If truth is the first casualty of war, it certainly sustains critical injuries in peace.
In Victoria our state seems to be in information lockdown. Much of the media have remained subservient to the armies of spin doctors, minders, advisers, pollsters and other such wired and hired guns.
We have a veritable Blackwater of outsourcing to inner sanctum PR consultants. Daily, ministers and department heads refuse to directly answer questions. They stonewall, obfuscate, and withold the truth. There is little transparency or public accountability.
In the October 17 Sunday Herald Sun, Peter Rolfe and Simon Kearney called Victoria's Premier John Brumby the “Spin King” of Australia and said the cost of this propaganda behemoth to taxpayers was more than $70 million a year. They said there were “782 staff employed as media, communications, marketing and public affairs advisers across key government departments and services … if the total Victoria Police corporate communications team is included, the total figure is 822”.
The role of this PR army is to suppress information rather than share it.
In September 2009, after explosive media coverage in India of what became known as “the Epping bashings”, I sent an email to Victoria Police. I had received disturbing information from reliable sources, including disgruntled police officers, about a directive issued from the premier's department to police media liaison “that in matters involving violence, racial vilification and criminal activities directed towards Indian/Overseas students, Victoria Police was instructed to suppress all such activities from the media, and quote, to ‘keep a lid on it’ prior to Premier John Brumby's departure to India (September 21).”
Further, these informants said: “On the weekend [of] ‘the Epping bashings’ — September 12, 2009 and on the following Monday, no customary incident reports of the … bashings were released/published by Victoria Police.”
So, there were no police incident reports about this serious and contentious incident and there were no hard copy/on air weekend wraps about it by police on Monday morning.
In my email I wrote: “Reliable police informants indicate this verbal ‘down the line’ edict was designed to suppress any ongoing adverse publicity in relation to Indian Nationals studying in Victoria, and the public controversies surrounding educational institutions, prior to Premier John Brumby's departure for India…
“Given the spate of attacks and other incidents involving Australians of Indian heritage and Indian nationals — and inter-country community unrest and concern — and given the duplicitous and apparently futile platitudes and assurances of both our Federal and State Governments — would not a Press release from Victoria Police have gone some way to assuage and ameliorate a potentially divisive and volatile situation?”
The failure by Victoria Police to issue a statement merely invited speculation. The government and Victoria Police have to bear some responsibility for the subsequent — and understandable —headlines around the world.
It should be a tenet that government provide people with honest and up-to-date information. On October 18, I appeared on the Steve Price breakfast show on 3MTR and was interviewed about the email and its contents. The show's producers approached Brumby for a comment. They're still waiting as far as I know.
The government is still keeping a lid on it.
[Tess Lawrence is a Journalist Advocate, specialising in ethical media services, crisis management, multi-cultural and interfaith issues and has lectured in ethics and news reporting at Deakin University and public relations at Box Hill Institute.]