It isn’t surprising Australians are confused about our cultural attitudes to asylum seekers. It’s been 10 years since Tampa and while the federal government is still doing policy cartwheels, the public asylum debate becomes more and more polarised in two opposing value positions.

Cultural Intelligence, which aired last night on SBS, is the first in a series of expert led forums which aims to examine how Australia’s culture is being defined in the media. The first program focused on the asylum seeker debate, which has become a lightning rod for opinions about migration, racism and broader Australian cultural values.

The success of SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From earlier this year has shown that issues-based television about immigration can appeal to mainstream audiences. CQ clearly aims to reach the same demographic again. The expert panel has been carefully selected to include representatives from major channels Seven, Nine, Ten and News Limited papers, in addition to SBS friendly community advocacy commentators.

CQ raises the central question of whether the media generates society’s fixation on border control or is merely responding to the public’s fears of unwanted migration.

Scanlon Foundation Survey researcher Andrew Markus points out almost one in four Australians don’t accurately know how many asylum seekers arrive by boat each year. These factual misconceptions are undoubtedly fuelled by entrenched sensationalist reporting.

Ispos McKay Report author Rebecca Huntley says the public has a variety of concerns about immigration, but media language puts disproportionate emphasis on boat arrivals. “Many members of the population have very few other sources of information on asylum seekers other than the media,” Huntley says.

The line between media reflecting public concern about asylum seekers and fuelling racist debate is one many media outlets struggle to define. Daily Telegraph writer Joe Hildebrand argues that migrants make up a significant proportion of the anti-asylum “hate media” readership.

“Our readers are often first and second generation immigrants, they live in poorer areas out in the suburbs, they’re often the ones who are most concerned about [asylum seekers],” Hildebrand says. “I guarantee our readership has far more direct experience of … asylum seekers than the viewership of the ABC, [or] than the readership of The Sydney Morning Herald.”

Hildebrand is certainly right in one respect. It does not necessarily follow that if someone is a migrant or refugee, they will hold a favourable view towards asylum seekers. Fears around lifestyle and cultural protection are as present across all sections of the population as those of compassion and acceptance.

Scanlon research shows the distribution of views in the community towards asylum seekers is roughly two out of ten with a positive view, four negative and four undecided. These positive and negative views of asylum seekers tend to be based on personal values rather than facts.

It is with the four out of 10 “undecided” Australians that the media has a strong role in shaping a more sophisticated values debate.

Former Channel Ten Producer Jim Carroll blames the pressures of a 24/7 news cycle coupled with dwindling resources on the continuing the convenient asylum narrative.

“It cost us more than $100, 000 to send us a crew up there [to Christmas Island],” Carroll says. “If you want depth and analysis that’s when commercial broadcasters go to the shock jocks.”

There is a joint responsibility here for communities and advocates to work with the media to provide engaging alternative stories that are delivered as the news cycle demands. Sunday Night executive producer Mark Llewellyn admits the SBS series Go Back To Where You Came From would have been commissioned by Seven “in a heartbeat” because it delivers a powerful human story.

While this view may be influenced in hindsight by the show’s ratings success, it does offer hope that major networks are open to programs which present more complex and human angles on the asylum debate.

CQ delivers a refreshingly balanced perspective that shows the media can move beyond showing asylum seekers as either vulnerable victims or unwanted burdens on society. And if Australia wants to develop more sophisticated values, it’s time we valued a more culturally intelligent media debate.

Peter Fray

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