The information black hole that is Christmas Island

The details of the Australian immigration system are often kept secret, not least the activities of British multinational Serco running the detention facilities.

The Australian’s Paige Taylor is that rare mainstream journalist who has been pursuing the story for years. Her feature in yesterday’s paper documented the absurd restrictions on finding out accurate information on what has now become a quasi prison island, Christmas Island:

…The real struggle for journalists reporting on boatpeople is with a department that guards facts. It gleefully excoriates reporters for not knowing the full story, yet has not once allowed media cameras inside an operational detention centre.

The department has a media unit of 13 staff who respond courteously and promptly to queries. But the responses, called lines or talking points, are rarely what anyone would call answers. The department is regarded by journalists as secretive. In turn, I am known colloquially in there as “F . . king Paige”.

Perhaps the best demonstration of this paranoia is in the department’s own contract with the security firm that runs Australia’s immigration detention centres, the British global services company Serco. In it, the department stipulates that “unauthorised media presence” is a “critical incident”, which is the same status afforded a death, a bomb or a hostage situation.

This hostility has forced journalists to get better at what they do. If a department spokesman will not tell you when a boat is arriving, why not cultivate someone who might? And why wait for the department’s sanitised version of an all-in brawl? When adolescent male asylum-seekers come to blows with the parents of the girls they tried to crack on to, the best accounts are from the people throwing the punches and the workers who dealt with the chaos.

It is not an easy gig on Christmas Island. It is hot and humid, fresh food is hard to come by, internet is neither fast nor reliable and the accommodation crisis has to be experienced to be believed. There were days when I spent a couple of hours just trying to find somewhere to sleep that night.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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