The press has always played a key role in forming public opinion on international relations. An earlier generation of journalists (Peter Hastings comes to mind) brought informed and sympathetic understanding to the task of bringing Australians up to speed on Asia. How times have changed!
The national broadsheet, The Australian, has taken a leading role on the current tensions with Indonesia. Based on a 'well-connected insider who asked not to be named', the paper made the case that the phone tapping of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's wife was just a normal part of commonly accepted practice. SBY shouldn't feel insulted by the justification given: we had to do it because she is the power behind the throne.
More recently, The Australian gave prime space to the argument that the 'boats policy (is) a boon for Jakarta as well.'
How can we make any sense of this? Are naval intrusions into Indonesia’s territorial waters actually helpful for SBY? Is his palpable anger at this and the phone-tapping just part of the usual shadow-play?
SBY's principal political challenge is how to maintain his family's reputation and influence through the 2014 election process and beyond. After two terms, he cannot run again for president, but he has political aspirations for other members of his family in the future, and of course he would like history to see him as an effective president. It is absurd to argue that looking impotent in the face of personal insult and ineffectual in the face of territorial infringements (given the history, a super sensitive issue for the Indonesian public) is somehow in SBY's own interests.
Perhaps the explanation lies elsewhere, possibly in The Australian's editorial attitude to Indonesia.
In an on the record conversation with the Australian Financial Review late last year, The Australian's Chief Editor Chris Mitchell offered his opinion that Indonesia is 'probably the most corrupt country on earth' (the commonly-accepted measure, from Transparency International, rates more than 60 countries as more corrupt than Indonesia). He also argues that Indonesia has been soft on terrorism: 'the official view from Jakarta and the Indonesian papers all through 2003 was Jemaah Islamiyah was a charitable organisation and that Abu Bakar Bashir was a holy man.'
It's true that Bashir has a vocal support group in Indonesia but to see this as the 'official view' is an amazing assertion, given the record. Bashir was imprisoned without trial from 1978 to 1982 and then spent the next 17 years in exile in Malaysia to avoid re-incarceration. In April 2003 he was charged with treason and given a three-year jail sentence on other offences. In 2004 he was charged with involvement in bomb attacks and was sentenced to two and a half years jail, overturned by the Supreme Court in 2006. In 2010 he was charged with involvement in terrorist activities and sentenced to 15 years in jail. In the democratic post-Soeharto era, it was harder to find judicial cause to jail Bashir but you can't seriously argue that the authorities weren't trying.