THE media does not mean to distort. The vast bulk of journalists honestly try to get it right.
Indeed, when you look convictions for dishonesty and corruption, journalists do not feature much. But the media does distort. And the distortion costs Australian society dearly in the way of poor policy making by politicians who cannot help but keep a warier eye on the ballot box than the overall long-term public good.
Another example this week illustrates the strange phenomenon of the media distorting while the practitioners are by and large a fairly honest and truthful lot – certainly no less so than people in the community at large.
The example is the 78 Sri Lankan refugees. They have instilled fear and loathing among many Australians. Politicians know the fear Australians have by being “swamped by Asians” arriving in boats on our unprotected and unprotectable vast and lonely coastline.
The fate of the 78 refugees has filled the airwaves, the newspapers and the internet. They are newsworthy. And newsworthiness blots out information.
A leaky boat filled with refugees on the ocean is an image that can dominate Page One or the opening of a news bulletin. And the story gets top billing because it pulls at emotions: fear in many and sympathy. Emotions and imagery drive news, and therefore drive policy.
Information and facts are almost ignored. But what is the real picture?
In the two years of the Rudd Government fewer than 40 boats have arrived containing fewer than 1800 people. Literally a drop in the ocean – less than half a percent of the total number of people migrating to Australia in that time.
This compares to 47,000 people in Australia now who have overstayed their visas.
But people overstaying visas to not make for dramatic news pictures. There are no images and no emotions of fear aroused. So policy-makers can pay less attention to them.
But politicians have to react to news imagery and the fear it engenders, and they do so with a vengeance.
The latest figures (9 October 2009) show that of the 47,000 visa overstayers, just 131 are in detention.
Come by boat, though, and you are locked up disproportionately – almost all of them initially and many for a long time. Even so, the “problem” is drastically over-stated. Fewer than 1000 people are in immigration detention centres – three quarters on Christmas Island – you know, where media images and legal and medical help are harder to come by. Another 300 are under restricted-movement regimes.
Irrational fear is part of the human condition. We fear the shark in the water but the greater risk of death or injury comes from driving to the beach.
Politicians understand voters’ fears and when they are not exploiting them they are desperately trying to manage them.
The fear and dread engendered by 78 helpless refugees in a boat is out of all proportion to the risk.
They were picked up by an Australian boat and should be brought to Australia and processed here. And to the mainland, not Christmas Island which in effect is a giant prison which gives the lie to the Government’s position that no children are “behind razor wire”. They may as well be, given the conditions on Christmas Island. Seventy-nine children are detained on Christmas Island. And they are detained — like the prisoners on Devil’s Island or Norfolk Island who were “free” to move about provided they did not leave the island.
But what is the real risk to Australia from people arriving on our shores? (The motor deaths not the sharks.) The 1800 people who have arrived on boats in the past two years pose precious little risk – other than perhaps a dangerous erosion in our international reputation if we do not treat them decently.
Rather the real risk to Australian standards of living and way of life come from the excessive number (more than 600,000) of people who have come here as migrants in the past two years.
In the same week Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ordered the Australia Customs boat to take the 78 refugees to some hellish camp in Indonesia he said on the 7.30 Report: “I actually believe in a big Australia. I actually think it is good news that our population is growing. It is good for national security long-term. It is good for what we can sustain as a nation.”
He was expressing satisfaction with the prospect of an Australian population of 35 million in 40 years time. Even the businesspeople at the big end of town who might profit financially from it will be worse off as the environment deteriorates.
Then just a few days afterwards he told the Business Council of Australia: “We must now move forward to tackle the three key challenges of the future for our major cities: building productive cities – with efficient transport and communications networks; building affordable, liveable city communities; and building sustainable cities.”
How can the cities be more liveable, affordable or sustainable when they are tuning into crowded, expensive, unworkable, horrible places to live with ever high water and energy costs because of too-high immigration. And this week public servants were told they would have to squeeze into less space because of the costs in our over-populated cities.
Most of the “challenges” Rudd cites could be overcome with a sensible population policy.
Instead we steal the few educated and trained people from the Third World and pander to business lobbies for ever higher population.
Australia’s immigration and population policies are riddled with inconsistency, long-term folly and inhumanity.
The only explanation is the Government’s desire to keep the party coffers full and not to upset voters motivated by the worst visceral reaction to the plight of refugees – all driven by the distorting effect of what makes news.
This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 31 October 2009.