Thursday, 30 January 2014

Island of Stories

Written by

The media outrage about the cost of a journalist’s visa to Nauru seems entirely justified, until you take a closer look at the media’s use of journalist’s visas for Nauru.

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space

- Shakespeare, Hamlet

Recently in The Global Mail, Nick Olle noted that one of his colleagues was going to be charged $8000 for a journalist’s visa to visit Nauru. The fee is not refundable if the visa is refused. It is believed to be one of the world’s most expensive visas. It provoked much consternation in the media when this news first came out, but there are two clues in Olle’s article as to why they needn’t have bothered:

... making it prohibitively expensive for the media to report from the Pacific island republic where Australia now detains hundreds of asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Really? How expensive is it for media outlets to station Australian correspondents in London, a location well served by media outlets and where a case for a distinctively Aussie voice is hard to make. If The Global Mail finds a business expense of $8k “prohibitive” then maybe its future is dimmer than one might hope.

Australia detained thousands of asylum-seekers on Nauru from 2001 to 2008, and again since 2012. It had been an Australian dependency for decades: politically that ended in 1968 but economically it has never not been the case. The country has a matrilineal social system. The most popular sport on the island is Australian Rules football. Why there wasn’t at least one, just one Australian reporter, stationed there during that time, is an indictment of the initiative of Australia’s media.

One reporter experimenting with quadcopter-mounted cameras, getting to know staff and suppliers at the detention centre, observing flights into and out of there – and observing the proceedings of the Nauruan Parliament – might have reported a great deal and vindicated old-school journalism in the process.

According to Mr Stephen, Nauru’s top visa officer, only “three or four” media visas were granted in 2013 ... two of them were for a US media outlet reporting on diabetes in Nauru.

The diabetes angle is not unimportant, given that Nauruans are the world’s most obese people and accordingly have a very high incidence of Type 2 diabetes. Australia is not far behind on either of these rankings and could well learn much from and offer much to such a place.

Nauru had developed a reputation for money laundering in the recent past, and a journo with a bit of finance and IT knowledge could still get some big stories. Before the Nauruan government lifted its game in the period 2003-05, those stories might have been bigger and hotter. Oh well.

Back in 2013 the cost of a Nauruan journalist visa was $200. Journalists could’ve been more productive there than, say, writing another innuendo-laden but low-fact report on that AWU slush fund. Back in 2003-05 the visa was even cheaper, and still only 3-4 hours from Sydney or Brisbane. We’re supposed to feel sorry for poor old media outlets grappling with technology, but it seems they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In the olden days trainee journalists were taught how to touch-type and take Pitman shorthand. They assembled information-intensive but low-news-priority items on court reports, shipping news, even vice-regal notices. Some journalists look back on that work with rosy nostalgia and disdain today’s university-educated young journos, and with them important information-age skills like being able to dissect a budget or whack up a database.

These days, a stint on Nauru would be the very sort of posting that would make (or, admittedly, break) a young journalist. For a slightly more experienced journalist who remains more committed to their career than their employer was to them, eight grand could be quite the investment.

Now Nauru has effectively done away with its legal system, which means that judicial functions are now to be exercised by its executive and legislative government. When Australia began to send asylum-seekers to Nauru in 2001, and again in 2012, Foreign Ministers Downer and Smith insisted that Nauru was a suitable destination because it operated under the rule of law. This is no longer the case, yet the asylum-seeker arrangement has not yet been invalidated.

For Australian journalists – particularly those in the Canberra press gallery – to moan about a visa for a country they were happy to talk about but never visit is absurd. It certainly puts into perspective their half-hearted push for a plush new aeroplane to ferry them about – one which is almost guaranteed never, ever to visit Nauru.

Andrew Elder

Andrew Elder has made a full recovery from being an active Liberal and now analyses media and politics at Politically Homeless

Follow him on twitter: @awelder