A scene from the 2009 film 'Balibo', which tells the story of Australian journalists murdered in East Timor. Photo by Robert Connolly/ Arena media on flickr.

A scene from the 2009 film ‘Balibo’, which tells the story of Australian journalists murdered in East Timor. Photo by Robert Connolly/ Arena media on flickr.

A new book on Australian journalists in Indonesia poses some tough questions about the bi-lateral relationship. Hamish McDonald reports.

Here we are again, poised on the brink of another media frenzy as two Australian drug convicts come closer and closer to a firing squad in Indonesia, barring a late change of heart by President Joko Widodo.

If Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are executed, can we expect that the media, on the Australian side in particular, will once again stand accused of ignoring the Indonesian big picture for the sake of sensation and spectacle?

Fairly or not, they probably will. As Australian National University specialist on modern Indonesia Ross Tapsell concludes in a new book – By-lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings: Australian Journalists in Indonesia – the trend of journalism is not in the direction of measured cultural studies.

In his book Tapsell, a researcher from the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, tells the story of Australians who have reported on Indonesia from the end of World War II until the present day.

“As Australian reporting of Indonesia reaches nearly 70 years, it is lamentable that the power shifts have led to greater sensationalism, distortion and spectacle in the reporting of our neighbours,” Tapsell says.

These “power shifts” are economic and technological. A round-the-clock news cycle, shrinking of editorial budgets, rapid “backgrounding” from the internet, wireless communications, satphones, cheap air fares have made this the golden age of parachute journalism.

The “Asia hand” correspondent who acted as a knowledge broker introducing the Australian public to its newly independent neighbours in the 1950s through to the 1980s is an archaic figure. Except occasionally in magazines and doco festivals, the idea of long pieces about Indonesia gets a yawn from Australian editors. For Indonesia’s media, Australian news is Steve Irwin’s bizarre death or the MKR winner.

For a correspondent who reported from Jakarta in the late 1970s, today’s technology is a dream. Jakarta then had less than 50,000 landlines, scarcity pushing connection fees sky high, and exchanges got overloaded in working hours. Knowledgeable sources would not talk on the phone anyway.

Getting a story out meant taking a typed version down to the public telecom office and handing it to a telex operator in the hope of speedy dispatch, or making a reverse-charge call from a public phone booth there to Sydney and dictating it to a copy-taker.

When we went down to the Timor border or into Kalimantan, we could be out of touch for a week or more.

The five TV newsmen killed at Balibo in October 1975 had no means of communicating with the outside world beyond messages and film reels sent by car to Dili, the film then going by air back to the television channels in Australia.

Now, we’re “sabotaged by our own technology”, Tapsell notes.

“Today’s foreign correspondents can, and often do, spend much of their time working from the office.” To be fair, Jakarta traffic also has something to do with it. Going downtown in the hope of door-stopping a minister or senior official is a gamble likely to be wasteful of half a day.

But some journalists manage to break away from Schapelle Corby, the Bali Nine, and boat-turnbacks. The recent Fairfax correspondent Michael Bachelard did some fine long reports from Papua. The ABC Geoff Thompson’s program-long report on Prabowo Subianto’s presidential run in 2009 was a standout.

Competitive pressure kept correspondents, if not office-bound, at least tied to their base long before the digital revolution. In 1965-66 travel outside Jakarta was difficult and often blocked by the military. In addition, correspondents were kept in Jakarta by their editors who saw the leadership struggle between the ailing president Sukarno and General Suharto as the overriding news interest rather than chasing rumours of mass slaughter.

The editors were not encouraged otherwise by a government that welcomed Suharto’s “creeping coup” as the strategic break in what was looking like Southeast Asia’s steady drift into communism.

Up to then, Australia’s media generally reflected government attitudes towards Indonesia. Correspondents during the 1945-49 independence struggle had ready access to Sukarno, and found the Dutch stiff and authoritarian. In the late 1950s, the wisdom of Richard Casey’s support for the rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi was barely questioned.

But by the 1990s, Tapsell writes, “Australian journalists’ ability to disrupt bilateral relations caused officials to distrust the press, and impose greater pressures on their freedoms, so much so that they began to employ similar tactics to that of the Indonesian government in attempting to influence coverage of Indonesia.”

When did they start to diverge? Tapsell thinks the Balibo killings were decisive, citing on one hand writer John Birmingham’s observation that they “fuelled a lasting antipathy within the Australian media towards the Suharto regime and more generally towards the Indonesian state”, and on the other the charge of “obsession” by exasperated officials and politicians.

But disillusionment with Indonesia and then Suharto surely started some years earlier, tracking through Confrontation, the manipulated “act of free choice” in Papua in 1969, and the crackdown on liberal critics like the editor Mochtar Lubis and lawyer Adnan Buying Nasution in 1974.

Nor has the search for the full story of Balibo been motivated by antipathy towards the whole of Indonesia. Much of it came out from investigations by journalists like David Jenkins and myself, sometimes regarded as overly forgiving of Suharto.

As much as the war crimes committed on the spot, the interest in Balibo came from piercing the veil that diplomats and intelligence agencies drew around the incident. As Jill Jolliffe wrote, there was also a sense of collegial duty: if I were killed, I would want colleagues to find out what happened.

But obsessed with it? The Australian media now has an institutional memory measured in days, if not hours, with fragments of collective memory rising like Jungian dreams.

All governments have to wrestle with such a beast. Australia experienced it in 2009 when a spate of robberies and attacks on Indian students set off a frenzy in India’s new online and cable-TV media.

Is it the messenger or the message?

Hamish McDonald is author of ‘Suharto’s Indonesia’ and ‘Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st century’, and co-author with Desmond Ball of ‘Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra’. He is currently journalist-in-residence at The Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

‘By-lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings: Australian journalists in Indonesia’ is available from Australian Scholarly Publishing.