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The Australian publicist selling the Nauru government’s message on mistreated refugees defends his tactics. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The man paid to protect Nauru’s image

It was similar to a dozen firsthand accounts of rape I have heard from alleged victims on Nauru. The woman – we will call her Susan – says she was rushed into bushes by two Nauruan men and assaulted on August 21. Distressed and limp, she called emergency services. The conversation was recorded. “I listen your shout, please come help me,” she said to the police dispatcher. The man on the other end tried to determine her location, made difficult by her obvious distress. Eventually, the sound of emergency sirens is heard on the tape. “I listen, shout ambulance. Please come help me.”

Nauruan police now say the alleged crime never happened. They’ve closed the case. The Nauruan government’s Australian public relations firm, Mercer PR, released unredacted police reports on their behalf. They included forensic details of a vaginal examination. “There was no lacerations or bruising around the vaginal region,” the report read in part, “and a spermatozoa test on the victim after a vaginal swab proved negative.” Most grievously, however, the reports contained the woman’s name – contrary to decency and circumspection, and quite possibly to Australian privacy law. Certainly it is contrary to the woman’s wishes, who fears reprisal. Media organisations, including this one, have suppressed her name in past reporting.

Under fire, Mercer PR respected its own privacy by securing their blogs and Twitter accounts from public scrutiny. But it was too late. This week the company attracted censure from their own industry, politicians, and former police officers.

Mercer PR's relationship with the Nauru government

Remote and sweltering, Nauru is renowned for its citizen’s languorous relationship to time. But absent a history of civic stability, its government can exercise vengeance very quickly. There is no respect for due process that might otherwise slow or retard the expulsion of political opposition, aid workers or a chief magistrate. No, these things happen rapidly. Blink and you might miss them.

This week Nauruan police raided the offices of Save the Children and seized computers and phones. They were looking for proof of whistleblowers two weeks before the non-profit’s contract to supply support to asylum seekers ends. Australian Border Force guards stood by during the raid. We still do not know whether the Australian government was warned of the raid, if they were aware of its legal grounding, or if they thought it appropriate that their contractors be subject to such intrusion. A spokesperson told me: “The Department of Immigration and Border Protection had no role in the events described in your inquiry.”

Within this muddy light, Lyall Mercer works as point man – the link between the Nauruan government and a distant media reporting on human rights abuses for which Australia might be reasonably thought responsible. There is no shortage of administrative farce or allegations of corruption for him to profitably burnish.

Mercer’s initial response to my request for comment was simply: “Our company’s role is limited to assisting in the flow of information between the government of Nauru and the Australian media. The Nauru government, like any government, is entitled to effectively communicate with the public and to use the services of communications professionals. Recent claims that our company made any decisions to release information to the public are inaccurate. Everything sent from our office is on behalf of the government of Nauru and decisions on what to release are made by the government or relevant department.”

Which of course doesn’t answer the question of whether it was appropriate to release the woman’s name. In Mercer’s self-promotional material, he boasts of 20 years’ experience and says he started the firm five years ago after six years working in North America. He promises prospective clients his uncompromising gift of thinking “about what no one else thinks about”.

“My clients pay me primarily to think. I think about the message, the angles, the implications and the pitfalls.”

Now, in the wake of controversy, his professed acuity has been replaced with ceaseless deferrals to his client’s authority. “Decisions on what to release are made by the Government.”

A former journalist, Mercer advises the Queensland taxi industry, Hillsong Church and the Liberal National Party. For years he provided advice to Nauruan politicians, before fully representing the government. In 2012, he wrote an article excoriating the then Labor government’s “offensive stupidity” in considering the “Malaysia Solution” while arguing forcefully for the wisdom of offshore detention on Nauru.

That piece is a paragon of PR sophistry. “But for balance,” Mercer wrote, “let’s first list the negatives of Nauru. The government is unstable… Such is the political structure, the government could change again at any time.” He was seeking the vaunted appearance of objectivity, but he had only done what any high-school debater would do: pre-empt the opposition’s argument – a strategic move, dressed as good faith – then glibly diminish that argument’s consequences. Mercer recognised the dangerous state of Nauru’s government, but it didn’t follow his interests to actually reckon with it.

Mercer then gave his arguments for Nauru. We might examine those arguments now, three years later, and note not only their deliberate naivety but the since-abandoned pugnacity.

Mercer: “Asylum seekers will be treated like humans. The people of Nauru will embrace their visitors… and genuinely look after them. They will be visitors, not prisoners.”

Fact: Detainees have been subject to makeshift camps, indefinite imprisonment, hostile and abusive guards, and their carers have experienced raids and vilification. An alarming number of settled refugees have reported rape, beatings and muggings and a general atmosphere of resentment. Children report being whipped and stomped on by gangs. “One boy was hospitalised,” a 16-year-old Hazara refugee told me. “We don’t fight back. They are much bigger and older than us. They are drunk all day and all night. They say things like, ‘You fucking Muslim, get the fuck out of our country’ and ‘You motherfuckers, I will do whatever I like. There is nothing you can do about it. The Australian government can do nothing for you.’ ”

Mercer: “The Australian government can control the environment… In Malaysia, their government will have the authority to do as they wish.”

