The Oldest Trick In The Journalism Playbook


Back in 2013, my editor at New Matilda reported on a rather ridiculous story from Fairfax. It claimed that the small NSW country town Bourke was the most dangerous place on earth. More dangerous than even Iraq and Afghanistan.

As it happens, the story was written by Rachel Olding and Nick Ralston from the Sydney Morning Herald. I’ve had cause to notice the general quality of Ms Olding’s reporting since then, so I thought I’d review the latest striking example of the work she produces.

On March 16, Ms Olding wrote a story under the title “Border Force Counter-Terrorism Unit ramps up efforts to detect potential jihadists trying to leave Australia”. She warned about “The alarming figures from the recently established Border Force Counter-Terrorism Unit”. This would add to the current debate about keeping jihadists in Australia. So what were these “alarming” figures?

Ms Olding reported:

“Counter-terrorism officials are stopping more than 405 people a day at Australian airports as they ramp up efforts to detect potential jihadists slipping out of the country….

Unit teams at eight airports conducted 75,906 "real-time assessments" between August and February, a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said.

The assessments are not random and involve specialist officers pulling suspicious travellers aside and asking them a series of questions to determine their risk to national security.”

So what alarms Ms Olding is that hundreds of people are being stopped every day – and this is about detecting potential jihadists going to fight with ISIS or other terrorist groups in Syria.

Let us review these figures in proper context: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop estimated in February that there were about 215 Australian jihadis: those who had fought or died fighting in Syria or Iraq, those who had their passports cancelled trying to do so, and so on.

If the government has cancelled, suspended or refused to issue about 105 passports – and every day, 405 people are harassed for this purpose – then clearly the government is not acting on particularly precise intelligence in these matters.

If close to 76 000 people have been harassed at airports, when only about 200 are jihadis, and those raids are not random, then what should be “alarming” is the gratuitous incompetence of the counter-terrorism officials Ms Olding takes so seriously.

Yet 75,906 “assessments” are unlikely to have been made on 75,906 distinct people. What these “non-random” people probably have in common is looking Muslim, Arab, or having some kind of profile with ASIO. And in that instance – who knows what might flag their interest? Sympathy for the Palestinians? Opposition to Western foreign policy? Googling Hizb ut Tahrir?

Correcting for her credulous reporting on what the government tells us, Olding’s story amounts to an official admission that Muslims are being harassed at airports (which everyone already knew anyway). All those “random” selections aren’t so random after all. Ms Olding reported that her “alarming figures” would provide “further fuel to the debate over the merits of cancelling passports, preventing travel and keeping jihadists in Australia, where they are ‘ticking time-bombs’.” Get that? Ticking time bombs.

Ms Olding then reported: “The spokeswoman would not say what proportion of the 75,906 suspects were subjected to further action or proven to be travelling to join terrorist groups.” Okay, well, from publicly available information, the answer is about 0.1 per cent, if these officials actually played a role in any of the cancelled passports. But I suppose it would be unreasonable to expect Ms Olding to evaluate what people tell her, rather than uncritically spouting it.

At the end of her article she notes the government “has cancelled more than 100 passports since June 2013.” Which means Ms Olding would know the relevant proportion if she took the time to compare her two numbers. You know, by dividing the small one by the big one.

Nevertheless, Ms Olding still let the anonymous official inform us: “Since their deployment… Counter-Terrorism Unit teams have successfully intercepted a number of people of national security concern”.

Isn’t that inspiring? The counter-terrorism officials harass hundreds of people everyday, very rarely find anyone of interest (and it is not clear if they have indeed caught anyone doing anything wrong – or if those whose passports have been cancelled did anything wrong either)… but Ms Olding still found an anonymous official willing to go on the record and assure us all that they’ve successfully intercepted a “number” of people of “national security concern”.

What exactly is a “national security concern”? It sounds precise, and the kind of thing that relates to terrorism, but it’s vague enough that it could include all kinds of things. Some people might remember an American peace activist called Scott Parkin being summarily expelled from Australia on some supposed “national security” grounds. Though perhaps there was a Rachel Olding at the time to triumphantly report on that expulsion, showing how effective our counter-terrorism programs were.

Ms Olding goes on to report uncritically on the claimed successes of these officials. They “reportedly” stopped “terror suspects”, seized “extremist material” and so on. One can only speculate about what qualifies as “extremist” material these days, and why it is supposedly okay to take such things. Remember that time the Liberals used to talk about their passion for freedom of speech?

Ms Olding also reported that “several” Muslims – like “controversial” Mohammed Junaid Thorne – said Muslims were being harassed. This is framed against her claim: “Australia has narrowly averted several terror plots planned by extremists who wanted to travel overseas but had their passports cancelled.” Whether or not this is true, Ms Olding doesn’t need to qualify this, because she regards it as fact.

Maybe the next exclusive we can expect from Ms Olding is a Minister in the Abbott government boldly assuring us that their government is actually really terrific and does “a number” of really great things.

I myself have never been a great enthusiast for Fairfax. I suspect it’s a matter of time before Ms Olding finds her natural home in a Murdoch outlet. That she has found a home at Fairfax is a depressing reflection of the media landscape in Australia. That these kinds of articles usually escape any critique or even comment is equally depressing.

How is it that some journalists have bright futures. whilst the prognosis for someone like Jake Lynch is bleak?

That, sadly, is Australian political culture in a nutshell.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.