Press council replies to complaint against SMH

13 Jan

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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Further to the post of January 7 2011: “Today we sent a complaint to the Australian Press Council claiming that the article by Paul SheehanSydney Morning Herald January 3 2011, titled Cast adrift from reality, the slick spruikers of ‘our’ shame, breaches Principles 1,2,3 and 6 of the Council’s Statement of Principles.

I received the following email from the Australian Press Council today:

Dear Dr Wilson,

The Council has received a complaint from you, in which you raise a concern with terminology used by a bylined opinion columnist in The Sydney Morning Herald.

For your information, a copy of the Council’s principles and practices can be found on the Council’s website Therein are set out the standards of journalistic ethics that the Council upholds and the procedures it uses to deal with complaints alleging breaches of those standards.

Attached, for your information, is a copy of the Council’s Guideline No 288 on the issue of asylum seekers.

The Council believes that columns such as Sheehan’s should be given a reasonably wide licence to express a point of view. They are the clear expression of a viewpoint of the individual writing them and are commentary upon the news.

The terminology you complain of talks of  “illegal boats”. Since the boats can be seized and their crew tried before the courts, there is good reason to suggest that the arrival of the boats is in fact “illegal”.

Have you submitted a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald for publication in response to the published column? The Council has consistently said that the best response to a disagreement with such material is the submission of a contrary view for publication. I therefore urge you to take the matter up direct with the newspaper in the first instance, if you have not already. I will write to the newspaper urging it give due consideration to any submitted letter as a way of dealing with your concern.

I will bring your concern to the attention of the newspaper but believe that the best settlement of your concern, in this case, is through the letters to the editor column.

Yours sincerely,

Deb Kirkman, Acting Executive Secretary, Australian Press Council

To which I replied as follows:

Dear Ms Kirkman,
I have indeed twice written to the SMH letters on this matter, as I stated on my complaint form, and neither letter has been acknowledged.

To reiterate, the terminology I complained of is as follows:

1. Illegal boat arrivals. If Sheehan was referring only to the arrival of SIEVs, or to the crew of SIEVs, then these references makes no sense at all in the context of his paragraph.

It is rather disingenuous to suggest that Sheehan was referring to the vessels and their crew, given that the crews are arrested and the vessels are impounded, therefore the problem is addressed immediately at the source and offers no basis for Sheehan’s on-going angst.

Sheehan then goes on to comment on the “relatively small number of people who arrive by boat,” thus clearly confirming that he is indeed referring to the passengers who are seeking asylum, and not to the SIEVs and their crew.

2. Those who arrive by illegal means,and those who arrive without proper papers.

The UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is signatory, recognises that refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum.  

The Convention stipulates that what would usually be considered an illegal action, eg entering a country without a visa, should not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum.

Australian law, in line with the Convention, also permits unauthorised entry for the purposes of seeking asylum.

Therefore, under Australian law, and under the terms of the Convention we have signed, a person who is seeking asylum has the legal right to enter this country without papers, and by any method of transport, even SIEVs, and has the legal right to remain in this country, until his or her refugee status is established through the proper legal processes, to which, as asylum seekers, they are legally entitled.

Their mode of transport does not render asylum seekers “illegal,” as suggested by Sheehan.

This was re-affirmed by the High Court of Australia in November 2010.

Again, my complaints  relate to numbers 1, 2, 3, and 6 of your Statement of Principles.

Sheehan has misrepresented the facts of this situation – asylum seekers are not illegal, even if they enter the country on SIEVs.

Sheehan has suppressed facts that are available to him, i.e. the facts that under domestic law and by international agreement, Australia does not consider those requesting asylum to be illegal in any way, no matter how they arrived in this country, including if they arrived “without proper papers.”

The illegality of their mode of transport is a separate issue, as the law recognises, and is dealt with as a separate issue. Asylum seekers are not held responsible for the legality or otherwise of their mode of transport.

Sheehan has misinformed and misled the SMH readership by conflating the two, and in so doing, ignores Australian law and the UNHCR Convention.

Since when has it been acceptable that even an opinion writer has the license to misinform their readers about Australian law, and the legal status of a particular group of people?

Sheehan has not presented his readers with the facts, and his opinions are not based on the facts. Sheehan has acted irresponsibly in putting forward an uninformed point of view as his opinion. The facts are readily available to him. Surely even opinion pieces are supposed to have some basis in reality?

I have requested that the SMH correct Sheehan’s inaccuracies and conflations. I have received no response

Yours sincerely,

Jennifer Wilson.

