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The responsibilities of the media

From our own public diplomacy strategies, I now want to talk about how the media's own reporting of issues can affect Australia's interests and the responsibilities of the media.

The first dimension to this issue is how Australians get their news about overseas events.

On the whole, we get a good standard of writing on many of the key topics that shape our international relations, including developments in the US, UK and Europe and with our Asian neighbours.

However, I have to say I have been disappointed with some of the recent reporting out of the Middle East, which I believe has brought discredit upon the Western media.

Let's not dwell on the shock-horror headlines surrounding the Australian Government's efforts to evacuate more than 5000 Australian nationals out of a war zone.

I think it is widely accepted today that the early assertions that the Government and its diplomats were too slow to react were ill-founded, not to say grossly unfair, to many of my officials who worked under extremely arduous and gruelling conditions to get all Australians who wanted to leave out of Lebanon.

What concerns me greatly is the evidence of dishonesty in the reporting out of Lebanon.

For example, a Reuters photographer was forced to resign after doctoring images to exaggerate the impact of Israeli air attacks.

There were the widely-reported claims that Israel had bombed deliberately a Red Cross ambulance.

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In subsequent weeks, the world has discovered those allegations do not stand up to even the most rudimentary scrutiny.

After closer study of the images of the damage to the ambulance, it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.

Yet some of the world's most prestigious media outlets, including some of those represented here today, ran that story as fact - unchallenged, unquestioned.

Similarly, there has been the tendency to report every casualty on the Lebanese side of the conflict as if a civilian casualty, when it was indisputable that a great many of those injured or killed in Israeli offensives were armed Hezbollah combatants.

My point is this: in a grown-up society such as our own, the media cannot expect to get away with parading falsehoods as truths, or ignoring salient facts because they happen to be inconvenient to the line of argument - or narrative - that particular journalists, or media organisations, might choose to adopt on any given controversy or issue.

This is not just a politician complaining.

The public is onto this. Your readers and viewers are not fools.

They talk about these things in pubs and clubs. And I would venture to say that these lapses in accuracy, the distortion of images and the failure to report the straight facts, has made it that much harder a job for the Western media to restore its credibility in the public mind.

Sixty five per cent of the department's 10,000 annual media enquiries with the media relate to consular issues.

And while I can understand the demands on journalists and editors to get the story, I also make no apology for the fact that my first responsibility is a consular responsibility for the Australians affected.

We run a consular service, not a media service.

And we have privacy concerns that must be respected.

What we can do sometimes is help the process by working with the family to get a statement or a well-chosen photo that can be used in the press, while at the same time ensuring that they are afforded the decency and respect we all deserve in times of crisis.

Foreign policy is a complex area and it's important to Australia that the media get the story right, which is mostly the case.

To help accuracy, senior Departmental staff last year gave more than 130 background briefings to individual journalists and 20 general media briefings.

We can't always give a briefing when we're asked.

For example, in the lead-up to sensitive negotiations we can't publicly reveal our hand. But where we can give a briefing, we will.

We also make a big effort to ensure that the material on our website is comprehensive and up to date.

And for the sake of clarity, let me reinforce what I've said already, a free media, whatever its shortcomings, is as important to society as the executive, legislature or judiciary.

But that freedom comes with responsibilities.

Standards of decency and respect for others and self-restraint are clearly important elements for the media to consider.

Freedom cannot be unqualified and cannot operate without regard to the effect on others.

We see this in restrictions on reporting of matters before the courts, for example.

In my view, the Danish cartoons of last year crossed those boundaries.

Now, I absolutely defend the right of publishers to print this material.

But publishers also need to be mindful of the implications of their actions.

In this case, I think it was unfortunate that the Danish newspaper published these offensive cartoons in the first place.

I was glad to see that only one or two Australian papers re-published the cartoons.

Of course I utterly condemn the violent reactions to the cartoons.

Conclusion

To conclude my remarks, I'd like to come back to my main point, that the values that underpin a free press also underpin our wider foreign policy.

As a free press, you will claim the right to report it as you see it, unsentimentally, even when that might cause problems for the execution of our foreign policy, or for our image abroad.

But we who have responsibilities in government also have the right to call it as we see it - and to point out that, even in the most free of societies, the first duty of a responsible media is to get the facts straight, and to get the story right, even when that story might not necessarily conform to your own opinions or prejudices.

With that, I wish you all the best for this conference.

This is the last part of a wider ranging speech given to a confetence. The full text of the speech is at Alexander Downer's Speech to the National Newspaper Publishers' Conference


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