human condition. We fear the shark in the water but the greater risk of death or injury comes from driving to the beach. Politicians understand voters’ fears and when they are not exploiting them they are desperately trying to manage them.

The fear and dread engendered by 78 helpless refugees in a boat is out of all proportion to the risk.

They were picked up by an Australian boat and should be brought to Australia and processed here, on the mainland, not Christmas Island. Christmas Island is, in effect, a giant prison which gives the lie to the government’s position that no children are “behind razor wire”. They may as well be given the conditions on Christmas Island. Seventy-nine children are detained there. And they are detained - like the prisoners on Devil’s Island or Norfolk Island who were “free” to move about provided they did not leave the island.

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About the Author

Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times, admitted as a barrister and solicitor in the ACT and author of The High Court 1903-2003 (The Law Book Company). He teaches journalism at the University of Canberra and is chair of Barnardos Australia, the children’s charity. His website is here:

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