239 Letter from Mott to Woolcott

Canberra, 23 September 1975


The Secretary and Graham Feakes have asked me to reply to your comments about the role of Radio Australia and our handling of the media in relation to the Timor problem.

We have conveyed to Radio Australia the feeling that seems to be developing in some quarters in Jakarta that their reports have some bias towards Fretilin. They said that they would take these views into account-a reaction that would be familiar to you. They speculated however that it might be an Indonesian tactic to bring pressure to bear on Radio Australia, for Indonesian purposes, through the Embassy and the Department, by alleging partiality on Radio Australia's part.

We have also had in mind that, until about a week ago, most of the news that came out of Timor was inevitably Fretilin-based news (and Radio Australia does not apologise for using this) and of course the impact of this was increased by such events as the visit of the Australian Members of Parliament-although I do not think that they have had a great effect here so far and of course the Indonesians are aware that they do not speak for the government. 1 With Parliament not sitting at the moment, (it resumes on 30 September), there is not so much opportunity to put an alternative position on the public record.

Let me assure you that, within these obvious limits we are providing Radio Australia, and other media organisations, with as much material as we can to balance assertions that Fretilin is the only possibility for Timor. You will have received a transcript of remarks by the Prime Minister on television on 21 September which will be helpful from this point of view. Additionally, we have looked at the RA transcripts over the past week and conclude that they are not partial to Fretilin; there have been several reports that rely solely on Indonesian sources-and these are no fewer than the reports from the Fretilin side. In other words, there has been a notable shift of emphasis in the last few days.

As to the question of handling the press, the Secretary has asked me to make the point that the situation in Canberra has changed substantially in recent months. I think that it would be fair to say that many journalists sympathise generally with the government and its policies (although believing in the case of Timor that Australia should be playing a more active political role). But this attitude is not shared by the proprietors, who have hardened in their opposition to a point where they are constantly on the lookout for ammunition to use against the government.

In this situation if we were to go too far with the press along the path that you define in paras 17 and 18 of your telegram 0.JA19002 we would be likely to find that they would seize upon our comments and adapt them for political ends. Activity of this kind, instead of being helpful, might be positively counter-productive from the point of view of the government's objectives.

This however does not mean that we can go no way along that path. I think here that there may be room for a difference of view between us resulting perhaps from distance and perspective. In fact we here don't think we are doing badly in regard to the press. I would contrast the heavy fire that the government came under last month for inactivity and pro­ Indonesia tendencies with what I believe is a greater, although still not complete, understanding now.

President Soeharto's restraint has been acknowledged and praised. The papers, I believe, are accepting more readily the importance of Australia's relations with Indonesia and Indonesia's great interest in Timor as important factors in the situation. Not so often do we read urgings for Australia to be active in a mediatory role. There seems instead to be a disposition to reflect more soberly about the realities of the situation as opposed to wishful thinking about what might be or should be, and I hope that the Indonesians will appreciate that this is so. Finally there is more news in the media these days from the Indonesian side of the border than from the Portuguese, and on the whole there is little of a critical flavour about it.

All this of course does not mean that the press will accept all that the Indonesians may do or say-or indeed that they should do so, or even that we should encourage them towards such a reaction. But the Indonesian position does get a better hearing now, and has gained more understanding, than it had a month ago.

I hope that you can agree that this is so-and that you can give us some credit for it, granting that we are having to steer a cautious path between the potentially potent feelings in favour of Timor for the Timorese and Australian mediatory action on the one hand and a ready, high profile acquiescence in an Indonesian take-over on the other.

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1, xxxiii]