Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media interests include the national broadsheet, are rabidly pro big business, anti working class and racist. The Telegraph particularly is notorious for its lurid page one headlines and biased stories. One of the most infamous was during the so-called SIEV4, (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Number 4). or “children overboard,” incident in October 2001.
The incident involved 223 asylum seekers heading for Australia on board a 25 meter wooden boat, the Olong. The boat had been intercepted by HMAS Adelaide 100 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, a territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean. The Adelaide, on instructions from the Australian government, had earlier fired over the bows of the Olong in an attempt to force it back into international waters.
The Telegraph carried a photo of children in the water, claiming that asylum seekers had thrown their own children overboard, thus endangering their lives.
The obvious implication was that the act was inhuman, and people who did such monstrous things should not be allowed to settle in Australia.
Prime Minister Howard, the Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, the Defence Minister Peter Reith and others, all claimed that the children had been deliberately thrown overboard.
But even cursory examination of the huge photo was enough to show that it had been close cropped. What wasn’t revealed in the photo were the desperate and terrified people floundering in the sea, because the little vessel was sinking fast.
The photo and the accompanying story demonised the asylum seekers and gave a boost to the scare campaign the government had been running on asylum seekers.
Despite the paradox that 25 per cent of Australians were born overseas, immigration, particularly that of asylum seekers, is still used as a dog whistle issue by the major political parties to gain the racist vote.
In the few short weeks leading up to the election the Howard government used the “children overboard” lie to demonstrate that they were strong on so-called “border protection”. It was re-elected with an increased majority.A Senate select committee, composed mainly of non-government senators, was called in February 2002 to inquiry into ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’. It found that no children were thrown overboard from SIEV 4, and that there was no evidence to support the Children Overboard claim. Its report revealed that the photographs claiming to show children thrown into the sea were taken after SIEV 4 sank.
Three years after the event, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke said nothing had disfigured Australia’s political landscape like the Howard government’s dishonesty over the children overboard affair. Howard had told an “almost endless” list of lies, but those about children overboard were the worst, he said. “The lie had created a climate of hatred towards asylum seekers”. “Nothing, I believe, more despicable in dishonesty has ever disfigured the political landscape of this country,” he said.
Such grandstanding by Hawke, who as PM used Australian military aircraft in 1989 to break a strike of airline pilots, to the benefit of, among others, his mate Rupert Murdoch,who had extensive interests in the industry, is ironic considering the current Labor Government’s record on asylum seekers. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has followed Howard’s lead in demonstrating that she too is tough on “border protection”.
Recently (July 2011) the government reached a deal with Malaysia, a country that has a record of brutality towards asylum seekers, in which 800 boat arrivals in Australian waters around Christmas Island will be sent to Malaysia over the next four years in return for the settlement in Australia of 4000 refugees from Malaysia. No one knows how long those sent to Malaysia will be held their while waiting to be processed. This, it is claimed, is a blow against so-called people smugglers.
The Malaysia agreement is a denial of a decision at the last national conference of the Australian Labor Party that said all asylum seekers must be processed on Australian territory.
Derek Mortimer is an Australian journalist, writer and trade unionist.