I had meant to deal with issues other than Australian politics in my early posts, however the events of recent days require some response. A key aspect of critical reasoning is openness to contrary opinion and a willingness to engage with evidence that undermines your own beliefs. This is one of the most difficult things for people to do. Some people do not even try.
Many of them are in the Australian government. In recent days, that government has been engaged in a smear campaign against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (following criticism from News Corp, which has long fought to restrict free public broadcasting in the UK and Australia), with Prime Minister Tony Abbott claiming in effect that the ABC are unaustralian for having reported allegations by refugees that the Australian navy mistreated them. Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and most recently Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull have all denounced the ABC for reporting on the refugees and, in particular, giving air time to their allegations of harm at the hands of the navy. According to Turnbull, the ABC “should have been more skeptical” of the refugees’ claims, despite the fact that the initial reports (linked in above) make it perfectly clear that the ABC was reporting allegations as allegations and not as facts. It is not clear how greater skepticism can be manifested than by reporting allegations as allegations and acknowledging that the claims have not been established. The real complaint appears to be that the ABC is reporting on refugees at all. In fact, that is precisely the complaint made by Minister Morrison, as shown in the ABC’s own broadcast.
Even more pathetic than these attempts to silence, not critics, but reporters reporting the news (and thereby pushing Australia closer to Egypt and Syria and away from its partner western democracies) are “confessions” of wrongdoing by the ABC itself and accusations of “over-reaching” by Media Watch’s Paul Barry, who said “Even if the police did back the asylum seekers’ claims, there was no way of knowing if they were true” (as reported in the Guardian). This last is a reprise of government’s claim that the ABC reporting allegations as allegations and not as facts is inappropriate. Presumably, allegations should only ever be reported after having been proven true. It’s understandable that a government whose central media mission appears to be to avoid media exposure should take this line, but it is preposterous and shameful that a TV program whose central mission is said to be to scrutinize the media should adopt it. The idea of BayesianWatch is that a Bayesian eye and brain can monitor public argument and critique it; the idea of Media Watch ought to be that an eye and brain monitor the public Media in Australia in the public’s interest, rather than provide cover for a government intent on suppressing media exposure of its actions.
In order for a free democracy to function effectively, evidence must be made available to the public. Evidence does not mean proof. Allegations are evidence: evidence of what people believe or, at least, of what they want you to believe that they believe. The video images of refugees’ burnt hands are evidence of their treatment. The precise nature of that treatment is not established by their burns or by their claims. But that doesn’t make the images any less evidence relevant to establishing how they were treated. Suppressing this evidence is well beyond any “mandate” of the Australian government, let alone that of Media Watch or the ABC itself. If the public is denied access to evidence of how the Australian government is pursuing its policies, then the democratic institutions in Australia will cease to have meaning. All those who love Australia and Australian democracy should insist that this disgusting behavior stop.