Crikey can’t recommend this speech highly enough by Peter McEvoy from Four Corners who produced “Inside Story” on the Australian detention centres and has systematically torn apart the critics who bought the government’s propaganda campaign against the story.

Four Corners’ “Inside Story” broke through some of those restrictions. It gave a voice to a handful of asylum seekers both detainees and escapees to talk about their experience, and express their views on our detention centres. It focussed attention on the issues of long term detention and supported the personal stories with expert research. It literally took people inside Villawood to reveal a situation in our own country that most people were unaware of, and it confronted people with the toughest dilemma: the imprisonment of children. No parent could fail to be moved by the sight of Shayan Badraie inside Villawood or by the dilemma that faces his family.

According to the polls and focus groups it seems the vast majority of Australians are opposed to unauthorised asylum seekers arriving in Australia. They have a variety of reasons concern about border integrity, concern about the risk to security and terrorism, a suspicion of foreigners and muslims, an acceptance of the queue jumper theory of asylum etc. Many people also endorse strong action action to keep these so called illegals out. But whatever their views on refugees and illegal immigrants, I think that most Australians are also opposed to the idea of locking up children in what is effectively a jail. Some may argue it’s as a necessary evil to enforce our immigration policy, but few of us could be comfortable with the fact that 700 children are in detention children as young as Shayan and his baby sister. That leaves a difficult conflict to resolve and The Inside Story forced viewers had to confront that issue and decide: some were moved to compassion by Shayan’s story, others were angry at having to face this harsh reality

In talking about the response to our program I’ll be commenting on the actions of the Government and in particular the Minister for Immigration Philip Ruddock, but no-one should take anything I say as any form of endorsement for the alternative. The policies that our program examined are after all bi-partisan policies support by the Opposition, and the Shadow Minister has been remarkable only because he has had nothing to say about the situation our story revealed.

The Government has been very effective in keeping the media out of detention centres and keeping the reality behind the razor wire under wraps. Apart from departmental guided tours the media has no access to the detention centres or detainees. In a part of the video that Aamer Sultan recorded in Villawood that we didn’t include in our program, Dr Sultan pulls out the guidelines issued to ACM the private company which runs Villawood by the Department of Immigration. That document lists a number of “major incidents” including sit-ins, barricades, attempted escapes, bomb threats and “approaches by the media to staff or detainees”. That last one is what we might call a “public relations emergency” and when Inside Story went to air the minders went into action.

The next day the Minister was all over the ABC and commercial broadcast media with interviews and news grabs responding to the story, but it was his interview on the 7.30 report that was most remarkable. During the interview the Minister avoided using Shayan Badraie’s name no doubt to avoid personalising his story, but unfortunately he also referred to Shayan as “it” four times. “I understand it receives food and liquids”, “we are working at getting the child into an environment in which its condition can be managed”, “it’s a step child”.

It seemed a disastrous start for the Minister and reinforced the contrast between the human plight of asylum seekers and his own cold presentation of Government policy. But the Minister was determined that no concession would be made to the Badraies and he stepped up his response to try and discredit the program and the asylum speakers we spoke to.

Three days after the program the Minister issued a 25 page press statement and media kit that he rather grandly entitled “Rebuttal of the Four Corners Program”. In the next edition of the Department of Immigration Staff News they trumpeted their response in a front page splash which told staff that the Minister’s media kit had generated favourable articles in “The Age, the Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald (three articles), The Sunday Age, the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph.”

In particular Staff News singled out the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan and the Daily Telegraph’s Piers Akerman for praise and quotation “The Four Corners program was so riddled with errors”, wrote Akerman, “[that] it took Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock’s staff four days to issue a six-page document which only addressed some of them”. In fact of course the Minister and his office have a whole Department at their call with files packed with all the relevant information on every aspect of the detention centres and the detainees and escapees we spoke to. If a story is riddled with errors it should take three or four minutes to see what’s wrong and three of four hours at most to issue the press release. Yet Mr Ruddocks office laboured for days to deliver a mouse.

