April 6th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Stem cell research: the way forward

The facts behind the 'people overboard' affair

Opinion: The banks' power over small business

STRAWS: Selective amnesia / Slow boat to China / Tower of Babel

TRADE: Sugar price collapse threatens future of canegrowers

MEDIA: Debating points

New Zealand faces winter of discontent

Manufacturing: an endangered species (letter)

Afghan specialities (letter)

The great water debate: facts and myths

COMMENT: Healthy disinterest no bad thing

UNITED STATES: Behind Washington's self-serving free trade rhetoric

Switzerland, Taiwan seek UN membership

HISTORY: Demons and Democrats: the story of the Labor Split

Books: JOHN GORTON: He Did It His Way, by Ian Hancock

MEDIA: Stem cells: what debate?

Books promotion page

Debating points

by John Styles

News Weekly, April 6, 2002

Debating points

On 25 March, ABC TV's Lateline presenter Tony Jones ran a "debate" between former Liberal senator Michael Baume and academic Robert Manne. "Children overboard" was one of the issues. As is frequently the case with Lateline, the structure and conduct of the "debate"proved as interesting as the issue in question.

Lateline "debates" have long been loaded affairs. The selection of experts and the composition of the pundit panels have long appeared to be designed to ensure that the politically correct ABC line prevails - through the sheer weight of comment, if not from the quality of argument.

The behaviour of the "moderator" in these contests is crucial.

Jones threw the first question to Manne - an open one about the propensity of the day's events in the "children overboard" Senate hearing to embarrass the Howard Government. It was a gift.

When, at one stage, Baume interjected over a particularly contentious claim, Jones directed Baume to "let Robert Manne finish his point". Yet, later when Manne repeatedly interrupted Baume, the moderator did not intervene.

While Manne preferred to deal in generalisations, Michael Baume argued that the semantics were vital to an understanding of the whole issue.

But, neither Manne nor Jones were interested in analysing what the key individuals in the episode had actually said. Such analysis may not have suited the prevailing Jones agenda.

Jones continued to supply Manne with open questions. When questioning Baume, the tone and style became challenging and adversarial.

At one point, Robert Manne made this assertion: "I could list, if I had the time, 30 or 40 members of the Government in one capacity or another who knew what the truth was."

Jones let that sweeping statement go completely unchallenged. He could have invited Manne, on the spot, to name, if not 30 or 40, just 20. Putting Robert Manne on the spot and probing his assertions was not what this "debate" was all about.

As well as allowing Manne to open the debate, Jones also tried to give him the last word. The ABC likes that kind of symmetry. Baume, however, thwarted that by interjecting and bringing the segment to a close with a fact that much of the media have been trying hard to ignore.

"For heaven's sake," Michael Baume said, "did the kids end up in the water or didn't they ... the following day when they sank the boat? And there's incontrovertible evidence that they damaged the boat and put their children at risk in the water."

Jones urgently broke in. "I'm not trying, I'm not trying to cut you off from making that point," he told Michael Baume, "we are actually out of time." When it comes to airing facts the Left would rather ignore, aren't they always?


About a week earlier, Tony Jones had been less concerned about cutting Philip Ruddock off when the Immigration Minister tried to make a point about the Woomera detainees.

On the 19 March edition of Lateline, Jones attempted to contain the debate about the alleged psychological effect of detention on child detainees strictly within his own terms.

When Ruddock tried to suggest that the issue of children in detention should be viewed in the broad context of the whole illegal immigrant question, Jones protested and this exchange ensued:

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, what I will tell you is what we do in relation to these matters.

If we have advice that a child is suffering developmentally, psychologically or otherwise, in a way in which it is preferable for them to be removed into the community and away from their parents because that is in their best interests, that happens.

But if the advice that we receive is that whatever harm it is believed they are likely to suffer would be even greater if they were removed from their parents, we don't do it. In other words, the advice that we most frequently receive is that the intact family unit ought to remain intact.

And the alternative course that is offered - and when you recognise that at the moment in detention we have something like 1,600 people and 800 of those people, almost 800 of those people, are being held for removal - in other words, they're not refugees.

They have no lawful basis to be in Australia. They could be removed tomorrow if they were prepared to co-operate with us ...

TONY JONES: Can I come back to the question of their mental health, Minister, because that is the question that is at stake here. Can you name one...

PHILIP RUDDOCK: It is not the only question, Tony.

TONY JONES: It is the question we're discussing tonight.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, that's the question you want me, no, Tony, that's the question you want me to deal with.

TONY JONES: With respect, Minister, that is the question we asked you to come on and deal with ...

That Afghan and Iraqi arrivals are making their way to Australia from safe haven in Indonesia and entering the country illegally are facts that do not sit comfortably with ABC presenters like Tony Jones.

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