Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored. — Aldous Huxley

The Finkelstein media inquiry should have examined the role of the media in the so-called debate on asylum seekers and refugees. With some exceptions, we have not been well served.

We have hysteria over boat people when 76% of asylum seekers in the past decade (71% in the past five years) came by air. The media seems to work on the assumption that if there is no picture, there is no news. Politicians and the media don’t notice or care about asylum seekers who come by air.

Until very recently, our policy was to lock up asylum seekers who come by boat, but allow asylum seekers who come by air to live in the community while their claims are being assessed. Hardly any members of the media seriously examined why this was so. Only now, after the government has had its hand forced due to the High Court decision, has this policy been changed — but again, that outcome was seriously distorted by outlets like The Daily Telegraph whose front page story suggested that our neighbourhoods were to be overrun with asylum seekers.

The media continually refers to asylum seekers as “illegals” when clearly they are not, and it is not just Greg Sheridan that does it.

There are 50,000 real illegals in the country who have overstayed their visas. They are headed by citizens from the US, China and Britain. They are rarely mentioned in the media.

More boat people arrived in Italy in one weekend in August than in six months in Australia. By any measure we do not have a problem but the issue has been exaggerated out of all proportion.

How do we account for the media frenzy over the Four Corners story on exports of live animals? The media then diverted its eyes from the follow-up story on the brutalisation of human beings in our detention centres. We were told about suicides and the mental distress of detainees, but we saw the cruelty to animals. Pictures of live animals obviously made it more newsworthy.

Why is it that the media give us story after story about people smugglers but little information about the brutal regimes from which people flee? Like it or not, with 44 million vulnerable “people of concern” to the UNHCR including 15 million refugees there will always be a demand for the services of people smugglers.

Relying on the media, the public believes, according to Essential Research, that 25% or more of our migrant intake are asylum seekers. The correct figure is nearer 2%.

There is little examination of Liberal Party policy to turn-back the boats, temporary protection visas and Nauru. The Fraser government in July 1979 rejected the policy of turning boats away. It rightly said that Australia “would be courting international pariah status”. In the Senate last month, Admiral Ray Griggs, of the RAN, said that turning boats around at sea was highly risky and that Navy personnel are bound by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and that the convention “would be the prime driver in the decision making of the commanding officer”. It received scant media attention.  False claims and failed policies are allowed to stand.

The politics of refugees is easy news. Policy is much harder. One example is the assumption so often by the media that action we take at the Australian end will deter asylum seekers. Any action we take will be only marginal. The numbers are driven by violence and persecution in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Iran, not what we do on Christmas Island.

The criticism of the media in no way excuses the failure of the government to properly inform public discussion. The job must be done by ministers and senior departmental officials and not ministerial minders.

*John Menadue is a board director, Centre for Policy Development, and former secretary, Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.