Fact: In 2014 the Nauru government unilaterally expelled its coroner – supplied by Australia – after he began investigating the death of the wife of Nauru’s justice and immigration minister. For objecting to this sudden and improper expulsion, the chief magistrate – an Australian – had his visa revoked and he was put on the next plane home.

Mercer: “An island paradise, or an Asian concrete jungle? Where would a person be happier? Asylum seekers can wander to the beach, swim in local waterholes, gaze at the night’s stars and enjoy interesting walks – all at the expense of the Australian taxpayer.”

Fact: A desiccated phosphate mound, the island has had most of its interior left resembling the moon through exhaustless mining. A thin verdant belt rings the island’s 30-kilometre border – a 20-minute car ride – but local hostility, sexual violence and the absence of career prospects make it unclear how much it’s enjoyed. Prior to the camps’ construction, local unemployment was about 80 per cent.

Lyall Mercer's defence

When Mercer agreed to correspond with me this week, I asked about those 2012 arguments and if he stood by them. I also asked if – despite his client’s approval – the release of the woman’s identity was regrettable. His response was long, and in fairness will be largely quoted here.

“In 2012 the piece I wrote was based on the situation at the time. I was not engaged by the government of the day. At that time the Nauru government was dysfunctional and was changing consistently. The current government, however, will most likely run full term and is the most stable government Nauru has experienced for a long while,” Mercer told me.

“From my observations when visiting Nauru, the locals have indeed embraced their visitors. I was at a wonderful lunch organised by church groups to welcome a group of asylum seekers who were part of the initial open centre program. The locals prepared a banquet and put on a concert to introduce them to Nauruan culture, yet unfortunately no asylum seekers turned up on the day. Despite this the locals were not disheartened, but offered prayers for the asylum seekers. I have not identified animosity in any great way from the Nauruan people towards the refugees. Walking around Nauru I see refugees going about their normal activities and – while I assume they would rather be in Australia – they appear to be in no danger. That said, incidents no doubt do happen and from my observation the police take reports seriously.

“Personally, the thought of anyone being treated inhumanely and being hurt is abhorrent to me, and reports of rapes on the island are distressing. However, the police on Nauru report that many of the claims are false, made to put pressure on the Australian government to send them to Australia. This appears to be backed up by much of the evidence and having spoken to the police personally I have no reason to disbelieve them.

“In terms of the recent publicised case – and to directly address your question of the distribution of the police statement – I can say this: The name of the person was not in the media statement but only in the attached police report, which was sent only to a handful of media outlets. Our understanding was – and still is – that these outlets already knew the name of the person, so this was not new information.

“The Nauru Police Force did not ‘publish’ the name as has been falsely reported and as far as I am aware the name has not been published to this day… We were also assured that the person concerned was not a victim of any crime, as proven by the evidence, and therefore the Nauru police were well within their legal and moral right to keep the name on the report. The quite sensationalised media criticism of this decision by the police may be counterproductive, as I fear it will make the Nauru Police Force reluctant to release information of investigations in the future.

“The subject of offshore processing is a very emotive issue, and our company has been subjected to what I consider to be unreasonable abuse as a result of recent publicity. However, we try and stay out of the wider debate on offshore processing as our focus is simply on helping the government of Nauru communicate with the media, so that balance can be brought to the debate and people can make informed decisions.”

Hypocrisy

Reporters have long tired of official responses to their questions about our island camps. The Australian government’s is one of studied reticence. Within its cold simulation of co-operation lies contempt for accountability. The Nauru government’s responses – aided by Mercer – are hot, defensive and artlessly hostile to a media it pretends makes deliberately inaccurate reports. “How dare you ask questions like this?” Mercer replied to ABC journalist Hayden Cooper when he inquired about substantive allegations of corruption. The Australian government at least has the good manners to merely imply contempt.

Mercer’s responses to Australian media – characterised by an unctuous victimhood – conveniently ignore the fact that Australians have been effectively banished from the country where we pay to intern refugees who first sought asylum here. Yet despite this official repulsion of the press, Mercer attributes unflattering reports of Nauru to ignorance. If only they knew our country. This contradiction is self-made and circular – it’s also the height of hypocrisy. Reporters wanting to cover the situation on Nauru are hostage to a capricious and expensive visa process: a non-refundable $8000 application that two years ago cost just $200. Meanwhile, selected local journalists are lately allowed into the camps to “reinstate balance to the story”. Disregard the fog of media releases and crisis management, and the message is clear: You cannot visit nor speak to the people who work here, you cannot check the claims of mistreatment and rape, but listen to us and we will relieve you of your concerns.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "The man paid to protect Nauru’s image ". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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