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ABC Says Its Reports Of Asylum Seekers’ Claims Should Have Been “More Precise”

The ABC has conceded that its reports of claims by asylum seekers of mistreatment by Navy personnel should have been “more precise”.

After several weeks of media coverage of its reporting of the claims and an adverse finding by its own Media Watch program, the ABC’s Managing Director, Mark Scott, and the Director of News, Kate Torney, issued a statement in which they say that there was no attempt to “pre-judge” the claims.

They said: “The ABC has not attempted to play judge and jury on this matter. We have reported the asylum seeker claims, broadcast the video showing burns and consistently sought more detail from witnesses and officials.”

Media statement from the ABC.

ABC Statement

The ABC, along with other national media, has been covering an important story about recent asylum seeker boats being turned around and investigating what occurred on board those boats. There have been allegations from asylum seekers that Navy personnel mistreated and caused injury to some of them – allegations that have been strongly denied.

This is an important story and the ABC makes no apologies for covering it. In the course of carrying out its work, the ABC’s own reporting has come under criticism. It is important to be clear about how we have gone about covering this story.

Claims of mistreatment by the Australian military are very serious and a responsible media, acting in the public interest, will need to seek an official response and pursue the truth of the claims. This is exactly what the ABC has done throughout.

Asking questions and seeking evidence is in no way disrespectful of such important institutions. It is because these institutions are trusted and important that any allegations concerning them are investigated.

Allegations by asylum seekers of mistreatment were widely reported across the Australian media in early January. The Navy denied the allegations but provided no further information, following the current policy of providing no details of current operations involving asylum seekers at sea.

Subsequently, the video obtained exclusively by the ABC, showing asylum seekers with burns, along with reports that Indonesian police were investigating the matter, raised further important questions. These include: how did the injuries occur, were they linked to the asylum seeker claims of mistreatment or were they obtained as a result of actions or activity whilst under the control of the Australian Navy or some other series of events? The video also established that the injuries were real. This was a significant development.

The ABC’s initial reports on the video said that the vision appeared to support the asylum seekers’ claims. That’s because it was the first concrete evidence that the injuries had occurred. What the video did not do was establish how those injuries occurred.

The wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point. We regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims. The ABC has always presented the allegations as just that – claims worthy of further investigation.

Those personnel in a position to provide their own description or explanation of what happened on board the vessel under Navy control have not been in a position to resolve the uncertainty because of the ban on discussing operational detail.

Nevertheless, media outlets like the ABC have continued to undertake further investigation, interviews and reporting in an effort to come to a full understanding of what went on.

The ABC has not attempted to play judge and jury on this matter. We have reported the asylum seeker claims, broadcast the video showing burns and consistently sought more detail from witnesses and officials.

The release of the video, and asking further questions in the light of it, was in the public interest and remains so. Our journalists will continue to investigate and cover this story, and we will continue to urge Australian authorities and the Government to disclose more to the Australian public about the events on board those boats.

Our intention is clear: to seek the truth on a matter of public importance, not to pre-judge any matters.

Mark Scott, Managing Director, and Kate Torney, Director News

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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