A guard at the Nauru detention centre claims that the mother of a one-year-old asylum seeker, whom the media nicknamed “baby Asha”, burned her daughter on purpose to get the child and herself to Australia. According to a report in The Courier-Mail this morning, the doctors at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, who last week refused to give the girl to officials to be sent back to Nauru, do not agree.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made the claim about the deliberate injury in Parliament yesterday. But refugee activists say Dutton is in possession of clinical records that show the child’s injuries were accidental and is being deliberately misleading under parliamentary privilege. Who to believe?

When it comes to offshore detention, refugee advocates and the government often have contradictory versions of events. And the whole debate takes place in a more-or-less legally enforced information blackout — for fear of encouraging or giving information to people smugglers, the government’s policy is to give out as little information as possible.

On The Guardian‘s political live blog this morning, deputy political editor Katharine Murphy asked: “How can anyone see anything clearly in this environment? Seriously.”

In a moment of similar frustration, Crikey last week asked Essential to ask voters whom they trusted when it came to information on asylum seekers. Do they trust anyone at all?

Turns out, they do. There’s a clear winner on the trustworthiness stakes when it comes to this sort of thing, and it’s doctors. Some 65% of respondents said they had “some” or “a lot” of trust in what doctors say in relation to conditions in offshore detention.

trustforinfoonasylumseekers

Medical professionals have been a key voice in protesting against some of the conditions in offshore detention centres. Since July 2015, speaking publicly about the conditions in detention centres, as many doctors have done, has come with the threat of a two-year jail term. A not-insignificant number have spoken out anyway — so far none have been prosecuted for their actions.

The next most-trusted group was welfare agencies (46% of those polled had “a lot” or “some” trust in information coming from them), followed by human rights campaigners (42%) and international organisations (41%).

The relatively high level of trust put in human rights campaigners is curious, given many of them are explicitly campaigning for the closure of Australia’s offshore detention centres, a position not shared with a majority of the general public. Such campaigners have come under fire in the past — for example, in 2014, Greg Lake, a former director of offshore detention processing, told The Australian that activists coach asylum seekers in self-harm to build political capital. More recently, when the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Pamela Curr took on Australian journalist Chris Kenny over what asylum seekers had told her of his conduct on Nauru, she took back a part of her allegations following a legal threat.

Nonetheless, veteran Sydney political activist Ian Rintoul told Crikey recent history helped explain why human rights campaigners would be trusted on this issue. Refugee activists are often some of those most directly in contact with asylum seekers, and they are able to bring information out of locked-down centres.

“Politicians generally are discredited because of the very loaded way that they reply to things, and the number of times they’ve been found to be not only inaccurate, but explicitly lying. From Reza Barati to Save the Children, the constant accurate voice has been those who are in contact with those in detention centres,” Rintoul said.

Polling consistently shows a large proportion of the Australian public supports offshore detention (and it is the policy of both major parties). But the polling suggests even if people agree with the policy overall, they don’t trust those selling it to them.

The group least trusted as a source of information was politicians — only 2% said they had “a lot” of trust in their statements, while 15% had “some trust”. Meanwhile, 42% said they had no trust at all in the information put out by politicians about asylum seekers.

Also battling through poor trust was the media, with, similarly, 2% having “a lot” of trust in its information and 19% having “some trust”. The results don’t differentiate between things like tabloid current affairs programs and the ABC’s 7.30. And it’s worth noting people always rate journalists poorly on trust in such surveys.

The ABC — and Fairfax to a lesser extent — has been heavily criticised for biased reporting on asylum seekers. Immigration secretary Michael Pezzullo used Senate estimates this month to slam the ABC, and Australian journalists in general, for “advocacy parading as journalism”. He said that was “deleterious to a sensible discussion about these matters”.

“We’ve gone beyond journalism when you’ve got certain segments of the media undertaking essentially pamphleteering of almost a political nature and then in that context the facts just get bent,” Pezzullo said. The ABC rejects the claims of bias, but was forced to make an embarrassing correction to one of its stories (the result of mixing up quotes about two separate children) in the hours after Pezzullo’s critique.

But perhaps in a testament to how politicised the public service has become on this issue, government officials like Pezzullo weren’t trusted either. Only 23% of those polled indicating “a lot” or “some” them as sources of information. On Essential’s general surveys of trust in institutions, the public service normally rates better than this.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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