The Immigration Department will refer the actions of a West Australian journalist to the Press Council after she entered an asylum seeker accommodation facility and questioned a survivor of the Christmas Island boat tragedy.

Jane Hammond’s piece, titled “Survivor: Crew Cut Engine”, appeared in The West Australian on Monday and featured several comments attributed to a female survivor of last week’s foundering, whose husband and son remained unaccounted for. It also appeared to reveal extraordinary insensitivity on the part of the Immigration Department, with a spokesperson saying the woman “would have to telephone the department’s 24-hour information line for details of her husband and son”. Crikey is not referring to the woman by name given she may seek asylum in Australia and identifying her may have repercussions for any family in her country of origin.

The Immigration Department is deeply unhappy with both aspects of the story, saying the hotline is intended for members of the public who may know someone on the vessel and want information, not survivors themselves. But it is Hammond’s conduct that is particularly under challenge.

According to the department, Hammond spoke to the woman after she accompanied a Middle Eastern man to the accommodation facility in Perth where the woman, who says her husband and son were aboard the boat, is recovering. The man claimed to be a “close friend” of the woman’s family and was admitted to the facility, accompanied by Hammond, who was wearing a head scarf. The man, who would act as Hammond’s interpreter, is said to have filled in the admission form for both of them and did not identify Hammond as a journalist or an employee of The West Australian in the section requiring details of her occupation and employer.  Despite this lapse, they were admitted by officials at the facility to the woman’s private quarters, rather than the general visiting area of the facility, in recognition of the woman’s circumstances.

It was there that Hammond began interviewing the woman, with the man interpreting, until a guard nearby observed her tape recorder and asked her to identify herself. At that point, Hammond stated that she was a journalist, and was ordered to leave.

Immigration’s complaint to the Press Council will be that Hammond’s piece breached Principle 5 of the Council’s State of Principles, that “information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest” and clause 8 of the MEAA code of ethics, which requires that journalists “identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast.  Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice”. Given Hammond did not, in the department’s account, personally misrepresent herself and did identify herself as a journalist when eventually asked, the complaint might make for some fine distinctions over the meaning of terms such as “dishonest” and “unfair”.

Following the publication of the story, Immigration asked The West Australian to acknowledge what it considered a breach of ethics but was rebuffed. “In light of the newspaper’s refusal to publicly acknowledge this serious breach of ethics and principles, or to take any action against its journalist, we have no choice now but to refer the matter to the Australian Press Council,” said departmental spokesman Sandi Logan. “The deceit which was used to gain access to our client, the various acts of omission and commission, and then the refusal to concede this was a gross invasion of our client’s privacy in the absence of any overriding public interest is one of the worst displays of unprofesssionalism in my many years as a journalist (and current/long-standing MEAA member), and as a public affairs practitioner.

“We simply asked The West Australian to publicly acknowledge that in their report, their reporter obtained access to the survivor’s place of immigration detention without full disclosure of the nature of her visit, her profession or her employer.”

The paper’s acting editor Michael Beach did not respond to Crikey’s invitation to comment yesterday, but on Tuesday told Crikey no action would be taken against Hammond.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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