When official sources fail, good journalists shine. One of the best was the BBC’s Anthony Lawrence, who died in Hong Kong in September 2013 at the venerable age of 101. One of his greatest stories is an example of how news, like desperate people fleeing horrific situations, has a way of getting out. What would he have made of coverage of Australia’s refugee story?
Anthony Lawrence was the BBC’s Asia correspondent for 50 years. For much of that time China was closed to the outside world and foreign correspondents like Lawrence used often imaginative means to find out what was going on behind the Bamboo Curtain.
It’s not that information wasn’t pouring out of the country, it was. It’s just that it was a bit, shall we say, selective.
The world didn’t read about China’s Great Famine from the glossy, gleaming pages of China Reconstructs magazine or from bulletins issued by the New China News Agency, as Xinhua was known in those days.
Instead, China watchers like Lawrence had to piece together fragments of rumour and individual testimony and find sometimes ingenious ways to verify them.
Lawrence famously verified reports of China’s horrific famine which began in the late 1950s by the simple expedient of asking the post office how many food parcels were being sent by Hong Kong people to the People’s Republic.
The border was always officially tightly controlled and unofficially highly porous, which made Hong Kong so invaluable to interested journalists and foreign spies.
Throughout my childhood people were escaping to Hong Kong from the horror across the border. Many came by sea. We’ll never know how many people attempted the short, dangerous journey across Deep Bay which separated Hong Kong from the mainland.
They were the freedom swimmers and they were called illegal immigrants too, just like the refugees attempting the short, dangerous journey from Indonesia to Australia.
Just like today’s refugees they were willing to risk everything, including their lives, for the chance of freedom and a better life.
Deep Bay is about four miles long and is not really deep. It wasn’t a long swim but if you didn’t get shredded by the razor-sharp oyster beds and made it past the gunboats there were still the sharks to contend with.
One young woman lost her leg in a shark attack but made it to Hong Kong and was interviewed from her hospital bed by the local newspapers. Her four companions were not so lucky. They disappeared in the swirling melee and were not seen again.
Her story jarred with what I knew about China, gleaned from Cultural Revolution stories of heroic peasants and the smiling front covers of China Reconstructs which littered our flat in Macdonnell Road.
Why would you risk getting eaten by sharks when hitting record steel production targets looked like such a buzz?
Mostly though, the freedom swimmers did not make the news. If they were unlucky they disappeared into the dark waters of Deep Bay, unremarked and forever uncounted.
If they were lucky they melted away into the crowded Hong Kong streets, emerging from the shadows at the post office counter to send money or food to their relatives in China and perhaps talk to a curious journalist.
It was that unofficial channel which Lawrence recognised and followed until he came to something approaching the truth.
News has a way of getting out no matter how tightly controlled the official channels.
That’s something the new government of Australia has been learning since it announced on Monday, 23 September that it would no longer be making announcements about refugees. Instead information would be tightly controlled.
Here’s how it was covered by Emma Griffiths for the ABC:
Less than a week later, on Saturday 28 September the nation was treated to the sight of our prime minister running from a sporting breakfast to avoid questions from journalists about the latest tragedy at sea, included in this report from Channel Ten.
It’s a strategy Tony Abbott employed without much criticism from the media while in opposition and therefore no surprise from a ‘no surprises’ PM or, at least, it really shouldn’t be.
But now that he has control of the official channels it is past time that he was held to a higher standard of account by the fourth estate.
After all, democratic, free societies like the one which elected Mr Abbott are not usually defined by centralised weekly bulletins and tightly controlled information flows determined by someone in a military uniform.
And our leaders are not usually depicted on the evening news running across a football field to avoid questions. Another advantage of a male prime minister: no pesky heels to slow him down on the turf.
With the official channels choked, social media is making sure the news gets out but that doesn’t mean we don’t need good journalists doing what they’ve always done, getting out and talking to people and getting to something approaching the truth.
This is a very good week to remember one of journalism’s finest.
When Tony Lawrence wrapped up at the BBC in 1974 after half a century of service he stayed in Hong Kong and volunteered to work with the International Social Services, an organisation which assists refugees.
In 2002 the ISS opened the Anthony Lawrence Refuge for Newcomers in his honour.
I don’t think his ground-breaking journalism or the humanitarian efforts it inspired would have occurred if he’d been content to wait for the official press releases or to whinge about being left off ‘the drip.’
There’s a story breaking on our shores. It will continue to break as long as getting torn apart by sharks, drowning at sea or rotting forgotten in one of the detention centres of our making seems a better prospect than the horrors left behind.
News, like desperate people, gets out. Good journalists are part of that. The rest is just propaganda.
Obituaries of Anthony Lawrence from:
© Sally Baxter 2013