Category: media

Missing pieces

For five days over late August and early September in 2016, a strange case gripped the Australian media. A family of five abruptly went missing from their rural property east of Melbourne. They left their house unlocked, and all potential trace elements behind: phones, credit cards and identification documents. Keys were left in the ignitions of remaining cars.

The alarm was sounded by one of the three adult children, around 24 hours after their disappearance, when he disembarked from what turned out to be an ill-fated road trip near Bathurst in central New South Wales, some 800 kilometres from their home. The two remaining daughters were quickly located after they stole a vehicle to escape; one of them later turned up in the back of a man’s ute, to the shock of the driver after he’d driven another hour away. Their mother was found the following day, wandering the streets of Yass, near Canberra; two days later, the father was discovered, safe but dehydrated, on the outskirts of the north-eastern Victorian town of Wangaratta.

The story became a viral sensation. “It felt like a variation on the Netflix show Stranger Things, itself a pastiche on missing people stories from the 1980s,” wrote Chris Johnston, a respected senior writer for The Age. “The strange gaps in the information also read like something out of The X-Files, with its protagonists fleeing from technology but tracked just the same.”

But the real echoes, he said, were closer to home. The road trip gone wrong was a common trope “straight from an Australian horror story”, with echoes of Australian cinema classics Walkabout and Picnic At Hanging Rock, of the legend of Burke and Wills, of foreign travellers stranded in harsh landscapes and unable to find their way home. Either way, the premise was identical: “City folk head into the bush and get lost, metaphorically and physically.”

Bizarre twists – that favourite tabloid phrase – abounded. Marnie O’Neill, writing for news.com.ausuggested that the family might be suffering from a psychiatric condition known as folie à deux (madness of two) between the family’s husband and wife, which can in turn grip the children (folie à famille, a family madness). She wasn’t the only one to speculate that the family was suffering from some kind of delusional disorder, as experts were asked to weigh in.

These were some of the kinder interpretations. One website cut to the chase with its headline “The family that went mad together”. The Australian edition of the Daily Mail found a new angle by posting “eerie” photographs of the family home: “What happened inside the walls of this pretty farmhouse that drove the family out of their minds at exactly the same time?”

Finally, when all members of the family were accounted for, a statement was released: “More than anything, my family and I need time to recover and receive appropriate assistance, including mental health services,” it read. “To this end, we request that media respect our request for privacy.” The statement was reported with a photo of its author leaving a police station in a car, shielding his face from waiting cameras.

Six months later, Mamamia posted a smiling, undated picture of two of the family members, taken from Facebook, which purported to show them “moving on with their lives”. It was accompanied by a link to a Mamamia Out Loud podcast, where a group of women shared their theories about what went wrong after the “bizarre series of events”. The discussion begins with a breathless introduction:

OMG, can we please talk about the [name withheld] family mystery? Someone needs to call Sarah Koenig, seriously, this is the weirdest story. Can Sarah Koenig please make season three of Serial about this?

I’ve decided not to identify the family, although the story will be instantly familiar to many Australians and to anyone overseas who was following the news at the time. Personally, I avoided most of the reportage. It felt gratuitous, prurient. Beyond the immediate urgency of finding the family safe and well, everything else seemed like voyeurism. This was a deeply private matter and they were not public figures.

Whatever happened to them, it needn’t and shouldn’t define them in the public gaze any more than in the eyes of their extended family, friends and community – all of whom would have just been grateful and relieved to have them back. They have a right to rebuild and get on with their lives without the judgment or scorn of strangers, and without their name being reduced to a byword for craziness.

After all, I thought at the time, it’s no less than I would want for myself. Almost exactly six months before their disappearance, I headed into the bush and got lost too.

ON THE evening of 22 February 2016, I scrawled a note to my former partner, threw a handful of clothes and possessions in the car, and took off into the night. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going: north, south, east or west. Somewhere along the way, I fired off three tweets that were unfortunately reflective of my state of mind before deactivating my social media accounts.

I drove all night, pausing only at a truck stop by the side of the highway to rest at around 2 am. The noise of the generators, and the adrenaline overloading my system prevented me from sleeping. I drove on, pulling up again in a country town, watching the sun rise from a sleeping bag on the local sports oval, then got back in the car and kept going.

By later that morning, the adrenaline had worn off, the car was labouring and I began to feel the weight of exhaustion, the magnitude of what I was doing and the distress I was causing for others. I switched on my phone, which was flooded with messages, called home and was persuaded to check myself into the nearest hospital. In between, my face was on the front of news websites. I’d been officially declared missing.

If I was sure I knew what was going on in my head at the time – and I’m still not – I wouldn’t explain it to you, much less why. I was, however, carrying lethal means of self-harm within the car, to say nothing of the fact that, while stone-cold sober, I drove a 28-year-old vehicle for more than 12 hours and close to 900 kilometres in a highly agitated and distressed state without sleep, food or water. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I’d barely eaten in 48 hours.

