The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about an article in The Herald Sun, Melbourne, on 26 November 2011 headlined Boat people in our suburbs. The front page had a pointer to the article, which was on a later page, reading, "Revealed: Boatpeople to flood our suburbs". The first sentence of the article read: “Thousands of asylum seekers are expected to flood the suburbs as the Federal Government rolls out bridging visas allowing boat people to live and work in the community and collect welfare.” The accompanying image showed a number of people, captioned as asylum seekers, sitting on a vessel in front of a police officer and an armed person.
Three separate complainants raised issues with the article. The word “flood” in the front page pointer and the first sentence was said to be inaccurate, misleading and offensive, especially as the numbers of asylum seekers could not conceivably reach levels to justify such an extreme term and would be only a very small proportion of all new immigrants each year. These problems were said to be exacerbated by an unjustified implication in the article that a “secret government briefing note” predicted much higher levels of boat arrivals than previously revealed, by the headline saying "our" to convey an "us" and "them" mentality, and by the photo reinforcing a stereotype of asylum seekers as potentially dangerous.
The newspaper responded that the use of the word “flood” was not inaccurate or unfair, especially as the article subsequently gave details about likely numbers of asylum seekers being released into the community and thereby enabled readers to decide whether the word was appropriate. It said the coverage was not intended to be misleading or inflammatory and that the photograph merely complemented the article by depicting some asylum seekers.
The Council concluded that the words “flood the suburbs” connoted an overwhelming, widespread and adverse impact on the general community. The implication was misleading and unfair, especially when made so baldly in the front-page pointer and so prominently in the opening sentence of the article. The mentions in the article that 100 people per month would soon be released into the community did not substantially ameliorate this implication, especially as the "secret" government note was said to predict the number of asylum seekers was likely to increase and the article referred vaguely to "thousands" who might enter the community. Accordingly, the complaint was upheld on these grounds.
Notes (not required for publication by the newspaper):
Separate complaints were received on this article from Chris Dardis, Garry Bickley, and Dr John Tarlinton on behalf of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group.
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced… ”