Cover up and secrecy in Abbott’s Australia

PM pans ‘unpatriotic’ national broadcaster for holding govt accountable to its electorate.

Abbott has accused the national broadcaster of being unpatriotic [AFP]

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has something in common with Egypt’s military government – he expects the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation to be a cheerleader for the country and decries the reporting of stories which portray Australia negatively.

But while the Egyptian government has jailed Al Jazeera journalists  for making Egypt look bad, Abbott has to find other methods of curtailing criticism.

The ABC recently published allegations by asylum seekers who attempted to enter Australia by boat that they were physically abused by Navy personnel who towed or turned their boat back to Indonesia.

Last week, Abbott, leader of the Liberal party, accused the national broadcaster, affectionately known as “Aunty”, of being unpatriotic. Foreign Minister and deputy leader Julie Bishop also suggested the ABC was failing to live up to its charter, which she wrongly says requires it to promote Australia.

This was quickly followed by the announcement of an “efficiency review” into ABC operations and fellow government-funded channel the Special Broadcasting Service.

While the stations’ editorial policies and quality of broadcasts are off limits to the review, it is clearly retaliation for questioning the government and forcing it to be accountable to its electorate. 

Abbott vs Aunty

This is the latest in a series of government attacks on the ABC, the strongest news organisation in Australia which best scrutinises governments. All governments, not just right-wing ones, such as Abbott’s.

In November the ABC and The Guardian jointly revealed Australian intelligence tapped the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and other government members. The revelation came from material leaked by United States National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Relations between Australian and Indonesia subsequently thawed – which Abbott and Bishop blamed on the reports of the spying, of course, rather than the spying itself.

Abbott and his colleagues have criticised the ABC’s editorial judgement in publishing the story. They see the reports as proof of what ultra-conservative elements have long whinged – that the ABC is left-leaning, and therefore out to get them.

In a radio interview on Tuesday with Ray Hadley, Abbott reiterated his criticism of the spying and other stories and accused the ABC of being unpatriotic, saying it “instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s”.

When asked if he was one of those people, Abbott responded: “Well I was very worried and concerned a few months back when the ABC seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor. Of course the ABC didn’t just report what he said, they took the lead in advertising what he said and that was a deep concern.”

On the ABC reports of asylum seekers’ claims that their hands were burnt by Navy personnel, Abbott said: “If there’s credible evidence the ABC, like all other news organisations, is entitled to report it, but … you shouldn’t leap to be critical of your own country and you certainly ought to be prepared to give the Australian Navy and its hard-working personnel the benefit of the doubt. I think it dismays Australia when our national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own. You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team.”

What Abbott really means is the ABC should back off his government.

In the same interview, Hadley brought up opposition to the government’s reinstatement of an authority that monitored the building industry and its links with criminal groups, and which the former Labor government disbanded.

Hadley – the kind of provocative talk-back radio presenter known as a “shock jock” – questioned whether the leftist Labor and Greens parties were supportive of ”the bikies and the thugs or decent and fair people”, to which the Prime Minister replied, ”Exactly right, whose side are they on? Are they on the side of getting to the bottom of this, or do they want to support a culture of cover up? And this is a very serious question for the Leader of the Opposition.”

It is a serious question indeed, but not one the prime minister wants asked of him. He is not only comfortable with a culture of cover up in his government, it’s a culture he’s engendering with increasing fanatacism.

And this government’s fondness for secrecy is raising tempers.

Secrecy and lack of transparency

The Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refuses to release information about the ludicrously-titled Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led border security operation involving several federal government agencies.

Morrison held weekly “briefings” on the progress of the government’s war on asylum seeker boat arrivals until he recently chose to instead issue written statements on a “need-to-know” basis, with no opportunity for questions to be asked. He claims he is withholding information about the operation’s activities in the public interest.

But members of the Australian Senate think otherwise, in December referring the claim of public interest immunity to a Senate inquiry, which held a public hearing on January 31.

The refusal to detail how many boats have made the attempt for Australia for security reasons is comically contradictory to the Liberal-National Coalition’s position during last year’s federal election, when they erected a billboard bleating the number of boat arrivals under the Labor government.

In the wake of allegations aired by the ABC by a Somali man who says he was pepper-sprayed in the eyes by sailors and then burnt his hands falling on hot engine parts, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called on the government to release Navy video shot at the time.

While the government and Navy have denied this and other claims, they will not release the video. Instead Morrison complains about ”unsubstantiated allegations and claims” that are responsible for the ”murkiness” surrounding Operations Sovereign Borders.

There is increasing murkiness surrounding the entire matter of the welfare of asylum seekers.

The cost of a journalist visa for Nauru, an island where asylum seekers are held in detention, recently increased from $200 to $8,000 – something Abbott’s government of course says was entirely the choice of the Nauru government.

Human Rights Watch says Australia’s refugee policies are damaging the country’s reputation, while Amnesty International says asylum seekers are being held in squalid and inhumane conditions.

But criticising or questioning the policies that put these refugees in indefinite detention will only draw censure from Abbott, whose rhetoric is taking on the tone of former US President George Bush’s in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks – you’re either with us or against us.

But criticising or questioning the policies that put these refugees in indefinite detention will only draw censure from Abbott, whose rhetoric is taking on the tone of former US President George Bush’s in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks – you’re either with us or against us.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was quoted by The Guardian newspaper as saying she had “concerns about the quality of the programming (at the ABC) and whether it is meeting the goal of promoting Australia’s interests overseas”.

“It is meant to be a tool of public diplomacy and I am concerned by the level of negative feedback I receive from overseas,” Bishop said.

The Foreign Minister and the federal government are also meant to be tools of public diplomacy, yet she and Abbott are doing a fine job of creating negative feedback about Australia without the help of the ABC.

Abbott’s and Bishop’s view of the ABC is one not shared by the vast majority of Australians. More than 90 percent of people think the evening news is balanced and even-handed, and 87 percent think the same of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programme 7.30.

Moves to cut Aunty’s budget would displease the 85 percent of Australians who think the ABC as a whole provides a valuable service to the community. A strong media that questions, analyses and criticises government failings and abuses is a benefit to Australia, not something that goes against the national interest.

The ABC is uniquely placed to do this because it is not beholden to commercial interests. Rather than leading the day’s news with a story about Justin Bieber, because that will generate the largest audience, Aunty tells people what they need to know.

If the government wants Australia to be seen favourably by the international community, it could start by acting compassionately towards the displaced and dispossesed. Or, at the very least, not jailing those who risk their lives trying to reach Australia’s shores.

Fiona Broom is a freelance journalist. She previously reported on legal, political and multicultural issues for Australian newspapers.