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Lone media voices keep government bastards honest


New MatildaLast week the independent online news journal New Matilda revealed that the Department of Immigration has a worryingly loose grip on the running of Australia’s immigration detention centres. 

New Matilda published an analysis of the contract signed between the Department and the British company Serco. The contract, which New Matilda obtained under freedom of information laws, shows that Serco is subject to astonishingly low reporting requirements.

The contract also allows Serco to hire untrained guards to handle culturally and psychologically sensitive tasks in work that includes the protection of newly arrived asylum seekers.

Aside from its content, it is significant that the investigation took place at all.

In common with many publishers of serious journalism, New Matilda lacks a reliable funding stream. Last week Crikey publisher Eric Beecher used his submission to the Federal Government’s media inquiry to call for an Australia Council-style funding body to support such independent publishing. He wrote:

Without 'quality journalism', a democratic society would lose its greatest source of independent scrutiny. Most of the exposure of institutional corruption, incompetence or maladministration is the work of reporters and editors.

Matters of national importance are often unreported or glossed over by the major media outlets because they are considered insignificant or difficult. Sometimes a piece of news is genuinely disturbing. It contains more questions than answers and does not fit any of the usual formulas that give the average media consumer a 'feel good' experience.

An example is the report of the Christmas Island boat tragedy of 15 December 2010 that killed at least 30 asylum seekers. The coronial enquiry received scant media coverage, and this lack of scrutiny allowed the Federal Government to ignore it.

Tony Kevin wrote in Eureka Street in May that 'evidence is emerging of moral confusion and a propensity to hide embarrassing facts, within Australia's Border Protection Command system, on its obligations to protect lives' of asylum seekers in Australian waters.

He asked why the Australian Government’s powerful Jindalee Operational Radar Network detected neither the boat involved in the tragedy, nor another boat that left Indonesia on 14 November 2010 whose passengers have never been heard from since. A lone voice, he wrote: 'Suspicion grows that something quite unpleasant is being hidden from us in respect of the loss of these two boats.'

The government got off lightly largely because of the scarcity of media coverage of the complex circumstances surrounding the event. There were a lot of unanswered questions that would potentially occupy a significant amount of journalistic time and resources to produce a report that would hardly be a crowd pleaser.

We might further wonder how likely it is that a government might fund activities that are going to increase scrutiny on its performance. But we can also hope that the same government might have the courage to allow such scrutiny that will strengthen the democracy that is the reason for its existence.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, New Matilda, Tony Kevin, Serco, journalism, Eric Beecher



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Existing comments

"Lone media voices keep government bastards honest" I don't think so. The reverse is more often true. Lone media voices keep government bastards more dishonest - or more devious, or more thick-skinned. The same applies to oppositions too.

Uncle Pat | 14 November 2011  

more taxpayer money going to quality media ,whatever that means ,is totally unnecessary . We already pay for the ABC even though the vast majority do not watch or listen .Let those who want this kind of media pay for it don't burden the rest with the cost .

John crew | 14 November 2011  

John Crew: "Let those who want this kind of media pay for it don't burden the rest with the cost."

Let those who use church schools/ roads/ hospitals/ parks/ libraries/ also pay for them and don't burden the rest of us with the cost?

Frank Golding | 14 November 2011  

Oh dear! Are we now going to regard New Matilda as the pinnacle of journalism in Australia?

Applying for FOI documents is not hard to do.

There is no 'quality journalism' in Australia, none at all.

NM is a trivial e-rag full of boring self-important writers who churn out woefully predictable scibblings.

I used to read it, but it's not worth even having a look these days.

I see no reason why taxpayers should fund NM or anything like that.

If we live in a free market, and rags fail, that is the cost.

What next, taxpayer funding for Quadrant?

I bet there would be no warm feelings for taxpayer funding of anything critical of government?

No, NM is a poor example of 'journalism', and if it dies it's because it's no good.

Harry Wilson | 14 November 2011  

"Let those who want this kind of media pay for it don't burden the rest with the cost" (J.Crew). Yes, let the 'silent majority' be fed processed infotainment masquerading as 'news' so that Murdoch's worldview can continue to dominate the political process.

Mike H | 14 November 2011  

The work (all unpaid) that human rights activists have to engage in to get issues into the media is extraordinary. EG physical & other abuses inside detention. To get the stories out we have to smuggle in phones, drive thousands of km's etc. It has taken TEN months of concerted effort since we first discovered teenage Indon boys being housed in adult prisons without their families or consulate being informed. Ten months to get reasonable coverage in media. Problem: public do not give a shit: that's racist Australia.

Alienation | 15 November 2011  

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