#BorderFarce. Shooting the messenger 101

Inept. Unfathomable. Hopeless. I'm not sure my thesaurus has enough words to describe the complete and utter shemozzle that was last week's Border Force debacle, aka #BorderFarce, in Melbourne. The coals of this event-that-wasn't have been well scraped over by now but there is one aspect of the story that deserves a little more fanning.

It has to do with writing or, more specifically, writers writing on behalf of other people.

The fuel of this issue was a media release issued by the Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28. Australian Border Force is the new militaristic name of what used to be Customs and Immigration – the people who work in airports and ports making sure that people entering Australia have permission to do so via their passport and/or visa and don't carry potential nasties in their luggage. Presumably the name change is designed to make visitors to this country that little bit more wary of trying to enter without having their paperwork in order, lest they incur the wrath of the Force.

But I digress.

The media release in question is not very long and talks about Australia Border Force officers working with various Victorian agencies "targeting everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants". It speaks of the pride Don Smith, ABF Regional Commander Victoria and Tasmania, has in the ABF's participation in the operation, and then quotes him as saying that: “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with. You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out.”

Unsurprisingly, this release instantly blew up in the faces of those in charge, who include Smith himself, his boss the commissioner of the ABF and (under the Westminster system of government) the relevant minister, Peter Dutton, and, ultimately, the prime minister. The back pedalling was almost audible over the protesters.

Blame was quickly shifted to the one person who is blameless in all of this: the nameless "low-level official" who wrote the "clumsily-worded" media release.

This is where my blood reached boiling point.

Let's get one thing very clear

A year-10 politics student could have told you that many of the statements in the media release represented a gross overreach of the ABF's powers and might well be interpreted as representing a move to some sort of new police state. So let's give ABF the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't actually intend roaming the streets of Melbourne in jackboots asking people for their papers. The alternative is too incredible to contemplate.

Let's just say it was a case of lousy communication, starting with the media release.

But let's be clear. If you hire, or ask, someone to write something on your behalf, in no way does that absolve you of responsibility for what is written. It doesn't matter whether you are hiring a professional ghostwriter or asking your personal assistant to write for you. It doesn't matter whether the writing is of a speech or an article or a blog post or an advertisement or a media release. It doesn't matter whether the piece of writing includes direct quotes or not (though it looks even worse if it does).

The person responsible for a piece of writing is the person whose name is attached to it. That person, in this case, was Don Smith in the first instance. After that it was anyone above him who had delegated responsibility to him.

The writer? He or she is not to blame. Full stop.

Busyness is no excuse for those responsible. Nor is laziness. The failure to bother reading a media release, or any other piece of writing, before it is distributed is no excuse. Failure to bother reading it, or a related briefing note, at all is no excuse.

And another thing

Finally, if you do send out a piece of communication – even a well-vetted one – and it is misinterpreted by its audience, don't then blame the audience. In the latest move, as reported on Crikey.com.au, ABF head Roman Quaedvlieg sent out a note to staff on Monday referring to “the wide mischaracterisation of the ABF’s role in this activity by media outlets and online commentary.”

So perhaps it's not the low-level official's fault after all. It's our fault for misreading what was written. Go figure.

On the upside he also refers to a review of the processes in the lead up to the media release. Presumably the recommendations of that review will include the people who are quoted in releases actually reading what is attributed to them before distribution.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

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