The Minister’s so-called “rebuttal” fails to address the issues raised by our story and makes no points of substance. It quibbles over the use of terms like refugee. It reiterates that the Department and the Minister’s Refugee Review Tribunal have decided that that the people we interviewed are not refugees a point made perfectly clear in our story. The bulk of the Minister’s response, including a 15 page attachment listing “Facilities, Services and Activities” at the detention centres: these included computers that haven’t arrived and flights of fancy like the claim that 60-80 people play tennis every day at Villawood: unfortunately there is no tennis court at Villawood. The statement was simply a repetition of well known Government and Departmental views on asylum seekers and detention centres and within a few hours Four Corners Executive Producer Bruce Belsham had published a rebuttal of the rebuttal on our website.

But the sheer weight of the Minister’s response (and the fact that no columnists could be bothered contacting Four Corners or even clicking onto our website) did seem to give the Minister credibility in some quarters at least. Since the release was light of facts and high on opinion it was perfect fodder for columnists and commentators. Lawsie was soon on the case and a week after the program a new round of phone calls came to our office. Unlike earlier calls from people who saw the program, these calls were largely negative, and they came from radio listeners who’s heard about but hadn’t seen the program.

Not that they were alone in that. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Alan Ramsey was so impressed with the Minister’s release that he apparently wrote his column without seeing our program either and consequently made basic errors about who we’d spoken to and whether they were inside Villawood or on the run. Bruce Belsham’s letter to the Herald pointing out Ramsey’s errors went unpublished and unacknowledged.

Columnists like Sheehan and Akerman went to town calling our story “a parody of investigative journalism” with nary an attempt to check their claims with us. And a few weeks later Akerman was at it again with a renewed attack on the Badraie family presenting the apparent results of his own “investigative journalism” that he claimed made a mockery of our program.

His starting point was a story from the Iranian government newspaper Jam e Jam. I’m not sure whether Piers Akerman is a regular subscriber to this Iranian Daily or if someone else brought it to his attention but in any case he quoted from an apparent interview with Shayan’s birth mother Parvin Jalili, and told his readers that she was shocked to learn that Shayan was in Australia. Akerman told his readers that Shayan had been stolen from his mother’s care. This is simply untrue.

Four Corners has a copy of the notarised divorce papers of Mohammad Badraie and his former wife. At the time of the divorce Shayan was 16 months old and his mother was legally entitled to have custody of him. These papers record that Parvan Jalili refused to accept custody. The documents record that care of Shayan was therefore awarded to Shayan’s father, Mohammad Badraie.

According to Mr Badraie, Parvin Jalili chose not to visit her son while he was in Iran for the next two years and Shayan no longer remembers her. Until the Minister revealed their family details to the media Shayan believed that Zahra who has been his mother for 4 and half years had always been his mother. The Badraies were understandably upset that the Minister chose to interfere in their private family matters in this way.

Akerman then told his readers that Shayan’s father was a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – the Pasdaran – “between about 1987 and 1990”. Akerman quotes from a 1987 US newspaper report on the Pasdaran’s role in the worst excesses and the darkest days of the Iranian Revolution, and attempts to paint Mr Badraie as an enthusiastic stormtrooper for Ayatollah Khomeini. Again his claims are wrong.

Mohammed Bedraie like all Iranian men was obliged to do 2 years compulsory military service. He was in fact conscripted into the Iranian military and the Pasdaran from 1989 to 1991. He says there was no choice about where he served his conscription. In fact, Mohammed Bedraie claims that religious dissenters such as himself are commonly conscripted to serve in units, such as the Pasdaran, as a punishment for their beliefs. Mr Badraie’s claims are supported by his discharge card. It confirms that he served as a conscript for the minimum 2 year period from February 1989 to February 1991. Iranian sources confirm that conscripts have no choice concerning the unit to which they are attached.

