Tensions rise on coronavirus handling as the media take control of the accountability narrative


Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Media coverage of disasters follows a broadly similar trajectory, even though the disasters themselves might take very different forms.

The COVID-19 crisis in Victoria is no exception.

Although it is unfolding over a long time instead of in a single dramatic episode, it is possible to see familiar patterns emerging, and events over the past three weeks indicate that a notable shift has taken place.

From impact and response – which constitute the first two phases of disaster coverage – the focus has broadened to include the blame phase. From a media perspective, this can be called the accountability phase.

This shift can be explained to some extent by a change in political rhetoric. The theme of unity across levels of government and party lines has begun to fracture, particularly with remarks by the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, directed at the Victorian government.

On August 7 he said Victorians deserved answers about “serious failures with deadly consequences” in the state’s coronavirus hotel quarantine system.

However, Frydenberg was only echoing what the media had already started to investigate, and journalists with trusted sources had begun getting leaks.

In mid-July, The Age drew on leaked emails to reveal that a senior bureaucrat in the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions raised the alarm on March 28. Senior people in the Department of Health and Human Services and Emergency Management Victoria were urged to ask Victoria Police to deploy officers to the quarantine hotels.

According to the newspaper, the police were not asked, so no police were sent.

Two months later, the first case was logged of a security guard at Rydges on Swanston testing positive for coronavirus. This cluster grew rapidly to six cases.

Rydges on Swanston hotel in Melbourne.
Rydges on Swanston, used for hotel quarantine, where a coronavirus cluster soon took off.
Scott Barbour/AAP

Even though this startling information was now in the public domain, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews remained focused on impact and response.

When asked what went wrong with hotel quarantine, he would say only that he was ultimately responsible and that retired judge Jennifer Coate’s inquiry would provide the answers. Meantime, he would not be running a commentary on it.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos took the same line in state parliament on August 4. She later tweeted, though, that she was “deeply sorry” if her efforts had not been enough.

“Let the cards fall where they may”, she said, referring to the inquiry.

Principled though this is, it shows the government has not sufficiently appreciated that the trajectory of the coverage has undergone that important shift, from impact and response to accountability.

Coate has herself licensed public debate about these matters.

In failing to respond to repeated questions both in parliament and at the premier’s daily media briefings, the government has lost control of the accountability narrative.

A report in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald on August 8 rammed home this point.

It stated that the executive director of employment in the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions had been removed from their role over the quarantine bungle.

It went on to describe a well-intentioned, if misguided, decision to engage a company called Unified Security in the hotel quarantine operation. Unified was reported to have satisfied the criteria for receiving contracts under the government’s social inclusion procurement policy.

Moreover, the government’s international trade agency, Global Victoria, with no obvious experience in security or public health, reportedly also had a role in establishing the quarantine arrangements.

Even before these revelations, frustration was building among reporters at the government’s refusal to engage on the issue of accountability.

At Andrews’ daily briefing on August 6, a reporter from The Australian, Rachel Baxendale, pressed the premier for answers.

The upshot was that Baxendale, who was only doing her job, became the completely undeserving target of a stream of online hatred, including death threats.

This response suggests several things.

First, some people have a sociopathic problem with strong women in the media who try to hold powerful men to account. We saw it recently with a similar attack on the ABC’s Leigh Sales after she had interviewed the prime minister on the 7.30 program.




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Leigh Sales showed us the abuse women cop online. When are we going to stop tolerating misogyny?


Second, Daniel Andrews may retain considerable support in the wider community for fronting up every day to tell unwelcome truths.

It stands in sharp contrast to the crass name-calling indulged in by Liberal MP Tim Smith, which has undermined the efforts of his leader, Michael O’Brien, to offer constructive proposals for economic recovery.

Third, the public may still be very much absorbed in the impact and response phases of the disaster and not ready to move on to the accountability phase.

This is sometimes difficult for the media to judge.

In the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the Victorian media were noticeably slower to get into the accountability phase than were the national and interstate media.

Victoria-based journalists and editors said that, in covering a disaster close to home, it was important not to get into the blame game while the community to whom they were publishing was still acutely anxious and grieving.

With an ongoing disaster, this judgment becomes even more delicate.

However, a second line of inquiry in pursuit of accountability that might be more in tune with community sentiment is open to the media: what went wrong in privately run nursing homes, for which the federal government is responsible?

Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck has not been giving daily briefings. Some close questioning of him might be in order, with less risk of public blow-back.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Accountability is key to building trust in Australia’s intelligence community



File 20180521 42238 g5r0nz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent “war on terror” had a transformative impact on the handling of secrecy and surveillance activities in government programs.
Shutterstock

Daniel Baldino, University of Notre Dame Australia

Intelligence doesn’t have to be, and rarely is, James Bond-esque. Indeed, 007 is the world’s worst spy: everyone knows who he is, meaning he is compromised, exposed and susceptible to blackmail before he even arrives to save the day.

But the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and the all-encompassing “war on terror” that followed, did have a major transformative impact on the handling of secrecy and surveillance activities in government programs.

One impact has been the growth of executive authority in national security. This has exacerbated demonstrable tensions between civil liberties, trust and secrecy. As noted by former ASIO chief David Irvine, the public will always have some degree of suspicion regarding the secret function of intelligence agencies.




