Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
More than 40 years ago, the biggest political scandal in the history of the United States inspired a well-worn aphorism: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that gets you.”
If there’s one thing the Watergate scandal of 1972 taught us, it’s that cover-ups, evasiveness, silence and denials almost always end in tears.
That’s because the media – and the public that they serve - hate mysteries. If they think somebody is stonewalling them, or lying, they'll dig deeper to unearth the truth.
That’s why it’s alarming that, since taking office in September, the Australian Government has decided to impose a dangerous media blackout on the number of asylum-seeker arrivals entering Australian waters.
Despite holding a weekly* press conference to update the media on illegal boat arrivals, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison continually refuses to answer the most basic questions about asylum seekers, effectively shutting off the flow of information to the media and the Australian public.
Here’s a taste of the stonewalling at a recent briefing involving the Minister and Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, the three-star General whose charged with stopping asylum seeker boats:
Q: What’s become of that boat of asylum seekers?
Campbell: "I will not comment further in relation to on-water matters. Thank you."
Q: What sort of assistance did you give them?
Morrison: "Well, again, we're not going to go into the micro detail of these operational matters."
Q: General, can you confirm it was HMAS Ballarat that took part in the overnight operation?
Campbell: "As I've indicated earlier, I will not discuss further on-water operations."
Morrison claims the media blackout is necessary in order not to provide people smugglers with information. But by being evasive, unhelpful and even arrogant, all the minister has done is undermine his own credibility and more worryingly, he’s lost control of the story.
The story does not die just because reporters have been starved of information. Instead they find new and more reliable sources, like a senior adviser to the Indonesian government who spilled the beans on talks between the two countries.
Now it’s fine for the Australian Government to decide not to discuss sensitive operational matters, most of us would expect nothing less. But why then does the minister persists with these meaningless weekly press briefings when he has nothing useful to say?
He is not shaping the agenda, he is not contributing to accurate reporting of the issues and he is certainly not doing himself any favours.
Instead, by reprimanding reporters for publishing or broadcasting inaccurate information, he is alienating the very people who he needs most.
Last week he sneered at reporters: "I strongly suggest that the media should more thoroughly interrogate the sorts of claims that are being represented to you."
Then he ridiculed suggestions reporters should be allowed to check information they receive with the Government or its agencies to avoid erroneous reporting.
"The Government is not going to be in the habit of responding to every fanciful notion which is put forward," he said dismissively.
A golden rule of dealing with the media is to be as upfront and as helpful as possible so that you are contributing to a story’s accuracy and relevance. Perhaps Morrison lacks the techniques and training to be informative while remaining in control.
Whatever the case, if he continues to shut off the flow of information, he will be in no position to complain that media coverage is wrong.
It's unclear what Morrison thinks he will gain from this heavy-handed media approach, but I can guarantee all that will result is more negative publicity and an inability to reel in a story that is out of control.
Reporters, and the public, are already tiring of Morrison's evasiveness, as Media Watch has highlighted. Sooner rather than later, he is going to hit a brick wall because his approach to the media on an issue of national importance is arrogant, unhelpful and unsustainable.
As we learned with Watergate, when a government feels that it has to stonewall, there’s probably something very wrong.