What stands in the way of moderating Australia’s hard-line deportation of New Zealanders? “The risk of paedophiles!” Why can’t medivac legislation be left well enough alone? “Murderers, rapists, terrorists!” Why are Five Eyes authorities demanding that tech platforms allow them to hack encrypted messages? “Online child sexual exploitation!”

The common thread? Our very own Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton. He’s picked up the danger of child abuse and sexual assault and weaponised it in support of increased security powers and tougher borders. It works because the media amplify his claims — usually uncritically. (It’s ruining international relationships, Crikey noted recently.)

Of course, sexual assault and child abuse should be a government priority. There’s a whole royal commission’s worth of ideas to be worked through, and a National Office for Child Safety set up to do it.

But when it comes to security and borders, it’s a right-wing talking point, long legitimised by Trump’s 2016 campaign launch where he said of Mexican migrants: “They are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Like all talking points, it’s designed to mislead. It hacks the media with a tabloid precision, on an understanding that nothing is more guaranteed to be reported than crime, sex and government action. Nothing is less likely to get push-back than claims of child abuse. Even critiquing it as a talking point feels uncomfortable. It appeals directly to the aging demographic fearful of the modern world that reads the News Corp papers, listens to Macquarie Radio, watches commercial TV news and votes conservative.

So just last week The Australian prominently reported “Five Eyes nations target tech titans on child sex abuse”. Similarly, in mid-June, Dutton responded to NZ PM Jacinda Ardern’s call to stop deportations: “Where people are sexually offending against children, for example, we have had a big push to try to deport those paedophiles and people who have committed those crimes.” He was rewarded with grabs on the evening news.

And back at the height of the medivac brouhaha in February, Dutton was on 2GB telling Ray Hadley the law would let murderers, rapists and paedophiles into the country.

There has been some push-back from journalists. On Insiders in February, for example, Barrie Cassidy forensically questioned Attorney-General Christian Porter for details on the medivac claims, questioning both the scale and reality of the allegation. However, even challenging the talking point risks amplifying it.

Too often journalists act as if they are just the microphone. But journalists make decisions every day about what they report and how they report it. 

Hard as a talking point can be to resist — particularly when crafted to appeal to the tabloid sensibilities that underpin much of “newsworthiness” — ignoring them can more often than not contribute to the “truth” than repeating them. Sure, Dutton rejected Ardern’s request — that’s news. But the sly innuendo of his comment concealed more than it added. 

The craft debate is more advanced in the United States where they’re dealing with Trump and his daily tweets. As The Los Angeles Times editorialised last month: “We shouldn’t rise to his bait, but how can we not?”

Journalists can discredit the talking point by calling it out (to be honest that’s what I’m trying to do here). This can speed up its natural life-span as, for example, “the paedophile” has replaced “the terrorist” as monster-under-the bed of choice.

Another is to challenge it with facts, every time. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan suggests a “truth sandwich” putting the spin between two layers of reality: “Avoid retelling the lies. Avoid putting them in headlines, leads or tweets.”

NYU professor Jay Rosen suggests if you can’t “ignore the toddler” then report the talking points as the gaslighting they usually are (perhaps with a specialised team), rather than taking them at face value.

In Data & Society’s The Oxygen of Amplification report, Whitney Phillips says the media needs to have policies to deal with “objectively false information” including political manipulation. Most importantly, ask: is there really something worth learning from reporting (and debunking) this claim?

It’s been reporting by journalists that put child abuse (particularly institutional abuse) into public debate. Now, journalists need to prevent it being used to restrain important reporting about digital security and border control.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey