Australia’s ‘Indonesia lobby’ turns sights on media

Stephen Grenville at The Lowy Interpreter has singled out Fairfax’s Jakarta correspondent, Tom Allard (The Age, Sydney Morning Herald), for special praise in a blog about Australian journalists reporting on Indonesia. He gives thanks in particular for these four recent pieces, saying they are examples of the kind of reporting that could promote better understanding between the two unlikely neighbours.

Grenville doesn’t really spell out what systems or guidelines his new journalistic paradigm should follow in order to bridge the culture gap, however. He had earlier complained that the Jakarta-based Australian correspondents, and the Australia media in general, were “carping, condescending and critical” about Indonesia. Specifically, he said they were missing the point, or worse, pushing their anti-Indonesian “prejudices”, by reporting about the Bank Century scandal as a corruption story. The ongoing parliamentary brouhaha about the 700-million-dollar bank bailout is nothing but “pure politics”, in Grenville’s view.

The complicated saga of Bank Century is, of course, about corruption and politics, and I think this is generally how it has been reported in the Australian media. It is a case of political parties using trumped up criminal charges to try to snatch power over key economic ministries from the democratically appointed (and probably innocent) incumbents. The purpose of this power grab is not because of any genuine  ideological dispute over policy or economic development, but because control of these portfolios offers great opportunities for personal and commercial enrichment.

“Not pretty, very distracting for the president, but part of the messy process of democracy,” concludes Grenville. With this he betrays the sort of patronising condescension he accuses the Australian media of showing toward Indonesia. Bank Century is distracting and messy not only for the president but also for the parliament and the whole long-term process of democratic reform, which has been put on hold for months while lawmakers conduct this political witch-hunt without any regard for their responsibilities or the law. Unlike anything in recent Australian politics, not even the “utegate” scandal, the Bank Century saga goes on and on into sad new depths of political irresponsibility and extra-legal muck.

Getting back to the point, Grenville’s suggestion is that reporting about corruption doesn’t make a very helpful contribution to the task of changing  popular Australian attitudes toward Indonesia, which he and others think are inherently wrong and in need of correction.  Presumably many Australians see Indonesia as a corrupt country, whereas Grenville would prefer they saw it as a flourishing democracy. The problem for this either-or way of thinking is that Indonesia is both these things. The issue is in the balance and no one, certainly not Grenville or the Australian correspondents, knows how it will turn out.

In the absence of a fuller explanation of his ideas, Grenville refers to another Lowy Interpreter contribution by Geraldine Doogue to help illustrate what he is talking about. The veteran Australian broadcast journalist and TV anchor calls for Australian correspondents in Jakarta, and “the region” as a whole, to focus less on issues that separate Australians from their neighbours and more on those which affirm the similarities. She cites examples in the field of what might be called “lifestyle” issues, such as how the new Asian middle classes juggle work and family, or raise children amid the challenges of changing technology.

Not very newsworthy

Doogue, who has not done much actual corresponding from Asia during her long career, says Australian reporters in Asia should be “concentrating on similar problems, especially among urban dwellers”. This would “lead to a much truer representation of contemporary lives (and) assist a better national conversation that would ultimately buttress sensible inter-country dialogue”.

In a wide range of areas — the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes, decreasing physical exercise, dramatically rising rates of obesity, poor work-life balance, quality of parliamentarians — citizens in Australia and the region can easily swap notes. The modern middle-class predicament of encouraging optimal development of children amid an ICT revolution and of a broad search for meaning amid brittle traditions is very much a shared dilemma, as any cursory conversation will reveal.

The Bank Century story is all about the “quality of parliamentarians”, as is almost every story about corruption and poor governance in Indonesia. Such issues fill the Indonesian media every day. Judging by the local media coverage, these are of central concern to most Indonesians, including the vast majority who live in villages outside Doogue’s urban, middle-class elite.  So naturally they are also a preoccupation for the Australian news gatherers based in the country (that is when they are not chasing Sri Lankan asylum seekers to pander to the border security hysteria in their homeland).

Corruption is a concern that Indonesians and Australians genuinely share, more so than type-2 diabetes and “work-life balance”. Furthermore, Australians who think Indonesia has problems with corruption and human rights are not just correct to think so, they probably underestimate how bad it is because they simply cannot imagine what most Indonesians have to go through.

Of the four articles Grenville showcases by Allard, only one (about Indonesian collectors of old, Australian-made Holden cars) might fall into Doogue’s category of shared “lifestyle” interests. Another deals with shared interests only to the limited extent that Indonesians and Australians still care about a small incident involving resistance to Japanese occupation 65 years ago. The other two – about agriculture and human rights abuses in Papua, and the unique culture of Sumba – deal with issues and subject matter that are totally alien to Australians and indeed to most Indonesians as well. Yet in my opinion they are the best stories of the four highlighted by Grenville.

Another good example of Jakarta-based reporting was an analysis piece by The Australian’s Stephen Fitzpatrick, which gave readers a reality-check on President Yudhoyono’s promise during a trip to Australia in March to pass a law against people smuggling. Australian parliamentarians gave the ex-general a standing ovation, but Fitzpatrick’s view from Jakarta was that no one should be applauding until the law is drafted, passed and properly implemented. Deeds, not words, are what count in Indonesia.

In a rebuttal to some of Grenville’s complaints about the media, Australian Financial Review Asia-Pacific editor Greg Earl said he wore such criticism as a badge of honour. “At least I can use it as evidence for the defence next time I’m accused of being a member of the Indonesia Lobby,” he wrote in the Lowy Interpreter in March.

The first thing that I find so frustrating from the people who can instantly identify the ‘carping, condescending and critical’ journalism is that they don’t turn the page or flick to another news outlet on the same day to see the range of material in the Australian media at any one time on Indonesia.

Japan or India can only dream about getting the same sort of coverage. Last week was a case in point. I don’t think any fair assessment of the week’s output would find that Stephen’s three Cs prevailed.

Indeed I was struck by the way some of the most critical commentary through the week came from Hal Hill (subscribers only) and Ross McLeod (East Asia Forum) — two economists who come straight out of the same mould as Stephen. So I guess by definition they wouldn’t be carping or condescending.

The second thing that guardians of the relationship [between Indonesia and Australia – ie the Indonesia lobby] have to get used to is that as we go down the track of more integration between the two countries in whatever sector of life that proves possible there is likely to be more unruly commentary from people who are new to the territory — from journalism and elsewhere.

He adds that the nature of the relationship will be shaped “at the soccer or on cable TV” and not in a “rarified discussion on fora like this”. His first point above also points to the fact that Grenville offers no research to back up his claims about the prejudices of the Australian media and the nature of their discourses on Indonesia.

(Farmer photo courtesy of rachdian via flickr)

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