My first emotion when I saw the image released by the department of immigration and citizenship (DIAC) of a distressed asylum seeker who, having survived the long trip to Australia was told that she would be banished from our shores forever, was one of revulsion.

First transfer to Manus Island under the new regional settlement agreement Photograph: DIAC

The intent behind the image was to invite its viewers to participate in the humiliation of a group of Iranian refugees as a sign of the Rudd government's resolve to expel every asylum seeker arriving by boat to Papua New Guinea. The footage's purpose was to use a young woman's crushed hope as a positive symbol of strength.

Images are now weapons in a communication war. Their production during the election cycle is not merely incidental.

Negative emotional reactions like mine are irrelevant to those who craft such multimedia news packages. Indeed, part of their intent is to demonstrate rejection of those promoting compassion. Behind every public relations image, there is an imagined audience. And in this case, the target audience is people who may respond positively to Labor's election narrative – one that is just as tough as Tony Abbott's and his latest idea to put a three star general in charge of a military effort to repel boats. A secondary target group includes potential refugees who are so scared that they stay put or seek asylum elsewhere.

The government knew the images would upset a host of human rights critics. Asked by a journalist whether the government was involved in "asylum seeker pornography", the minister for immigration and citizenship Tony Burke declined to use that phrase, but said he would "never support release" if the "only impact was for Australian audiences". What is ethically unacceptable became acceptable because a "powerful message" had ricocheted around the pipeline and around the world. For Burke, the harsh image is worthwhile if lives are saved from drowning – which is something we can never know.

Burke went on to tell journalists that if they suggested that the government was not "serious" in implementing the policy, they would be responsible for putting people's live at risk at sea. "How people respond to that claim is completely up to them, but I don't think anyone doubts that it's true," he said. So journalists should put aside any ethical squeamishness about participating in the government's marketing campaign by adopting the policy as their own.

The first package was followed by more images of a few of more than 1,300 affected by the new policy. Male asylum seekers transferred to Manus island were more thoroughly dehumanised, with heads hanging or cropped altogether, as they were pictured being escorted off a plane.

This narrative of deterrence is generated by the DIAC newsroom, which offers a publicly funded "on-line resource designed specifically for the needs of worldwide media practitioners, rich with immediate material ready for on-air, online and in print consumption".

DIAC advertises its 24 hour newsroom as a "must have tool" for journalists, producers and photographers. Its promotion is reminiscent of that of the US department of defence's impressive communication arm, which describes itself as is a state-of-the-art, 24/7 operation that provides a timely, accurate and reliable connection between the media and the military.

First transfer to Manus Island under the new regional settlement agreement Photograph: DIAC

DIAC communication manager Sandi Logan told Fairfax media "it's important to be transparent in the way that we operate". But the real point is to control the narrative – transparency is not on the department's agenda. Journalists are banned from Nauru and Manus Island, and there is no uncensored access for broadcast journalists to mainland detention centres.

From a government point of view, editorial subsidies are less costly than advertising and have more credibility. But reporters who care about accuracy should not report them as fact. Labelling images assuage editors' consciences and let viewers know the game, but may be missed by many. The service is tempting however. For a start, it potentially saves journalists' salaries and travel budgets. And when nothing else is available and a story needs to run, it fills gaps. Fences and occasional smuggled images are poor substitutes for real people.

But Burke's invitation to complicity is a dangerous one for journalism. Just think about the 2001 famous image of asylum seekers apparently throwing their children overboard that helped secure a win for the conservative Coalition parties, and began the long Labor journey to the right. When the photos were later exposed as a lie, the media were seen as complicit in the deceit, just as journalists reporting the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have been apologising for the war ever since.

A spokesperson for DIAC says several broadcasters in Australia used its package, although it did not supply specific details. The ABC used the footage of the first arrival on Manus Island and labeled it. Fairfax Media Kate Geraghty disrupted the strategy by taking herself to Manus Island, where she stood behind a fence where she took photos that recast asylum seekers as real people holding up identity cards. One man held up a mobile phone number that led to a sad story about how he had been separated, perhaps permanently, from his sick wife. Channel 7's Mike Duffy travelled to Indonesia and concluded after speaking to smugglers that the policy won't work. Will Burke hold him responsible if another boat goes down?

Australia's public image may be sliding for some while others love the new look. Some might even have called it a backfire. But even that is too simple. While journalists may justify absorbing manipulate government PR images by critiquing them, they may be further adapted for uncritical use, especially through social media.

But what of asylum seekers waiting in camps? How would they react to these images? Rashid, who has been waiting in Kenya for 22 years, thinks the image is inhuman. Others wonder what happened to last year's No Advantage Policy. The rest of us may wonder whether it is all propaganda rather than news - after all, there is an election on in Australia.