Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
It's been a week since the ABC first aired allegations by would-be asylum seekers that they had been, in effect, tortured by the Australian navy.
As you would expect, the claims have beens vehemently denied.
Just as predictably, the government and its supporters have expressed the view that the ABC should never have aired them in the first place. In one of its all-too-regular Auntie-bashing editorials, The Australian accused it last week of a “beat-up”, and of publishing “terribly discredited mistreatment claims” in the grip of a “juvenile frenzy”.
So it's worth going over who said what, and when, in some detail.
On January 8, the ABC reported that asylum seekers from Sudan and Somalia were claiming that the Australian navy had towed their boats from an island near Darwin to the Indonesian island of Rote.
The main emphasis of the report was on the tow-back claim, because the government has refused to confirm or deny whether it was actually towing boats back.
But the ABC did air allegations of ill-treatment by the navy, made in telephone interviews from Kupang in West Timor. “They beat them,” claimed one asylum seeker. “They punch all people,” claimed another.
The ABC, as far as I can determine, carried no reports back then about burnt hands.
The next morning, January 9, Fairfax Media and Seven News carried similar claims, repeated to their own reporters. “Handcuffed, thrown to the floor and beaten”, Seven News reported.
Fairfax newspapers went further. “Bashka Ibrahim Nooris and Ahmed Ali Noor, from Somalia, said they had been made to put their hands on the boat's muffler, which was hot,” they reported.
"Rote Island police chief Hidayat told Fairfax Media: 'We did see burn injuries on their palm.'”
In the face of emphatic denials by the ADF and the government, the story died. What brought it back to life was the acquisition by the ABC's Jakarta correspondent George Roberts – from whom, he has never said – of footage of asylum seekers being examined at a police clinic in Kupang, and dramatic still photographs of their severely burnt hands.
Last Wednesday, from early morning onwards, the ABC went big with the story. As well as reporting the physical evidence of burns, Roberts told listeners to AM that morning: “The local police chief backs the asylum seekers' story that the Australian navy made them hold on to a hot engine pipe.”
That's a claim that Roberts hasn't been able to support, and hasn't repeated.
The most that chief detective Sam Kawengian has done on the record is to confirm that the asylum seekers have made such claims, and state that in his view they should be investigated by someone.
That exaggeration aside, Roberts' reporting has been sober and factual – in my view.
But not in Scott Morrison's. He responded later that day with a full-blooded counter-attack.
"The Australian government is not going to put up with people sledging the Australian navy with unsubstantiated claims … without evidence … without facts to back them up.”
When it was put to him that clearly burns had been inflicted somehow on at least some asylum seekers, Morrison didn't accept even that.
"I think the mere publication of things that are clearly so unsubstantiated is very unfortunate," he said.
But neither Morrison, nor the ADF, has laid any facts of their own on the table. Hamstrung by their determination not to admit that boats have been towed back, they have been reduced to discreetly briefing their friends in the media and elsewhere.
“The Australian has been told two of the asylum seekers already had burns when the navy picked them up,”reported Paul Maley and Peter Alford in The Oz on Thursday morning – a fact no one else seems to have been told.
And on Friday, in a piece that dutifully reported “the rising tide of criticism” of the ABC, The Australian's Nick Leys and Brendan Nicholson added this tidbit, gleaned from Neil James of the Australian Defence Association: “Mr James added that when the Australians arrived at the scene, the engine of the asylum-seeker boat was already cold.”
How does James know that? If he can be told, why can't we?
The suffocating shroud of secrecy that has been cast over the navy's operations in recent months is nothing new. During the Tampa election in 2001 – and indeed for months before and after it - defence media relations could tell journalists nothing at all about naval operations to counter the boats: everything was funnelled through the defence minister's office, just as it is now through Scott Morrison's.
That's how the “kids overboard” furphy originated, and remained uncorrected for weeks. Let's remember that the truth came out in the end, days before the election in November 2001, thanks first and foremost to The Australian.
Like almost everyone else, I find the notion that members of the Australian navy would deliberately inflict agonising pain on helpless civilians very hard indeed to believe. But so is the notion that would-be asylum seekers would inflict this kind of pain on themselves at the behest of scheming people smugglers.
No doubt there is an explanation for those burns – probably one that the navy could readily give us, if it were allowed to. But there is no way that I can see that the ABC could have ignored the evidence of injury, and the allegations surrounding them.
Rather than yet more ABC-bashing, perhaps The Australian could echo the call of its News Corp stablemate.
Back on January 8 – the day this story first broke - The Herald Sun editorialised: “Let's put an end to secrecy on the high seas.”
Jonathan Holmes is an Age columnist and a former presenter of ABC TV's Media Watch program.