(Image: AAP/James Ross)

If “good” journalism is reporting with impact — journalism that changes public policy for the better — then Australia’s media is still a long way short of the journalism we need about asylum seekers.

We’re now 18 years on from that moment when MV Tampa steamed into our public debate and re-made Australian politics. Yet, as we saw with the reporting of the Biloela asylum seeker family’s threatened deportation, journalism is struggling to make a practical difference to the policy residue left in Tampa’s wake.

It’s not for want of trying. There’s been some terrific reporting, including by asylum seeker and journalist Behrouz Boochani. But the lack of impact is because the media’s offering on asylum seekers is falling flat with the ageing white demographic — the “grumpy old men” cohort that both consumes traditional media and has delivered government to the conservatives in most elections since Tampa.

It’s not the first time the traditional media has been out of step with its audience. Back in 2001, a News Corp editor confided in me that the tabloids were initially sympathetic to the refugees (they seemed to be “battlers” after all) but were overrun with hostility from their readers.

New Corp pivoted and has continued as the “stop the boats” media voice and the destination of choice for government drops on otherwise confidential “on-water” matters.

It happened again this month with the “exclusive” drop to News Corp to blunt media support for the Biloela family. The Australian splashed the claim across its front page in two decks and six columns: “Sri Lankan boat surge: sixth asylum bid halted”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged that the release of usually confidential information was all about marketing. It was designed to derail the challenge to the government from the default approach by journalists to complex public policy: find a human face with a sympathetic lived experience that can stand in for the whole picture at a scale that can be readily understood by the community at large.

The more sympathetic the case, the more it can be made to look like something that could happen to you or me, the greater the impact. It appeared to be working for the Biloela family, who ticked all the right boxes — particularly for commercial television news: loving family, two photogenic Australian-born children, an almost quintessentially Queensland country town, blue-collar meat worker, community volunteer, strong community support.

Even as reliable a government ally as Alan Jones picked up the baton, assuring the government that it could safely make a humanitarian exception without damage to its hard-line policy.

The reporting demonstrated again that the natural empathy generated by the humanity of an individual family makes journalists inherently sympathetic to asylum seekers.

Only the most purist conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt or Ray Hadley sustained the government line that the Biloela family were an existential threat to the mantra of “we decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come”.

The government was keen to get the family out of sight. On Christmas Island, the government could hack journalistic practice — with the willing support of conservative media — to damage the family with sensational claims they knew the media would not be able to resist reporting. They’re costing millions! Look: “anchor babies”!

Judging by social media and talkback radio, the government was pushing on an open door with its target demographic. Anthony Albanese copped a Newspoll hammering for suggesting Australian politics could do with some nuance in the boats hysteria.

Much of the media took that Newspoll outcome as an endorsement of asylum seeker policy. Just like the major parties, they need to hang on to that ageing demographic. As viewers and readers decline, as younger and diverse demographics abandon broadcast television and news, traditional media have to work harder to hang on to the audience they’ve got — even if that means maintaining their decades-long asylum seeker rage at the expense of journalism with impact.

Disagree? Let us know what you think of the media’s coverage of asylum seekers: [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey