A screen capture of Tracy Grimshaw introducing ACA's Nauru story

Last night’s A Current Affair special on the Nauru detention centre wasn’t as bad as it could have been, those with experience of Australia’s detention regime in the island nation told Crikey this morning. But they deemed it a superficial report of the situation, which didn’t do enough to challenge the claims of the Nauruan government.

Channel Nine’s A Current Affair shocked the nation’s journalists last week by becoming only the second media team, and the first TV station, to be granted access to Nauru — which houses hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees intercepted on their way to Australia — in the past few years.

Last year, The Australian‘s Chris Kenny’s visit to Nauru, the first granted in several years, drew fierce condemnation from refugee advocates and plenty of coverage regarding the motivations of the Australian and Nauruan governments in choosing to grant Kenny’s visa (Kenny has been a supporter of off-shore detention in his writing). Caroline Marcus, the A Current Affair reporter granted access to Nauru earlier this week, has also written in support of comments made by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton about refugees being illiterate and taking Australian jobs.

Before the episode aired, it was criticised. New Matilda spoke to refugees interviewed who said they had not wanted to be filmed. Lawyer George Newhouse questioned the conditions placed on ACA to film on Nauru.

In its half-hour special last night, A Current Affair began by answering its critics. “We applied for access onto the world’s smallest island nation without any help from our federal government, and to be frank, we were surprised to get approval,” said host Tracey Grimshaw at the start. Towards the end, Marcus said the Australian government hadn’t even been aware the crew were on the island last week when it called Channel Nine to find out what was going on.

As for the criticism about filming people without their permission, Marcus assured viewers she had been highly sensitive to this happening, and said that ACA didn’t include anyone who didn’t want to be in its report.

The episode was presented without heavy editorialising. Marcus spent a day on the island, speaking to numerous refugees, asylum seekers (not yet granted refugee status) and representatives of the Nauruan government, who often disputed, sometimes in startling terms, the picture painted by refugees.

Marcus filmed a daily protest held at the detention centres and went inside to view people’s accommodation, showing both the newer, more permanent housing finished this year (complete, ACA noted, with “fully fitted kitchens”, microwaves and televisions) and the mouldy tents many of those in the centre still call home. The centre’s school, mess hall and other facilities were filmed, as were the homes of refugees who live outside the centre. Australian television rarely features those with heavy accents, but several of the refugees filmed gave emotional accounts in broken English. Some struggled to say phrases more complex than “Nauru very bad,” raising questions about how thoroughly they could explain their experiences.

The lack of translation offered to refugees struck Dr David Isaacs, a paediatrician who worked on Nauru in 2014. “When I saw patients on Nauru, I always used an interpreter,” he told Crikey this morning. “Their English often isn’t good enough. To try to expect them to express exactly what happened without an interpreter is nonsense.”

Overall, he felt the story was a “total whitewash, and incredibly superficial”. “The place is a nightmare,” he said, referring to Nauru. “People afraid of being attacked. Children and women are not at all safe there, and they’re not allowed to live there indefinitely. It’s limited visas … They’re still in limbo.

“I was so frustrated with the report.”

One comment in particular drew the ire of many of those Crikey spoke to this morning. Interviewed at some length were Nauru’s President, Baron Waqa, and Justice Minister David Adeang.

Adeang said Nauru was safer than Australia with respect to violent crime, and dismissed the complaints of asylum seekers.

“They have an accident, and claim that a couple of boys beat them up. That hurts us.

“They have relationships. Somebody gets pregnant … They say it’s sexual assault, things like that. That hurts.

“I think it is trying to [influence the] policy of offshore processing, against the Austrian government. It is political.”

The claims refugees are simply lying about being raped shocked George Newhouse, the principal solicitor of the National Justice Project and a frequent legal advocate for asylum seekers.

A Current Affair left some shocking assumptions about women and rape unchallenged,” he said. “David Adeang’s comments about women making up allegations of rape should not have gone unquestioned.

“The Minister for Justice’s assumptions seem to be reflected in the approach of the Nauruan police force to these very serious allegations.”

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Pamela Curr says no one has ever been charged with an assault against a refugee, despite multiple independent reports having uncovered serious evidence of sexual assault, bashings and rapes inside detention centres. She says as long as this is the case, one cannot take the efforts of Nauruan police to ensure the safety of refugees and asylum seekers seriously.

The report, she said, wasn’t as bad as she had feared. “I suspect that the criticism that they had had over the last three days has moderated what they were presenting,” she said. “But there were some issues.”

“The bottom line is that Australians didn’t get an investigative journalists’ view. There were questions that went unanswered.”

One woman, towards the start of the program, said she didn’t want to get married but had been forced to because it was unsafe for her on her own. “I’ve heard that from a lot of women,” Curr said. She added that dozens of single women have been given isolated cabins in the bush, left to fend for themselves with little protection. “Where was that in the ACA report?”

The passing treatment given to serious claims regarding safety by the report was also criticised by independent journalist Karl Mathieson, who snuck into Nauru last year. “[P]oor living conditions and restrictions on movement are not what refugees fear. Their physical and mental safety is the most significant story embroiling Australia’s Nauruan detention regime. Marcus’s report reduced this to a parenthetic ‘there have been reports of sexual assaults’,” he wrote on The Guardian this morning.

In a statement, the Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul said the report was a “very selective, superficial and sanitised” view of Nauru.

On the Daily Telegraph this morning, Marcus herself addressed many of her critics, saying much of the reporting on A Current Affairs report had been filled with “half-truths and flat-out lies” (to be fair, much of it was conjecture — Channel Nine wasn’t answering questions).

She was sympathetic to refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru, saying the place was a “third-world country and not where many of these refugees and asylum seekers were hoping to finish up”:

“Many clearly have mental health issues, though how much of that is triggered by the trauma suffered in the home countries they were fleeing, the perilous journey they took to get there, their unmet expectations and being in detention — or a combination of all of the above — is impossible to know.

“But the biggest grievance, one that’s entirely understandable, seems to be that after three or four years on the island, these people don’t know what their future holds, a permanent option for resettlement yet to be finalised after the failure of the Australian government’s $55 million Cambodia solution.”

But “many average Australians”, she added, were justified to note refugees were well-fed, lived in comfort and were free to move about as they pleased (during the report, ACA noted how refugees protested each day inside the bars of the detention centre, but could actually move in and out if they wished).

Refugee advocates feared the “unsanitised truth” would undermine their cause, Marcus concluded.

“After spending years calling for media outlets to be allowed on the Pacific island to see what’s really going on in offshore detention centres, the left press and refugee activists couldn’t have been more incensed one finally made it on. Why? Because it wasn’t one of their own,” she remarked.

“Those grapes never tasted so sour.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey