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Why it matters that Greenpeace lied and the press doesn't seem to care

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 12 January 2006


Last Sunday the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise rammed the Japanese whaling mother ship Nisshin Maru. Greenpeace representatives attempted to shift the blame onto the Japanese saying they were the ones who were rammed, but none of the photographic evidence supports them.

You won't read it that way in any news report that I have seen, even though that is what happened. What you will read is that Greenpeace say they were rammed. Then, later in the story you will see the Japanese counter claim. Nowhere will you see anyone attempt to resolve the conflict, even though more than enough evidence is festooned all over the 'net for even the densest of would-be-investigative cub reporters to be able to find it. If they can't find it for themselves, links to all the relevant information have been helpfully gathered together by Jennifer Marohasy here, starting with photos that were emailed to her, and others, by the Japanese on Sunday at about the same time news outlets were reporting the Greenpeace propaganda.

Why is it that most media organisations have got the story so wrong - even our own ABC?

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Probably because Greenpeace put their press release out first and were more accessible (and better copy) than the Japanese. Greenpeace not only gave journalists words, but vision and sound - virtually writing the story for them. It also fitted the paradigm - whalers bad: whale protesters good - so it was an easy write. But this is no excuse. The media's job is more than just copying, pasting and publishing the first press release they see. In an age where information is the new gold it is more important than it has ever been that they don't just serve-up intellectual iron pyrites as information.

Of course, some journalists will have become partisan, and while they might be obsessive about whether John Howard lies, they'll give the "good guys" as much latitude as they need.

But does it matter? Afterall, the Greenpeace ship was the only one that sustained any damage.

Yes, it matters a lot.

For starters, it is, at the best, recklessness or gross negligence to damage another's property like this, and from what I understand, it occurred in Australian Antarctic waters. Added to that, and probably even more serious, is the attempt to cover-up - hot heads may do things on the spur of the moment, and may have excuses, but cool heads at head office have a duty not to compound the offence. Are we so postmodern that destruction of property only matters if it is committed by someone we disapprove of? On grounds of sheer equity and justice, it matters. It also matters because the Australian Government supports Greenpeace via our taxes. If we don't inquire into this incident, then we are all complicit in it. If the Greenpeace captain and crew aren't questioned by federal police if they dock here, we are all complicit in it. If Greenpeace officials operating here aren't questioned by federal police we are all complicit in it. The pressure won't be on for this to happen unless journalists ask their own questions.

It also encourages dishonesty - the art of the whopper. If Greenpeace can get away with telling a lie that their own video footage contradicts, what incentive is there for them to keep even close to the truth in future. This isn't just a problem for us, it is a problem for them. Failing to detect and expose bad and corrupt behaviour, or even rewarding it, encourages the promotion and takeover of organisations by the bad and corrupt. Think Kenneth Lay, Richard Nixon, Alan Bond.

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Perversely, not only will it encourage Greenpeace to continue to behave badly, but it could even convince the Japanese that if they are going to be wrongly blamed for ramming Greenpeace, they might as well do it anyway. What have they got to lose?

It matters because it taints the cause that Greenpeace is allegedly supporting. It is a betrayal of all those who believe whaling is wrong, and of those who donate to Greenpeace. Shouldn't a good journalist be interested in that? It also taints every other cause that Greenpeace is associated with. Bad behaviour is rarely quarantined to just one incident or one area.

It matters because it corrupts journalistic practice. Journalists are encouraged to become lazy or partisan, to think that it doesn't matter what they produce, as long as it looks good and they produce it to deadline. It promotes the idea that journalism is just another branch of public relations, rather than the frontline of history. What sort of journalist observes a crime occurring and then doesn't try to sort out the facts?

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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