“Illegal immigrants” Press Council ruling: Why is Paul Sheehan is allowed to say it while Greg Sheridan is not?

3 Jul

Imagine my astonishment when I came across this post describing how in June 2011 the Australian Press Council upheld complaints against the Australian‘s Greg Sheridan alleging that he had wrongly described boat arrivals as “illegal immigrants” not once, but three times.

On January 7 2011 I put the following post up on  No Place for Sheep:

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.

These Principles address misrepresentation of groups and individuals; suppression of available facts; deliberate misinformation through omission or commission, and fairness and balance.

We claim that these principles were breached by the use of the terms “illegal” and “without proper papers” when referring to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

This is the post I put up on January 13 2011, announcing the APC’s dismissal of my complaint against Sheehan:

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 http://www.presscouncil.org.au.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 UNHCRConvention.

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 athttp://www.presscouncil.org.au/pcsite/activities/gprguide.html.

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

What are we to make of this disparity in the Press Council’s judgement?

 Is the APC favouring the Sydney Morning Herald, while holding the Australian to a different set of standards? Is it more personal than that, ie can Sheehan do what Sheridan cannot and if so, why?



21 Responses to ““Illegal immigrants” Press Council ruling: Why is Paul Sheehan is allowed to say it while Greg Sheridan is not?”

  1. paul walter July 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Brought to us be the folk who gave us, “Cash for Comments”- the defining moment for media in our time.
    Another example of a social mechanism in place destroyed by neoliberalism.
    Who were the bigger criminals, Alston and Howard, or the gutless labor politicians who have followed, hoping to benefit from the former’s ill-gotten gains as to censorship and social control, whilst deliberately refusing the dismantling of the various ugly apparatus installed by Howard.
    Advertising on SBS, garbage instead of content on the ABC and and in the former broadsheets, comedy-standard propaganda in spaces formerly reserved for news and serious commentary.
    All pretty much summed up by the treacly, formulaic, formulated insult-to-the-intelligence response of Deb Kirkman, who hadn’t even bothered to find out if Wilson had tried to voice her concerns previously.


  2. gerard oosterman July 3, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    So why aren’t those law breakers charged, If the term ‘illegal asylum seekers’ breaches the law? In Australia we have always had a rather rough way describing the less advantaged and am also bothered by other definitions that are demeaning and bullying as well.
    Why do we still allow the term ‘dole’ and worse ;dole bludger’. A bogan, chink, bird etc, slope head, reffo. Even being a ‘pensioner’ is somehow linked to old and having failed. Very strange!


    • Jennifer Wilson July 4, 2011 at 7:22 am #

      That’s an interesting point Gerard, if Sheridan has been found “guilty” by the APC is there a basis for legal action?
      It could only be under the anti discrimination legislation I imagine, and then I think the charge would have to be brought by someone directly affected, ie an asylum seeker who arrived by boat.

      This is why we need a bill of rights.


    • Jennifer Wilson July 4, 2011 at 7:34 am #

      Do you think I should make my complaint again, given this finding?


      • gerard oosterman July 4, 2011 at 9:23 am #

        If it is possible to get a ‘pro-bono’ opinion first. it could well be a terrific ‘first’ if the advice indicated a reasonable chance of a conviction.


    • Richard Ure August 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

      Is the term “illegal asylum seeker” itself illegal or just inaccurate (surely a failing in a journalist).

      Instead of saying “enter without a visa”, is it not more accurate (and less emotive) to say “approach a border without a visa”. No one gets past a border without some dealing with an immigration official, except the very few who arrive and land undiscovered.

      Surely everyone who seeks a visa is in that category until a visa is actually granted and the activity can hardly be “illegal” otherwise no visas could ever be applied for. By anyone, however strong or unthreatening their case.


      • Jennifer Wilson August 8, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

        Hello, Richard – There’s no such animal as an illegal asylum seeker in Australia – domestic law permits anyone to arrive in any way, with or without papers, and request asylum. Today’s action in the High Court against the government’s attempts to send asylum seekers to Malaysia is among other things, challenging the legality of the Malaysian solution, given that domestic law states that we accept asylum seekers without visas, and assess them for refugee status. You’re quite right, it’s not illegal to arrive here without a visa, and request assessment for refugee status and resettlement.


      • Steve at the Pub August 8, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

        Not sure that was Richard’s point Jennifer.
        I could be mistaken, but I believe he is both correct & incorrect.

        The answer is in this: There are “ports of entry”. i.e. Customs points through which one may cross a border & enter (or depart) a country.

        To arrive at a port of entry without documentation would be (as Richard says) to “approach a border without a visa”

        To arrive at a point other than a port of entry, would be, in effect, the same as sneaking under a border fence. This almost certainly could be said to not be “approaching a border”, but “penetrating a border”.


      • Steve at the Pub August 8, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

        That may be, but Richard did not mention asylum, but the terminology used for approaching/arriving at a border.


      • Richard Ure August 8, 2011 at 10:20 pm #


        If a person washes up on a beach and is greeted by an immigration officer (probably with a gun), can it really be said he has penetrated a border? This is made possible and is likely because we spend a king’s ransom patrolling the oceans looking for these people. Ports of entry sound like an administrative convenience.


      • Steve at the Pub August 8, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

        Richard, that would be a castaway, an entirely different matter (when the border is incidental to the arrival)

        Ports of entry is how things work. Try departing (or arriving) by boat & not having one as your first/last port of call & you’ll very quicksmart understand what I mean.

        May I presume you don’t sail overseas in your yacht?


  3. paul walter July 4, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    Actually, the courts have the chance to break the deadlock in cases or decisions on cases, forth coming, I’m told.
    The courts seem a sore point for many, who feel these haven’t dealt with certain points made or criticised that they consider fair and reasonable treatment on one or more issues.
    Have the courts ruled in ways that then require action yet are then ignored by the government, or the series of them, over the last decade?
    As Gerard mentions, the hatespeech/freespeech thing is simmering away there in the back ground as a subset of it own. Wasn’t here a lively debate about this four or five months back, involving two blog sites having conflicting views on what constituted fair posting as to comments that could have could brought grief to a harrassed minority or actually went further and involved the active part, incitement; against some argued, freedom of speech censored.


  4. Steve at the Pub July 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    Inconsistency in applying standards? Indefensible.

    Unrelated to: Journalists can refere to them as “illegals” until the cows come home for all I care. I call them that myself, and won’t be changing for anybody.


  5. Marilyn July 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    Actually the boats are not illegal and nor are the crew people smugglers.


  6. gerard oosterman July 4, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    The term ‘illegal’ may more appropriately apply to those without a valid visa (‘unlawful non-citizens’) who are not seeking protection, such as visa overstayers.[12] As at 30 June 2009, it was estimated that there were about 48 700 visa overstayers residing in Australia.[13


    • Marilyn July 5, 2011 at 12:59 am #

      yeah, but there is no offence and hasn’t been since 1992 so it’s a pointless debate.

      Even the high court said in Al Kateb that the word unlawful means nothing and advised that it be changed.


  7. paul walter July 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    Interesting how this thread has been successful, in the end, in opening up the vexed underlying wound of a question of refugees, including what constitutes a refugee or asylum seeker is and what our response should be; this has been unpacked thanks to SATP and Marilyn, who have provided the poles within which this discussion must occur.
    It is is such a serious question I feel uncomfortable at grappling with its intellectual and moral challenge and detail and I’m loath to comment to comment further. Nonetheless, here goes..
    I think many people are not ready to accept the underlying concept of free borders, dismissing the idea as utopian, why not regard it as ambit, on the basis of a good example or outline from advocates as to how things would work out in the future.
    I know Marilyn is probably throwing up her arms in horror, if she’s reading this, I know her view is, that hapless boat people would only account for a small number of people against the overall numbers coming into or leaving the country and what’s more, people at least as entitled to a fair chance as any of us, given what’s befallen them, which is often to do with the West’s own crude applications of “policy”, when it comes to accessing the resources of the poorer developing world.
    But the underlying concept of open borders perturbs many Australians- they see it as somehow ceding a position that stores up their futures against the uncertainties of the future and they’ve been well manipulated by politicians and media on this gut hunch, while other far more important and impactive policy decisions, such as AUSFTA, were brought in surreptitously while people’s attentions were focussed elsewhere on the emotive one of refugees.
    I think for a start, we could try mid position and accept that refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia as well as the big refugee camps of in Africa and Asia are not properly provisioned and cared for and are in these places through misfortunes the like of which we couldn’t conceive of- would we want to see our own wives or kids or whatever, “living” in these places?
    I can’t beleive bringing ten or twenty thousand refugees from Indonesia and Malaysia is going to see me at risk of starving to death and these are very poor countries, with not even enough for their own, let alone SriLankans, Afghanis and so forth driven out from elsewhere by wars and war induced famines and disease epidemics.
    We have x hundred thousands of migrants per annum coming here, why not make the refugee component of this number a bit larger.
    It’s reached the stage with me, if I lost a few percent of value from my DB pension against the right of a kid some where to get an antibiotics shot for TB or to have, for the first time in her life, a decent meal, or a fresh chance in a new country, I wouldn’t care- at least thatkid might have a gutful of food instead of a belly ache of worms.
    We spend a fraction of a percent on aid offshore and the conditions in camps as shown on teev, shows the result in camps off shore.
    No, we are not responsible for their situation alone, we are just twenty million aussies in a big, nasty and chaotic world.
    But I accept the complicity argument (or keep lying to myself); we’re quite happy to sleep on the bones of the poor, so to speak.
    So don’t tell me our response to world poverty and refugees is acceptable on the basis of the evidence of the donating of a fractile of a percent for the releif of manifest suffering in other people, particularly when we consider the junk $ billions is wasted on in our society, from “defence” to personal entertainments at the individual level. Even Ebenezer Scrooge did better than this..


    • Jennifer Wilson July 5, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      I love in theory the idea of cosmopolitanism – I truly believe it is workable – a world without borders and passports – I know, don’t yell at me, it’s never going to happen.

      I also wouldn’t mind living without any number of things many people consider essential items. Because I didn’t have anything better to do the other night I watched that program on the ABC about building houses – where people spend a thousand pounds on the right kitchen tap – and pull down perfectly good dwellings to put up something that consists entirely of green oak, put together without any nails and made to look like a barn.

      Like watching cooking programs, I’m incapable of sitting there for half an hour without thinking at least five times, my god, how can we make TV programs like this when there’s so many people in the world who haven’t even got a bowl of rice tonight / haven’t even got a shelter tonight.

      Do we in the west have any idea how incredibly privileged we are? Do we even care?


  8. paul walter July 5, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

    That was the message of the aussies-as-refugees doco.
    The answer appeared to be, “no, not quite, but we’re working on it”, sort of.
    Far times from the times my old man told me about them feeling privileged if they had dry bread and dripping on the table in the evening, or jam on bread for a real treat.
    Still, that’s back in the era of dirt floors and outside outhouses emptied once a week by the “shitties”.
    But this is taken on a Pythonesque hue so will bid farewell for now.



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