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Explainer: how the Australian intelligence community works


There is much to be gained by having an electorate better educated in the work of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). An informed public is better placed to question or accept the need for Australia’s intelligence agencies. This extends to the merits of expanding budgets, powers, oversight and responsibilities.

A war of choice

In the botched hunt for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles in 2003, the “slam dunk” assessments used to build a preemptive war rationale corroded public confidence in political leadership and the intelligence industry.

The WMD fiasco was accompanied by an inexhaustible antagonism around the world about the role of spies and intelligence agencies.

It is now widely accepted that Iraq has been a strategic disaster. Yet many core public debate points remain conflicted and uncertain. To what extent should an intelligence “failure” be traced back to failings in domestic leadership, a selective approach to intelligence estimates and a culture of political spin that seeks external scapegoats?

Cynicism about the credibility of the intelligence sector has not abated. US President Donald Trump, a conspiracy theorist who famously questioned former President Barack Obama’s citizenship, has maintained his theories into the Oval Office. Trump has both embraced and distorted the term “Deep State”. This emotive term is based on the idea that security elites and institutions are deliberately attempting to undermine (or potentially overthrow) the government. Trump has even claimed that America’s spies are acting like Nazis.

His imagery of a corrupt, rogue and monolithic intelligence bogeyman out to topple him is downright bogus. But its rhetorical simplicity plays into the public’s pre-existing fears about a shadowy political world.




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Why does a president demand loyalty from people who work for him?


At the same time, push-back against Trump’s political tactics and self-serving showmanship doesn’t mean the intelligence community should be immune from criticism and accountability.

The CIA, for instance, has a lengthy history of pushing or breaking moral and legal boundaries in locations such as Latin America. Ditto the Iran-Contra affair.

US intelligence has also been accused of monitoring human rights workers and harassing civil society groups and social dissenters engaged in legitimate political activities.

Likewise, in Australia in 1977, the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security unearthed deep-seated problems with principles of propriety, including legality, within ASIO.

The end result of inquiries into the actions of the intelligence community often raises more questions than answers, which feeds public mistrust and anxiety about intelligence and the function of government.

As we have matured, successive Australian governments have extended and deepened the responsibilities of the intelligence community. It is imperative that future boundaries set for our intelligence agencies are not crossed. For example, we should ensure that the AIC collects information as needed, not just because it can.

Unnecessary snooping is just one area that speaks to the broader importance of oversight, accountability, and an educated and understanding electorate.

Sunlight as disinfectant

The overall mandate of the AIC is to provide the government with “information” to better enable it to understand the issues confronting it. This, in turn, is meant to facilitate coherent policymaking.

However, good intelligence will not automatically guarantee good policy. Intelligence, after all, is an imperfect science and just one of the tools available to policymakers.

The task of intelligence agencies is not an easy one. Indeed, large budgets, hardworking staff and all the expertise in the world cannot ensure that a threat, or opportunity, will be recognised or acted upon in a timely fashion. Connecting the dots will rarely result in an end-product of absolute certainty.

At the same time, the demands of policymakers should not distort or corrupt intelligence – intelligence must inform policy (not visa versa). Intelligence agencies must “speak truth to power”. Integrity and candour, rather than ideological or personal loyalty, remain core prerequisites in dealing with political leaders.

Yet, the appearance of accountability does not necessarily de-politicise national security. Nor does it prevent overt political pressure, or the manipulation of intelligence operations to justify preordained political conclusions.




Read more:
The new Department of Home Affairs is unnecessary and seems to be more about politics than reform


In June 2017, Malcolm Turnbull’s government rolled out the largest and most significant changes to the AIC since its creation.

Checks and balances on government error and excess should remain a vital trademark of a healthy democracy. In this sense, a number of the proposed reforms should be applauded. This includes boosting the role and resources of both the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, as well as Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.




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Intelligence review must tackle anxiety around information-gathering, privacy and security


These changes also attempt to resolve questions about whether the boundaries and operational principles between agencies can be more clearly drawn. There are hopes the establishment of a new Office of National Intelligence (in place of the Office of National Assessments) will assist in greater co-ordination and complementary cross-agency efforts.

Of course, much of the devil remains in the detail. And a number of oversight gaps remain, including how to best protect whistle-blowers who expose unethical or illegal behaviour. We are also yet to see the implementation, execution and performance outcomes stemming from this major reform exercise. Further, the simultaneous announcement of new Home Affairs arrangements will demand equal critical scrutiny.

The ConversationIt’s been mooted that intelligence successes are often overlooked, while intelligence failures are widely broadcast. Popular misconceptions, polarisation and arguably excessive secrecy arrangements mean that the AIC will continue to operate in, and need to be responsive to, a backdrop of public misgivings, political point-scoring and conspiracy theories.

Daniel Baldino, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

INDIA: OFFICIALS ON DEFENSIVE AT ‘WATCH LIST’ DESIGNATION


U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.

NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”

The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.

Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).

“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”

Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.

Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”

Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.

He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”

In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.

The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.

Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.

“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.

‘Indifferent’

Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.

“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”

He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.

In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.

Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”

“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”

The USCIRF had released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.

“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.

‘Teflon-Coated State’

The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.

“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”

Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.

“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.

Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”

Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News