Picture via The Wheeler Centre, which has podcasted this session

Michelle Guthrie’s speech may have snared the headlines, but if it was fireworks you were after, the best place to be in Melbourne last Friday was at the New News session on refugee reporting, which pitted The Australian’s Chris Kenny against New Matilda’s Wendy Bacon and The Guardian’s Paul Farrell.

All three reporters have focussed on Nauru in their writing, though only Kenny has actually had the opportunity to visit the island and observe conditions there firsthand. Kenny is a supporter of the concept of offshore detention, though he advocates greater transparency about what is going on in Nauru, which he thinks would ease people’s fears about what is being done in their name. Farrell and Bacon have written extensively on the abuses and dysfunction of Australia’s offshore detention policies. Both Kenny and Bacon have in the past given comments to the effect that each does not consider the other a serious reporter. Last Friday, Bacon said that Kenny, one of only two Australian journalists to be granted a visa to report on Nauru in recent years, didn’t do the research or have the experience to look beneath the surface.

“Why is it that you as a journalist could go there and not hear any of the stories that doctors, caseworkers, other workers observed? Why is it that you as a journalist, that you missed that,” Bacon asked Kenny. She said if she had gone to Nauru, she would have prepared herself.

“I would have talked to caseworkers, the nurses, the lawyers of the women, people like Pamela Curr at the Refugee Resource Centre, I would have prepared myself to prepare those people to trust me. That’s the professional thing to do … I think you lack the perspective and the experience to go there and do the job that needed to be done.”

Kenny, meanwhile, fired back by referring to Bacon’s “activist” background.

“We’ve gotten to the nub of this point. I could have stayed away from this gathering, and you could have stayed here telling yourselves what a horrible country we live in and how we’re raping and torturing and assaulting people on Nauru, and you could have been left to your conspiracy theories. Instead I came here and shared my experiences. And Wendy [Bacon] doesn’t like the fact that someone who is not an activist on this issue got to go to Nauru.”

“Wendy, you’re an activist. You’re an absolute activist on this issue. Me, I went there and saw what I could see.”

If Kenny had any supporters in the room, they were certainly quieter than the sceptics. Facing a rowdy crowd, Kenny dismissed questions about whether he had paid the non-refundable $8000 fee other reporters have paid to access Nauru.

“I don’t know about the fee. I got the visa, I went in. If there was a visa fee my employer would have played it.” Continuing questions on the specifics of Kenny’s visit, he said, “was a classic case of diverting from the issue”.

On visiting Nauru, he said he had maintained an interest in refugee policy since his time working in politics, and figured that given his political background he might be allowed in — he thought it worth a shot.

“I figured, given my background [in media and politics], given my knowledge, given I was on the public record as not being antithetic to this particular policy, then I just might be able to get in,” he said of his initial discussions with those in Australian politics about visiting Nauru.

Much of the session was spent with Farrell and Bacon trying to convince Kenny of the bad conditions on Nauru, for which they cited the work of whistleblowers as well as documentary evidence from court cases both on Nauru and Australia as to conditions. Kenny said that as you would expect with refugees, there was an undeniable legacy of trauma with many of those on Nauru. But he said the important question was whether or not new trauma was being inflicted by the Australian and Nauruan government — a claim he was largely dismissive of.

He said children were the focus of much of the reporting on refugees on Nauru, but said in his experience most children on Nauru were happy. “They have access to schools, they are living with their parents, they are living in a beautiful climate,” he said, to startled interjections from the audience. “The people who I am most concerned about on Nauru are the parents and the young adults who are facing incredible torment about the limbo they are stuck in.”

Kenny took aim at the broader reporting establishment, which he said was largely antagonistic to off-shore processing. It was a claim moderator Jim Middleton, of Sky News, didn’t take kindly to. “By the way, I would defy you what I determine from my reporting what I think of a particular policy,” he said to Kenny in closing statements. Kenny said that all journalists had views on policies. “The difference with me is I’m upfront and open … I support off-shore processing, but that won’t colour my views.”

The event concluded with Kenny congratulating Farrell on The Guardian’s Nauru papers scoop, which he figured would probably get a Walkley. It was a conciliatory sentiment after a combative hour. Shortly after the panel stood down, Kenny was spotted making a speedy escape.

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