Akerman claims that because of Mr Badraie’s conscription into the Pasdaran his case and the case of his family has not been supported by any members of the Iranian community here in Australia. That is also untrue. The Iranian Community Organisation has written and continued to write, to both the Minister and Shadow Minister on behalf of the family. Four Corners has copies of their letters.

Mr Badraie’s claim that he feared persecution due to his dissident political activities in Iran has also been corroborated by two members of the Iranian community in Australia who knew of Mr Badraie’s political work in Iran and who have themselves been granted refugee status. Four Corners also has copies of statements from these two witnesses.

So much for mockery, but the real question is how did Piers Akerman get his investigation so wrong?

There could only be a few sources for Akerman’s material: either extensive research in Iran, interviews with the Badraie family or material from the files of the Department of Immigration. Since Akerman seems unaware of Iranian documentation and has not interviewed Mohammed Badraie, it seems likely that the information has somehow been provided by the Minister’s office or the Department of Immigration itself. In fact Akerman told a representative of the Badraies who complained about the story that he’s drawn material from “sources in the bureaucracy”.

Columnists like Akerman or for that matter Sheehan and Laws provide a soft entry into the media. When material matches their own opinions they grab hold of the smallest snippets selectively leaked to them and blow them into an open and shut case. They don’t qualify their statements or test the credibility of their evidence so they give political operators who cultivate them a free run all the way to the goal line.

Akerman’s article was the culmination of a campaign to undermine concerns about the plight of Shayan Badraie and his family and to distract attention from broader concerns about the 700 children still in our detention centres.

The Minister himself kicked off this attack on Shayan Badraie and his family the day after our program when he spoke to the 7.30 Report:

PHILIP RUDDOCK: A lot of the psychiatric conditions arise because you have a predisposition to them. You don’t know to what extent it may be related to the family’s situation and I don’t wish to go into that. Some people might think it was prejudicial if I introduced those elements. You don’t know

KERRY O’BRIEN: But in effect you are introducing it.You appear to be implying something without actually being prepared to say what.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I’ll simply say that the child is not the natural child of the mother — it’s a stepchild.

Mr Ruddock had refused to discuss the any details of the particular cases of asylum seekers when Four Corners interviewed him for the program but now he thought it appropriate to pull this fact from the Departmental file as an alternative explanation for Shayan’s trauma.

Four Corners had the written medical report of three senior psychologists at Sydney’s Westmead Children’s Hospital that Shayan’s condition was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by the events he’d witnessed in detention. This diagnosis was supported by statements from counsellors and staff employed at the detention centres who had treated Shayan’s illness as it developed and witnessed the events to which he’d been exposed. Those events, which we have verified from the accounts of detention staff witnesses as well as the family, include the riots at Woomera, people setting fire to their own demountable homes, a detainee threatening to kill himself with shard of glass, another threatening to kill himself by jumping from the top of a large tree, another attempted suicide of a detainee who slashed his wrists, guards using violence against Shayan’s father, and guards using violence against another young child.

The Badraie’s had presented to us as a family and we were not aware that Zahra was Shayan stepmother rather than his birth mother at the time our program went to air. It did not seem relevant to ask the family and nothing that the Minister has revealed has made it any more so. Those who have treated Shayan did not consider it relevant and it’s especially concerning that the Minister raised this furphy about Shayan’s family even though doctors treating Shayan have communicated that information directly to him.

In May and June this year well before our story went to air Dr David Dosseter the Head of the Department of Psychological Medicine at Westmead Children’s Hospital wrote to the Minister Philip Ruddock. Dr Dosseter makes it clear in those letters that the cause of Shayan’s illness is the trauma he has suffered in detention and he strongly recommend not only that Shayan not be returned to detention but that he be allowed to live in the outside community with his family.

Instead of publishing those letters the Minister chose to disclose confidential information from the Badraie’s file to try and shift responsibility for Shayan’s condition from the detention process.

It’s a clear example of how restricting information and media access not only flouts the public right to know but also allows the manipulation and distortion of the facts.

Australia’s refugee policy has become one of the worst examples of media restriction and manipulation that we’ve ever seen. It may have started with locking the media out of reasonable access to detention centres and detainees but the Tampa showed how far it could go. To prevent journalists getting access to the refugees viewpoint the media were barred from Christmas Island harbour and airstrip. All information about the Tampa was tightly controlled so that normal sources of media information were simply closed down. Journalists on Christmas Island were reduced to reporting events from the beach while the politicians in Canberra dribbled out only the information they deemed appropriate.

Consequently much of that information was misleading. For days we were told that when the Tampa picked up the refugees from Palapa and they were closer to Indonesia than Australia: now we learn they were 75 nautical miles from Christmas Island and 246 nautical miles from the Java port of Merak.

We’ve also been told that people arriving by boat are queue jumpers who should wait their turn for orderly processing by the UNHCR but last week we learnt that there are 535 certified 100% genuine refugees are waiting in Indonesia after being processed by the UNHCR – but that so far 31 have been sent to new countries (and none of those by the way have gone to Australia).

When the Manoora arrived at Nauru journalists were again held well back from the dock watching the refugees unloaded and taken to our new detention centre there. A few of the Tampa refugees gave sketchy details of their experience in halting English through the wire of the detention centre, but the people from the second boat the Aceh were never heard except for the few words they shouted from the dock and it wasn’t until the Manoora returned to Australia that the Telegraph could get the sailors’ side of the Manoora’s trip from Christmas Island to Nauru.

As The Tele’s Chief Political Reporter Malcolm Farr wrote at the time, the stories that did emerge revealed the depth of the information blackout:

“The Government found the public’s right to know as inconvenient as another people smuggler’s boat, 05 There has been a deliberate program of censorship on a scale which would not be out of place during a war.”

Of course there is no war except for the election but the public’s right to know has become a casualty of major parties campaigning for bi-partisan popularity. If the Government finds it convenient to have total control over media coverage on this issue, then the Opposition isn’t going to challenge these restrictions because they simply want the issue to go away.

Despite the enormous public response to our program as far as I’m aware the ALP’s Shadow Minister for Immigration Con Sciacca has said absolutely nothing on the case of Shayan Badraie or the issues our program raised about mandatory detention or the place of children our detention centres.

That’s extraordinary in itself. Imagine an alternative scenario What if instead of 6 year old Shayan Badraie it was Mrs Cheryl Baddiley, a 77 year old pensioner traumatised by her experiences in a nursing home. Can you imagine the furore? Would the Opposition go as easy on Bronwyn Bishop? It reveals how ridiculous is the claim that Philip Ruddock has the most difficult job in Australia. The truth is that Opposition has given him a free run

I’m proud of what our own program was able to achieve in terms of giving a voice to people who are otherwise out of sight and out of mind, and raising public awareness about issues that should concern all Australians. I’m also pleased that senior journalists like Malcolm Farr who’s President of the Canberra Press Gallery and others choose to speak out against this censorship of the public right to know the truth about our Government’s policies and actions.

Unfortunately refugee policy demonstrates how limited the media is when the major political parties – for their different reasons in each case – both work to dampen an issue. Without the dynamics of our adverserial political system there is no one to hammer home the revelations that the media uncovers except our readers and viewers.

The major parties’ focus groups have told them that the electorate has no compassion for the plight of asylum seekers and so far that research has been right. But that may change as more is revealed about the situation facing asylum seekers in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nauru and here in Australia. Perhaps we’re already seeing a shift in the response to the tragedy in Indonesia last week. It’s hard to see the three little girls who died trying to join their refugee father in Australia as just three more queue jumpers. Unfortunately any change of heart in the Australian electorate is unlikely to show up in time to change the bipartisan policies of the Government and Opposition.

ends

Peter McEvoy delivered this speech on October 26 at The Public Right to Know Conference put on by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

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