The censor cometh

The control or manipulation of information goes through various phases when a new political party comes to power. Initially the process starts with political tactics to discredit the previous government. Once settled in, a new government will establish a Department of Spin, whereby the “truth” is massaged, refined, expanded, shrunk or generally shaped to put the best possible light on the government, it’s ministers and it’s actions. The ABC’s The Hollowmen offers a chilling overview of how all this works. 

The next stage is knowingly lying to the press and the public.

This is followed by subterfuge, the act of purposely concealing information from the media and the public with the hope that the Prime Minister, his ministers, and/or the bureaucracy will not be found out. 

The final stage is the act of censorship. It’s when you don’t lie or spin your way out of an awkward or embarrassing situation — you just censor it.

Censorship happened this month in Australia when the Rudd government censored what had happened to the appallingly injured Afghan boat-people when their Indonesian fishing boat exploded in the Indian Ocean. 

When a government moves in to stop the Royal Australian Navy making statements or comments about a rescue of civilians on the high seas, that’s censorship. When the government moves to squash any official statement about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of three Afghans and the scores that were seriously injured, that’s censorship. When you have senior government ministers muzzling the press by a form of unofficial “D” notice, that’s censorship. But hiding behind the silly notion that there is an official investigation underway is just sheer cowardice.  

Unfortunately for Kevin Rudd and his Spin-Doctor-in-Chief, Lachlan Harris,a smattering of detail escaped the censor’s web. A Northern Command officer advised the Premier of Western Australia of the disaster and a brief overview that included information that petrol had been spread on the boat’s deck just prior to the explosion. Premier Barnett was an obvious recipient of this news as the incident happened off the Western Australian coast. 

Prime Minister Rudd, who normally is a person not to get between, when a press conference or media event is in the wind, went to ground. His front minister, Bob Debus, announced that no information would be released until the Northern Territory Police had conducted — and completed— their investigations. The Northern Territory Police? Gee! Now there’s a body that’s sure to get to the bottom of things with speed? Well you must admit this exercise in censorship was a brilliant ploy. It had the fingerprints of Lachlan Harris — both left hand and right hand.  

Harris is the youthful, former budgie-smuggler underpants-entrepreneur, who, at 28 became Kevin Rudd’s senior press guru. He came to fame when he was caught out trying to whip up a group of Aboriginal people into turning their backs on Brendan Nelson as he was speaking to them. So when considering the issue censorship, Lachlan Harris is the budgie to watch. 

In February last year Sally Jackson wrote an excellent article on Harris in The Australian newspaper. She tracked his rise from budgysmuggler.com to the office of Robert McClelland, to spokesman for the leftist, Labor Party front, organization GetUp! Harris then emerged at the office of Wayne Swan, where he was spotted “coaching his boss on the right answers” from the back of the press pack. According to Jackson, Lachlan Harris was also caught out “attempting to coach schoolchildren to ask then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd if he was the nation’s next Prime Minister”.  

The above might be considered just par for the course but the initial lying about the abuse of an RAAF officer by Kevin Rudd, over a meal on the Prime Ministerial 737, isn’t. Trying to snuff out any mention of Rudd’s secret meeting in Canberra with the Chinese Minister for Propaganda, isn’t. Invoking censorship to smother a potential embarrassment over illegal immigrants, isn’t. 

Australia has a dismal record of censorship during the last century when books, films and political expression were censored. The former editor of Quadrant, James McCauley, experienced censorship when detectives were sent in by a NSW Labor minister to stop him singing an anti-Nazi song at a theatre review in Sydney. Peter Coleman’s book on censorship is well worth reading. 

It would be appalling if this country were to see the return of subtle political censorship. The Australian media has been less than vigilant in pressing the government on this matter. It is one thing to have a Prime Minister with a Pinocchio tendency. It is quite another to have a Pinocchio with a blue pencil.

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