The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article in The Courier-Mail on 27 May 2017, headed “FAKE REFUGEE OUTRAGE: Rapists, a hitman, and ice dealers allowed to stay” in print and “Opinion: Administrative Appeals Tribunal has gone too far by allowing foreign-born criminals to stay” online.
The article commented on decisions made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) and began: “THERE was a troubling twist in the fake refugee controversy this week. Out of the blue we learned that murderers, rapists, pedophiles, armed robbers and ice dealers were among the scores of criminals who should have been booted out of the country but were allowed to stay. They were saved from deportation by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The tribunal overruled the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, who attempted to eject 81 foreign-born criminals by revoking their visas.” The article went on to comment that “[t]he tribunal, to my mind, has usurped the proper functions of the democratically elected government”, and mentioned several people who were “allowed to stay”, citing their countries of origin.
Further on, the article referred to “the Immigration Department finding th[at] 20 fake asylum seekers lied on their visa applications by saying they were at risk of being killed or persecuted if they returned to their own countries”.
Following a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether it took reasonable steps to ensure that referring to “foreign-born criminals” as “fake refugee[s]” was not inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 1), was presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3), and avoided contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The publication said it was not misleading, unfair or prejudicial to refer to “foreign-born criminals” as “fake refugee[s]”. The publication said the opinion piece commented on decisions by the AAT to overrule the Minister’s attempts to “eject 81 foreign-born criminals by revoking their visas” which it described as a “troubling twist”. The publication said the term “fake refugee” was not used in the legal sense of ‘refugee’ but rather in the sense that the tribunal has allowed people, whom the columnist believes ought be deported, to enjoy the shelter that Australia provides them. It said the term was used in the context of the preceding week’s news in which many references were made by the Minister to refer to a group of people not granted refugee status in Australia. It said in that context, reasonable readers would understand that “fake refugee[s]” are not technically refugees.
The Council considers that the print headline’s reference to “fake refugee”—as distinct from the online headline’s reference to “foreign-born criminals”—had the potential to mislead readers by conflating two distinct concepts when most of the cited cases concerned legal immigrants from countries such as Scotland who would be ineligible for refugee status in Australia.
The article drew together various issues that had recently received media coverage, including the Minister’s description of asylum seekers awaiting government advice on how their claims would be processed as “fake refugees” and the Minister’s criticism of the AAT for overturning some of his decisions to rescind the visas of immigrants on the basis of their convictions for criminal offences. Taking into account the specific circumstances, the Council considers that readers were unlikely to be misled by the article. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication did not breach General Principles 1 or 2.
For the same reasons, the Council is not satisfied the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the opinion article was presented with reasonable fairness and balance and was not based on significantly inaccurate factual material. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication did not breach General Principles 3 and 4.
Given the nature of the opinion article, that it drew together views held by the columnist on various issues, and the Minister having recently used the phrase “fake refugee”, the Council is not satisfied, on balance, that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article avoided causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 6.
The Council notes that there appears to be only one specific instance in the article of the term “fake refugee’” being applied to a person who made a false claim about the risks from deportation to his country of origin. The rest of the examples mentioned being people from countries ineligible for refugee status. To avoid diminishing the integrity of the national debate concerning asylum seekers and refugees, care ought be taken to avoid applying the label “fake refugee” to individuals who have never sought or gained asylum, and to ensure that where such a term is used in the public sphere, it is accurately attributed to its source.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.