Peter Dutton demands apology from media over Manus controversy

Gareth Hutchens

Peter Dutton has demanded an apology from the media for their reporting on the origins of a violent disturbance on Manus Island two weeks ago and reiterated his claim that the violence was connected with an incident when, he said, a five-year-old boy was led into the island’s detention centre.

Dutton said the ABC and Fairfax Media, among others, had relied on the testimony of Papua New Guinean politician Ronny Knight, who Dutton said was a discredited witness because he had been dismissed from parliament over corruption findings.

Journalists had “morphed into advocates” and “lost control of any dispassionate view of this circumstance”, he told Sky News on Monday evening. He also criticised Guardian Australia.

Last Thursday Dutton said the violence, in which shots were fired at and around the immigration detention centre on Manus Island, occurred after local people witnessed asylum seekers leading a five-year-old boy towards the centre, implying they intended to sexually assault him.

But the top police officer on Manus, David Yapu, said the event Dutton referred to had nothing to do with the violence – it had occurred two weeks earlier, the boy was in fact 10 and he had gone to the centre to ask for food. Police were not investigating it in relation to the shooting, which Yapu said was caused by drunk soldiers responding to a dispute over the use of a football field.

On the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, Dutton dug in behind his controversial comments. But the pressure mounted on Monday, with Labor demanding that Dutton apologise for his “irresponsible and outrageous” commentary and the Greens calling for him to resign. Conservative columnist and broadcaster Andrew Bolt called for Dutton to prove his claim or apologise.

In Monday’s interview with Sky News, Dutton said he stood by his original comments “100%”.

“We have seen allegations and charges in relation to a number of sexual assaults, and the fact remains that a number of males who were within the population on Manus Island were involved in leading a young boy into the detention centre and that matter is being investigated,” he said.

“If somebody from the ABC or from Fairfax or the Guardian or some of these fringe dwellers out in the internet have a different view, a more substantive view, a more informed view, then let them put it on the table.

“But I’ve provided the facts as they’ve been advised to me by my department and those people with knowledge of what’s happened on the ground, and I’m not changing my position, my version, one bit, because the advice that I’ve got I’ve reconfirmed again today.”

Knight had also criticised Dutton’s account during an ABC radio interview on Monday and Dutton said his intervention exposed the broadcaster as partisan because Knight had been dismissed from PNG’s parliament last week following corruption findings.

Dutton told Sky on Monday: “I think the ABC has lost the plot and they should be out apologising.

“In relation to a lot of the journalists, they’ve morphed into advocates and they’ve lost control of any dispassionate view of this circumstance.

“What I said is factual, I stand by it 100%, and I’m not going to be cowed into a different position when I know what I said to be the truth.

“I’ll stand by those comments and I expect the ABC and Fairfax and others to be making an apology in the next 24 hours or so given the revelations that have been released tonight in relation to their discredited witness.”

Knight was found guilty of misappropriating public funds in 2015 and the country’s leadership tribunal had recommended his dismissal from public office, Fairfax reported.

Knight had appealed against that decision but the ruling was upheld on Wednesday – meaning he was technically dismissed from public office last week.

Knight was introduced by ABC host Fran Kelly as a serving MP, and he referred to himself as such during the interview.

Knight criticised Dutton during the interview for making the “ridiculous” claim that he knew more about what was happening on Manus Island than local authorities.

“His comment that he knows more than we do is ridiculous,” Knight said in Monday’s ABC interview. “I’m on the ground, I’m the MP from here. If he knows more than I do then he must have a really good intelligence organisation and it must be Australian, not Papua New Guinean.”

Dutton told Sky: “These people can take the word of somebody that’s been discredited but that is an issue frankly for the credibility of the ABC, Fairfax and others, and I think they need to reflect on their position because they’ve really turned into advocates as opposed to professional journalists.”

Guardian Australia had not reported Knight’s comments.

In his initial comments last week, Dutton told Sky News: “I think there was concern about why the boy was being led, or for what purpose he was being led, away back into the regional processing centre.

“I think it’s fair to say that the mood had elevated quite quickly. I think some of the local residents were quite angry about this particular incident and another alleged sexual assault,” he said, while conceding he did not have “full details”.

Yapu flatly contradicted his account, saying: “It’s a total separate incident altogether.”

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