The Australian Press Council has launched a fresh probe into The Australian‘s foreign editor Greg Sheridan over his use of “illegal” to describe asylum seekers, after the decorated columnist repeatedly flouted an earlier recommendation to stop.

As Sheridan presumably girds his keyboard this morning to respond to the tragic drowning deaths of dozens of asylum seekers off the Indonesian coast, Press Council executive secretary Jack Herman has confirmed the regulator had received a new complaint highlighting his re-deployment of the rogue descriptor.

Sheridan used the phrase twice in September — on September 3 (the Gillard government was “now under siege over the illegal immigrant/boat people issue”) and September 15  (“For the first time, listening to parliament this week, I thought the government had the better of the argument on the illegal immigrant issue”).

In a front-page piece on October 14 reacting to the government’s shelving of the Malaysia Solution, Sheridan tapped out the barred bon mot on four occasions (“Illegal immigrants and the people who smuggle them can mark this down as a magnificent victory over the Australian political system” / “It makes a mockery of the government’s previous position that it is not Australian policy, or pull factors, but the conditions in the source countries, or push factors, that cause this determined illegal immigration” / “Illegal entry by boats will now be quicker, easier and cheaper than the lengthy process of trying to come here as an immigrant” / “Australia will now be subject to determined illegal immigration by people who have not undergone a selection process by Australian authorities”.)

Sheridan had previously been told to cease and desist. In an APC adjudication published in The Australian on June 20, as required under its membership of the Press Council, it had been made abundantly clear that the “inaccurate” and “unfair” phrase was out of bounds and that “asylum seeker” should be used instead. The Press Council’s guideline no. 288 spells out how journalists should refer to people seeking asylum:

“The Council believes that the term ‘asylum seeker’ is a widely understood descriptor, generally a fair and a sufficiently accurate one, and one which avoids the kinds of difficulties outlined above. The Council recommends its use as the default terminology in relevant headlines and reports both by the press and others.”

And as activists have repeatedly pointed out, under the UN Refugee Convention — to which Australia is a signatory — a person is lawfully able to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.

The June complaint was submitted by James Sharp and related to Sheridan columns on October 23 and 28 last year and March 5 this year. In its judgement, the APC noted The Australian was fully aware of its preference, having been the target of a another upheld complaint brought by “A Just Australia” in 2009.

Herman told Crikey this morning since the APC had issued its guideline it had received a positive and compliant response from most sections of the media. However, some journalists such as Sheridan had decided to stand their ground. There were also problems when politicians and officials used the term publicly — in that case “it was hard to expect journalists not to do the same”.

Unfortunately for Sheridan, the APC found his use of “illegal” in the March 5 column in relation to Senate debate had not in fact been uttered by any senator. Also, according to the Council, the fact the pieces constituted analysis or commentary rather than hard news was no excuse.

News Limited is understood to be currently preparing a response to the latest complaint. It will also prepare a submission to the federal government’s media enquiry led by retired judge Ray Finkelstein and journalism academic Matthew Ricketson, which is expected to examine the role of the APC.

Sheridan did not respond to three questions sent to him this morning in relation to the matter.

Peter Fray

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