Australian Press Council Guideline 288 in regard to Asylum seekers.

Guideline No. 288

Describing “asylum seekers”

Issued: October 30, 2009

For immediate release

The Australian Press Council has updated its guideline on “asylum seekers”, replacing General Press Release 262 with the attached guide. The Council issues guidelines from time to time. These are, in essence, amplifications on particular issues arising from the Council’s Statement of Principles. The guidelines apply the Principles to the practice of reporting and are intended to guide the press on how it should report certain matters. These guidelines are not intended to be prescriptive instructions to the press but act as a series of advisories on the application of the Principles that the Council seeks the co-operation of editors in maintaining. A list of the extant guidelines (and links to them) can be found on the Council’s website at

The Council has from time to time received complaints about the terminology used to describe people who arrive in Australia through means other than regulated immigration and visa transit processes. They are often referred to by the press and others as “illegal immigrants”, “illegal boatpeople” and so on –  or simply as  “illegals”. The descriptor “illegal(s)” is very often inaccurate and typically connotes criminality.

The press has, by and large, abided by the Council’s 2004 Guideline about the use of inaccurate and derogatory terminology to describe such people.

Having considered the matter further, the Council believes that the term “asylum seeker” is a widely understood descriptor, generally a fair and a sufficiently accurate one, and one which avoids the kinds of difficulties outlined above. The Council recommends its use as the default terminology in relevant headlines and reports both by the press and others.

The Australian Press Council comprises representatives of the public and of the industry and acts to preserve the freedom, and the responsibility, of the Australian press. It was founded in July 1976 and has been in continuous operation for over 30 years.

End of Guideline 288

13 Responses to “Press council replies to complaint against SMH”

  1. gerard oosterman January 13, 2011 at 3:44 am #

    A cursory click on ‘illegal boat people in Australia’ on the laptop and one soon arrives at innumerable sites where that term is used. The Australian Government doesn’t seem too keen to rectify that onerous description of people that arrive on Australian shores under the most harrowing conditions.

    Not long ago someone being interviewed on ABC TV also referred to the asylum seekers arrivals as ‘illegal’. Fortunately, the person being interviewed was pointed out by the ABC journalist that the term was not acceptable.

    However, I haven’t noticed much of a Government led campaign to educate the Australian public by clearly stating that the term ‘illegal’ when describing asylum seekers is wrong and against Australian law and the UNHCR convention.

    Perhaps there are too many votes to be lost by any party that seem overly welcoming to boat arrivals. ..
    Australia is badly in need to rectify their image of treating refugees so harshly and unforgiven. You often get back what is given.


    • Jennifer Wilson January 13, 2011 at 4:30 am #

      There won’t be a government campaign to educate the public about our own laws in regard to asylum seekers. Instead, the government will do its best to sidestep, fearing a loss of votes, and perhaps fearing exactly what I’m trying to provoke, a challenge to them to acknowledge and abide by our laws.

      I have wondered why, when the Howard government excised Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island, and set up Nauru, they didn’t instead revoke the domestic laws that allow asylum seekers entry to the country, and withdraw from the UNHCR Convention.

      I think that no government wants to take that on. Instead, they spin and lie and avoid.

      Instead, they sought to find a way around both our domestic law and our international undertakings.


  2. Jim Moore March 4, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Obviously waterborne asylum seekers come from close by and are thus part of the mythical great yellow peril of our officially racist part (the White Australia Policy). Airborne ones are mostly white, like most of us, but if not at least they can afford an airline ticket and therefore are not poor and despised. Someone should write a story wherein the majority of tourists that arrive in Australia do so by boat, and asylum seekers arrive by jumbo jet, to show the absurdity of the fear of “boat people”. (I’m not a writer so I won’t volunteer)

    Don Watson would love the Press Council’s weasel words i.e. “a reasonably wide licence to express a point of view.” Just how wide is “reasonably”? Or do they mean “reasonably wide” to represent a width that such licences come in? I actually think they mean to say as long as the words he is using are not blatantly illegal under the various Anti-Discrimination/Villification Acts then they’ll allow them, because controversy sells. Or used to in the dying business models that are newspapers.


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  1. A grim anniversary: What is it about waterborne asylum seekers that makes them more despised than airborne ones? « The Sail - February 28, 2011

    […] nature of boat arrivals, and many media outlets are entirely supportive of that lie. Some, such as Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald, deliberately conflate the illegality of the Suspected Illegal Entry […]


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