Alarmist Images: As part of the Australian Government's effort to undermine Jacinda Ardern's outreach to Manus Island refugees, Australian Intelligence (oxymoron?) sources claim to have recorded a "spike" in people smugglers' attempts to land asylum seekers on Australian shores. These claims have been illustrated with images of boat-people headed for "Newsland". Few of those absorbing these images will realise they are 7 years old!
IS IT REAL NEWS, or fake news? In the end, it all comes down to sources. The people and the institutions we most trust, are the people and the institutions we most believe.
For those who lived through the Second World War, the words “London calling! London calling!”, which prefaced the BBC World Service’s news broadcasts, signalled accuracy, reliability and dignity in a world awash with bombastic propaganda.
President Donald Trump’s followers place their faith in the “fair and balanced” reporting of Fox News. His opponents rely on the Washington Post, whose intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, covered the Watergate break-in and contributed to the fall of President Richard Nixon.
Why were Woodward and Bernstein so sure of their ground? Because their most valuable anonymous source – “Deep Throat” – was none other than Mark Felt, the Associate-Director of the FBI! Good sources make for good stories. The rule is as old as journalism.
What, then, should we make of the latest stories, sourced to “Australian Intelligence”, of a “spike” in the number of “boat people” intercepted en route to Australia and, allegedly, New Zealand? Are such reports to be taken seriously? And should the National Party Opposition really be using them as a stick against Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the Manus Island refugee crisis? Just how good a look is it to rely upon leaks from a foreign government, in order to have a crack at your own?
The first thing to observe about these “intelligence” leaks is that they shouldn’t be happening. Just recall the repeated, blank-faced refusals of Helen Clark and John Key to share even the tiniest scraps of “operational” intelligence with the New Zealand news media. Even when the details of New Zealand’s involvement in special forces operations overseas were published in foreign newspapers, the politicians remained tight-lipped. As for the directors of our own intelligence agencies: the SIS and the GCSB; their mouths appear to have been sewn shut!
Which can only mean that “Australian Intelligence” is leaking information to the Australian and New Zealand news media under instruction and on purpose. Which immediately raises the question: What can that purpose be?
Before we attempt to answer that question, however, there are one or two other things to note about these Australian Intelligence-sourced stories. The most important of these is a disturbing lack of detail. Apart from the improbably precise figure of 164 intercepted asylum seekers, New Zealanders have been given precious little in the way of incontrovertible evidence.
The Royal Australian Navy and its Coast Guard are equipped with multiple video cameras to record any and every interception in Australian waters. If a small flotilla of “boat people” had indeed put to sea, inspired by Jacinda Ardern’s international displays of compassion, then it would be a straightforward matter to release the video recordings of its interception to the news media. What better way to make the Aussie Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s case, than to record an asylum seeker naming New Zealand’s prime minister as the reason she and her children are risking their lives in a leaky boat?
What we have been shown, instead, is a seven-year-old photograph showing Sri Lankan refugees displaying a sign which reads: “We like to go to NEWSLAND.” Interesting, but hardly relevant to the situation in 2018!
This promiscuous mixing of dated imagery, emotive language, and uncorroborated assertion is almost always evidence of an unreliable source. Which raises, once again, the question of whether or not there is any method to the Australians’ madness? Why is the Turnbull Government persisting in its attacks on New Zealand’s new prime minister?
The most probable cause of this spike in Australian pique is the deteriorating situation on Manus Island. There, the already deplorable conditions into which hundreds of male asylum-seekers were pitched, following the forcible closure of the New Guinea government-owned (but Australian government-controlled) detention centre, have continued to deteriorate.
The Turnbull Government’s latest leaks would, therefore, appear to be pre-emptive in intent. If Manus erupts in riotous violence, attracting global scrutiny and condemnation, as well as a reiteration of New Zealand’s willingness to take at least 150 of the refugees trapped on the island, then the Liberal-National Government has primed its trans-Tasman soulmates in the National Party to step forward and entertain Kiwi voters with “Australian Intelligence’s” grim fairy tales.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 January 2018.