Guest post by Andrew Farran, international lawyer and former diplomat.
How and why the print media should make itself more relevant by revolutionising its ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns
I am an inveterate ‘Letter to the Editor’ writer. I must confess to this as I’ve written countless hundreds over the years. But given that these tend to be one-day wonders, I have come to ponder whether Letters to the Editor serve a useful purpose anymore in this digital era of Blogs, Twitter and the likes of Facebook.
The print media, even in the face of its decline, has not taken up the challenge which its antiquated ‘letters’ columns now present. What is the purpose and relevance of these letters? Some simply draw attention to something that needs doing or fixing, in the hope that some politician or bureaucrat may notice and respond. Other letters expressing a point of view may bring a perspective to an issue that might otherwise be missed. Some contain a personal explanation. Such original contributions stand alone. But where the letters should get gutsy but are failing is in the area of public policy. Here one-shot missives do not constitute a debate or an informed discussion – and frankly may be pretty pointless and serve to mislead opinion.
I will give a recent example, the one that got me thinking about this. It concerns Australia’s relations with Indonesia in an area where further exceptional difficulties may yet arise. Not the cattle trade, but over West Papua. Here a shot across the bow does not constitute an argument nor make a case. In all likelihood, as in this case, the letters’ editor is more likely to allow a false assertion or misperception to stand rather than opening a path for dialogue. What good is that?
On 5th September The Age published the following letter written on behalf of the Australia West Papua Association:
Afraid to speak truth on W Papua
ON JUNE 25, a petition on West Papua, signed by thousands of Australians, was presented to the House of Representatives. One of the requests concerned the fraudulent referendum (the Act of Free Choice) by which Indonesia ''legitimised'' its violent takeover of West Papua.
It is well documented that in this referendum only 1025 West Papuans, selected by the Indonesian military, were allowed to vote, and that they and their families were threatened if they voted against integration.
Senator Bob Carr has now sent a written response to this petition, stating in effect that the Australian government considers the Act of Free Choice to be a legitimate referendum.
When will we get a government that is not afraid to speak the truth? The Act of Free Choice was a sham, and West Papuans have a legal right to a UN-monitored referendum on self-determination in which all adult West Papuans are allowed to vote, without duress. Australia, and other nations that turned a blind eye to this travesty of justice, have a duty to ensure this happens.
The writer has a fair point but that is not the whole of the matter and a responsible journal should have facilitated a response. Indeed if the letters’ columns are not to remain largely one-shot missives, the print media would be doing itself and its readers a service by facilitating such responses, and engendering an informed and purposeful exchange.
I had attempted to provide a response or comment, particularly as I was well placed at the time of the ‘act of free choice’ to know something of the background (which I explained to The Age – but to no avail).
The response I wished to make was:
Re: West Papua’s 'Act of Free Choice’ (1969)
Note for Editor (not for publication): I should mention in regard to this matter that at the time, in 1969, I was Principal Private Secretary to the then Minister for External Affairs (Gordon Freeth). I have often reflected on this event but believe Australia had no choice but to go along with the UN decisions and the legitimate expectations of the Indonesians.
Yes, the 'act of free choice' in 1969 exercised by some 1025 hand-picked West Papuans in 1969 was in effect a sham (“Afraid to speak truth on West Irian, The Age, 5/9). But it was an important diplomatic face saver.
Indonesian nationalists and governments before and since independence had relentlessly campaigned to inherit the Netherlands East Indies intact, in accordance with established post-colonial practice whereby the original geography of a colony defined the successor state regardless of ethnic distinctions. The right of ‘self-determination’ in the de-colonisation process, as laid down by the UN, was subject to that qualification. Otherwise Africa, for one, would now consist of well over a hundred separate states.
This outcome does not preclude Indonesia from granting West Papua, a distinct region, a reasonable degree of autonomy or self-government. Nor should it excuse any abuse of human rights in that region.
At the time of the ‘act of free choice’ Australia's relations with Indonesia had just emerged from a very turbulent phase (‘Confrontation', etc.) and the government was not about to complicate matters further by defying Indonesia's legitimate expectations, sacrificing the goodwill generated by Australia’s earlier support of Indonesia's independence, or creating a bad situation for future relations.
It is worth noting that at the height of Indonesia's struggles to secure West Irian, it never laid claim to East Timor, as it had not formed part of the Dutch colony (it was in fact Portuguese). However just a few years later Indonesia betrayed its own high ground of principle in regard to legitimate de-colonisation by seeking to annex East Timor. After enduring much suffering and loss of blood over a further two decades, and without much Australian support in the earlier stages, East Timor (now Timor-Leste) gained its own rightful independence and sovereignty following an 'act of free choice'.
[End of letter]
The question this raises is whether letters to the editor, by not providing dialogue and structure, amount to little more than a haphazard form of topical entertainment; and whether in the light of this the print media should grasp the opportunity to transform and restructure these columns into useful fora for an exchange of ideas and comments on defined issues of public importance. Conducted this way readers may find themselves engaged in real debate that has point and continuity. As it is they carry very little weight.