No comment on operations: how Morrison’s media strategy took shape

The secrecy around Operation Sovereign Borders has been widely derided – immigration minister Scott Morrison’s media strategy not least of all. Built on motherhood statements, the withholding of information and tautology, journalists and the public have been infuriated by the lack of information on the fate of asylum seekers.

The deliberate strategy to stonewall reporters appears to have been taken in September 2013. An email dated 10 September 2013 – mere days after the Coalition’s victory in the last federal election – from the director of operations, border protection command, confirms that:

We should not be releasing any information regarding posture, asset details etc inside a timeframe that may impact BPC operations. I do not think we should over-engineer this with multiple considerations. If we are able to take an approach based on the principle and consideration of operational security – we need to be consistent and straight forward.

Therefore, no details about detection; no name of any [customs or navy] asset; no specific location … and no specific timing. Under this rule, we would only release media once [potential irregular immigrants] were transferred ashore (at the earliest) … The fact that people will learn of certain details through Rescue Coordination Centre broadcasts … that does not mean that we greatly exacerbate the problem but (sic) announcing it ourselves. Our line for all current operations should simply be: Border Protection Command does not comment on current operational information.

This strategy, which today Morrison said was put in place by General Angus Campbell, has been rigorously implemented by ministers, their advisers and various government departments.

The OSB media strategy was demonstrated definitively in the response to the now-notorious “burned hands” reports of January, which alleged that asylum seekers were mistreated when a boat was intercepted off the coast of Darwin. Despite the incidents having taken place half a year ago, we still know very little about the internal decision-making process conducted in response to the reports by the department of immigration.

Documents obtained under freedom of information (FOI) laws clearly show that journalists tried to ascertain the substance of the allegations, by lodging various media enquiries. Those enquiries prompted responses in keeping with the official media strategy: publicly, senior members of the government and military strenuously denied allegations of serious mistreatment of asylum seekers by navy personnel.

The FOI documents include an email from a redacted source to “Media Ops”, dated 22 January 2014:

As discussed can I please get a response I (sic) the asylum seeker claims on abc this morning. Eric Abetz is out and about saying it’s too early to say if it happened. Can you also advise of (sic) defence think the asylum seekers may have done it to themselves.

Yet Morrison had said the day before, on 21 January, that he had satisfied himself the allegations were baseless, because he was “assured about the professionalism and the integrity of the conduct of our officers and I have absolutely no reason to doubt it”.

Similarly, in February this year, Tony Abbott launched an attack on the reporting of the mistreatment claims by saying, “If a very serious allegation was being made that Australian Navy personnel effectively tortured people, well you’d think any responsible news outlet, let alone the voice of Australia – the ABC – would have sought corroboration before broadcasting them”.

We already know that corroboration was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Up to that point all that was offered were official denials, moral indignation and confirmation from Campbell that “there is an inside-military & customs services assessment process to look at the question of what we were doing, what we knew, who was engaged – so to essentially create a capacity to characterise whether there’s some substance to allegations”.

That assessment process didn’t extend to interviewing the asylum seekers who made the allegations, which, as international law expert Ben Saul confirmed on 7 February, we are obliged to do under international law.

“Australia has an obligation to impartially investigate allegations of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, to criminally punish perpetrators, and to provide effective remedies (including compensation) to victims,” Saul wrote. “These obligations arise under treaties to which Australia voluntarily committed itself”.

The next day, customs & border protection quickly dismissed Fairfax reports that a fresh inquiry would take place, stating that “No such new inquiry or investigation is underway. The allegations were assessed at the time they were first made and found to be without foundation.”

Almost two weeks later polls were showing that two thirds of Australian voters, including Coalition supporters, wanted an investigation into the claims that asylum seekers’ hands were burned.

Documents released under FOI include “questions and answers” with suggested talking points on the allegations, and a section on “background and chronology” marked “not for public release”. It was cleared on 6 February 2014, and details the standing defence instructions for the reporting and management of notifiable incidents, including for a “quick assessment” (QA). It confirmed that:

On learning of the allegations, Commander Border Protection Command (COMBPC) [Rear Admiral Michael Noonan] – who is dual-hatted as Commander Joint Task Force 639 – directed the Commanding Officer (CO) to conduct a QA into the allegations.

The CO directed an appropriately qualified and experienced officer to conduct the QA. The QA report was submitted to CO… who then reviewed the findings, and made a determination with respect of the findings. Later on the same day, COMBPC reviewed the QA and the determination of the CO and agreed the QA findings and supported the determination made by CO…

COMBPC then informed his operational Commanders, Chief of Joint Operations and Deputy Chief Executive Officer Customs, of the findings of QA and his support for the determination made by CO….

In other words, the documents clearly point to a failure to complete an “impartial investigation into the allegations” in accordance with international law. Significantly, after release through FOI, the documents did not include a copy of the “quick assessment”, the subsequent CO determination, or any correspondence or findings from the COMBPC, Noonan.

I raised this with customs and was informed on 21 May that “Our line area has identified further documents that would have fallen within the scope of your original request”. An internal review was requested and remains ongoing.

In a country that claims adherence to the rule of law, why did we have a “quick assessment”, into the burned hands allegations conducted and supported by officers of the same organisation under investigation? Little wonder that the Australian public wanted a proper, impartial investigation – and still wants to know how asylum seekers are treated.

Now, 153 Tamil asylum seekers are detained on the high seas. As usual, the government applied the OSB media strategy to shroud the matters in secrecy. It’s cruel, but effective: only the high court could eventually prise out the basic factual detail of what’s happening.

Information cannot be contained forever – especially when a fundamental tension is created between the way an anonymous, inhumane organisation operates, and widespread popular disquiet about what is being done. The government’s intense secrecy is an overreach, conducted at the expense of international law, human rights and popular notions of fairness.

Article published on the Guardian Australia

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