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who arrived in the last wave of boats came from a region sufficiently far away that Australia felt no moral obligation to accept them. At the same time there was a shift to a more legalistic, dehumanising language, a shift that some journalists were sensitive to in the wake of Tampa.

Darrin Farrant of The Age recalls that it was something that was being discussed by his colleagues. “It generated quite an intense debate about the issue and one of the things that came out of it was an argy-bargy on the airwaves and letters to the editor and talk among the politicians about what exactly do we call these people?” he says. So he suggested to his editor that he write an article about the terms of the debate. And since then the terminology, at The Age at least, settled into the now-familiar asylum seeker. In other papers like the Herald Sun “illegal immigrants” (and its derivative “illegals”) made more appearances – a term introduced into the debate by the Minister for Immigration.

“I think it is a debate that Phillip Ruddock has won,” Farrant concedes. “Before that time, up until the Tampa arrived, there’d been quite a few cases where boats had been spotted of the north coast of Australia, they’d been picked up and all those times it was almost always regarded as a boat load of refugees. And now people say asylum seekers. I think that might be because it’s slightly more accurate in the sense that “refugee” is a definition given to someone who has achieved a status. You’re not automatically a refugee under the guidelines of the UN or some other equivalent body until you quality for refugee status. I guess until then you are a would-be refugee. You are an asylum seeker because you’re seeking asylum in another country whether or not you fulfil the criteria. So I think it’s a slightly more accurate description.”

Others believe such language is less about accuracy than a political agenda. Phillip Adams is, in his own words, The Australian’s “token leftie” and an outspoken broadcaster. He is critical of the language in which the debate and media coverage is being conducted. “The last couple of years has been the most vivid dramatisation of what Nineteen Eighty-four was all about when language was being mutilated by a strange, monolithic bureaucracy constantly updated and changed and modified so that people didn’t know what to think, or rather were told exactly what to think and as you know that term for this was “newspeak” in Orwell’s text. And I’ve never seen so much of it around as there is at the moment.” He accuses journalists of laziness in being so willing to adopt it.

“When people doing perfectly legal things like applying for asylum are called “illegals” and when non-existent queues are invented for jumping and people use this, journalists who should know better use it, columnists particularly use it, it distorts and deforms the whole nature of the debate.” He suggests some pundits might be willing to embrace the language because they support the government’s line, but journalism should not succumb to the jargon and shorthand. “When it creeps into news reports it is much more alarming because people are simply [being] lazy.”

© Helen Cronin 2002

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