Graham Young’s recent piece in On Line Opinion on Japanese whaling was wrong about the marine traffic incident in the Southern Ocean but what was more suprising was his attack on the media. It is disappointing that Young would follow the Institute of Public Affairs down a greenie-bashing path but it is also hard to understand why online media outlet would pit itself in such a hostile way against mainstream press, radio and TV outlets.
Readers and contributors to this site have access to a great deal of information on both sides of the Southern Ocean argument, so I want to get to the important media issues first before I redress the falsehoods that Young puts out about the ships at sea.
It is becoming clear to anyone who cares about robust media debate that the Fourth Estate is finding its role more difficult, just at a time when it is more important. The media in Australia and around the world are under attack from sedition laws and other supposed national security protections in the post 9-11 political environment. The trend for governments is towards increased secrecy, sexing up national security information and politicisation of intelligence agencies. Yet it becomes harder to report on objectively because all media have their hands tied by inappropriate legislation and the ABC comes under political pressure to toe the line.
Meanwhile we see restrictions on FOI (Freedom of Information) and other governmental transparency safeguards at federal and state levels. These regressive retreats constrain the public's right to know what is going on in civilian policy areas such as health, environment and transport. Sadly, this obsession with secrecy and spin is coming from governments on both sides of the political fence, and it is making the role of environmental NGOs and whistleblowers ever more important. Witness the silly secrecy of the Carr Labor Government and its Cross City Tunnel decision. In the dark corners of public policy, away from the glare of media scrutiny, all sorts of strange things can happen.
The difficulty for newsrooms and journalists is that they were already under pressure from the broader historical changes to the media that have been rolling on for decades. Commercialisation of the media is undermining traditional news values. And journalists are having to deliver more content, faster, with less time to check and investigate. Budget pressures are forcing cuts to current affairs, news and foreign correspondent staff levels, all leading to more pressure on working journalists.
Graham Young is just making things worse for the traditional media when he attacks them. They are the victim not the perpetrators of these changes in their sector. Anyone who cares about the big peace and environment challenges of our era knows the media have to do a better job of holding governments and corporations accountable.
John Howard's big lie about the Sydney coal pact meeting last week just goes to show why environmental reforms rely on good media. Some major outlets put out the Prime Minister's line that coal power can lead to emission reductions of 30 per cent, when in fact that is a reduction of 30 per cent off a business-as-usual increase of well over 100 per cent and would see emissions sky-rocket. The PM's claim would be laughable if only the climate change were not such a major security and economic threat. The point is the public are unable to make an informed judgment about a policy if it is completely misreported.
As an environmental campaigner and a citizen, I believe web media outlets like On Line Opinion should support their colleagues in TV, radio and print media, not shoot the messenger. Crikey! have proven that if online outlet combines good reporting, insider access and a degree of gumption, they earn positive and deserved influence in the wider media.
Now can we look again at the key facts that would have helped Mr Young's heated missive report the truth:
Fact 1. The New Zealand Herald headline said it all, “Japanese set up collision, says expert” (January 12, 2006). The Herald was reporting the analysis of the incident by Monash University maritime law expert Dr Eric Wilson, to quote:
... Dr Eric Wilson, of Monash University, Melbourne, said the Arctic Sunrise was set up for the collision by the clever skipper of the Nisshin Maru. “By executing a 360-degree turn at exactly the moment he did, he created a situation where the Greenpeace vessel could not but strike the Japanese vessel.”
Fact 2. As the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age properly reported, the incident occurred quite coincidentally, as Shane Rattenbury from Greenpeace was talking to Andrew Darby on the phone. It happened that Andrew had called Shane for an update and so he was able to publish the blow-by-blow account of the incident as it unfolded.
Fact 3. Greenpeace expedition members put personal accounts online and these accounts vary in detail but not in substance.
Fact 4. The Japanese whalers have a record of creating potentially dangerous marine incidents and then claiming victim. In 1999, the international Lloyd’s Register recorded that the same Nisshin Maru hit a Greenpeace vessel. The Japanese fleet claimed in the media that Greenpeace was fault.
Fact 5. Greenpeace's ship captains do not use violent maritime tactics for the simple reason that we reject violence at a philosophical level. As Colin Marshall of the New Zealand Press Association wrote in his story filed on the wire (January 12), “Greenpeace, which is committed to non-violent action, has distanced itself from the [Sea Shepherd] group [Paul] Watson established in the 1970s when he quit Greenpeace - an organisation he helped set up”.