Last night, at Mungo MacCullum’s Overland lecture, I asked the journalist a question about the language of fear around asylum seekers: the terminology created at the time of the Howard government that has been adopted into common practice by many journalists.
Specific examples I gave were language about the rising tide or surge of boat people, as opposed to the ‘increase in the arrival of asylum seekers’, reports of vessels being secured and intercepted, rather than boats being met or boarded, and recognition that mandatory detention centres are actually jails.
My question, specifically, was what role journalists, particularly purportedly progressive journalists should play – what responsibility they have, if any – to rewrite this language of fear around the asylum seeker issue.
After acknowledging and condemning the existence of this ‘language of fear’, MacCallum said that journalists are not permitted to paraphrase politicians, and that this language needed to be changed by the ‘people at the top’. The implication, I feel, being that journalists themselves are powerless on the issue.
I respectfully beg to differ. Yes, I acknowledge that the use of terms like ‘mandatory detention’ may be by and large unavoidable until changes in government policy. But although politicians clearly play an integral part in creating and maintaining biased language around refugee issues, it is by and large journalists who normalise these terms into everyday use, far beyond quoting government policy. Here are just a few extracts from reports over the last 12 months on the asylum seeker issue:
…the 26th vessel intercepted this year, its arrival is part of an upward surge in asylum boats…The constant flow of boats has pushed facilities on Christmas Island to breaking point…Since the surge began the detention centre has been progressively expanded…
‘Moving boat people to mainland Australia is inevitable’
The Australian, 22 March 2010
Navy patrol boat HMAS Albany intercepted 49 suspected asylum seekers – thought to be mostly Afghan men – two nautical miles off Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome at about midday yesterday.
‘Rising tide of boatpeople: another vessel lands as Indonesia says it is powerless to help’
The Australian, 16 April 2009
As revealed by the Herald Sun this morning, several hundred boat people are expected to arrive within days aboard two illegal vessels, triggering a mass transfer of refugees from Christmas Island to Darwin as the detention centre off Western Australia reaches capacity…The likely influx will trigger …
The Herald Sun, 16 March 2010
…the people smugglers will continue to flourish and the boat peoplewill continue to jump the immigration queues…the flood will not stop … For each illegal asylum seeker we accept, each one of those poor blighters slips back another place in the queue.
‘Real Victims Sink in the Boat People debacle’
Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2009
So again, I ask, who will step up and create a responsible, and at the very least neutral and legally accurate, language around the asylum seeker issue if journalists refuse, or are unwilling, to dispense with the use these antagonistic ‘hot’ terms in relation to refugees and asylum seekers and their plight? How much longer do we have to open our newspapers to read that ‘An illegal vessel overflowing with boat people was intercepted as it headed for mainland Australia, continuing the upward surge in illegal arrivals’?
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