You could call it a cry for help or one long scream. It doesn’t matter: what does is that I didn’t follow through when I could have or, mercifully, hurt anybody else. According to Mindframe, which provides guidelines to the media about the reporting and portrayal of suicide and mental health issues, approximately one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness each year. I’m far from alone.

This story, however, is not mine. It’s about how we talk about mental health and people in crisis, particularly in the frenzy of modern news reporting, when social media can and often does run ahead of the news cycle, when difficult ethical decisions are made in real time – often before facts are fully established – in an age of clickbait, confessional storytelling, declining revenues and minimal editorial oversight.

“Every time a journalist makes a decision around how to report on either mental illness or suicide, they’re making a judgment call based on the facts about the story that they have in front of them, so the application of the guidelines can be variable,” says Jaelea Skehan, chair of Mindframe’s media advisory group and director of the Hunter Institute for Mental Health.

Mindframe’s National Media Initiative began in 2002, with the aim of building collaborative relationships between the Australian media and the mental health sector to promote suicide prevention and to encourage accurate and sensitive reporting of suicide and mental health matters. It also conducts guest lectures in most journalism schools across Australia, including in compulsory law and ethics classes.

In the 15 years since, most media outlets have adopted conventions such as the listing of emergency hotlines at the bottom of stories. To avoid the risk of copycat behaviour, methodology is rarely mentioned; phrases such as “committed suicide” are avoided in favour of “taken his/her own life” – if suicide is noted at all. There is a fine line between breaking the stigma of an awful phenomenon that claims more than 2,500 Australian lives a year and glamorising it.

But reporting on what are complex and often unknowable circumstances, the warp speed of modern journalism, the concomitant time pressures on its practitioners, the amplification of social media and the capricious demands of editors who oversee different newsroom cultures and values all mean that the variability Skehan refers to occurs both across and within organisations, sometimes wildly.

“Now more than at any previous time, when you talk about the media you have to ask who are you talking about,” says Margaret Simons, until recently the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. “Nevertheless, leaping in and generalising, I would say reporting around the subject is better than it used to be, but it’s still nowhere near good enough.”

She points out that mental health exists at the interface of many news stories: homelessness, for example, and domestic violence. She castigates Melbourne’s Herald Sun, which last summer ran a months-long campaign that cast a handful of people sleeping rough in the vicinity of Flinders Street Station as a public menace. “I think their reporting on homelessness has been disgraceful, particularly since they’ve also done some very good reporting on domestic violence. But they don’t seem to join the dots between the two.”

Mindframe, she says, has made a difference. “Particularly among younger reporters who’ve been through journalism courses in recent years; most of them would have been introduced to the complexities of mental health reporting. It doesn’t necessarily mean the culture of the newsroom supports them, or all of them are equally sensitive, or remember what they were taught. But at least they’ve had to think about it.”

Since Mindframe’s establishment, however, the social media revolution and the collapse of traditional media business models have meant the organisation’s best attempts at education are arguably lagging behind structural and institutional forces beyond its control. Similarly, the Australian Press Council, which regularly reviews its own material, has not updated its guidelines on health and medical reporting since 2001.

“I have definitely noticed that as I read mental health stories, I’m increasingly cringing,” says Melissa Davey, Melbourne bureau chief at Guardian Australia, formerly of the Sydney Morning Herald. She identifies two other pertinent issues: the loss or outsourcing of experienced in-house subeditors, especially from Fairfax’s ranks, and the diminishing numbers of specialist reporters.

It’s a sensitive subject for Davey, whose own family has been affected by severe mental health issues. She draws breath sharply when she brings up the case at the top of this story. “Everyone’s editors wanted to know what was going on there, and wanted approaches made to the family.” She attempted to make contact with one of them using Facebook’s Messenger service. She says it’s something she has dwelled upon ever since.

I CAUGHT up with some of the news surrounding my own disappearance in the weeks that followed. All of it was to some extent inaccurate, having been pieced together entirely from Facebook and Twitter. My partner had been advised by friends not to comment, particularly to television networks, so no one had much to go on. I read the stories with a sort of morbid detachment; I couldn’t afford to get too caught up in it.

One piece threw me, though. It was in the Daily Mail, and there at the top were screenshots of the three tweets I had broadcast (and later deleted) when in the middle of an emotional crisis. No link to helplines was provided. This was two months after the event: I’d come across the story accidentally, in the course of searching for an old article I’d written.

I looked at my profile picture and the awful words alongside it for several minutes, with an odd sensation of being outside and looking down on myself from a distance: the face, those words belonged to me, but I barely recognised them. What I recognised was that in writing them, I’d inadvertently cast myself as the Road Runner: I’d lit a firestorm on my trail, with coyotes in pursuit.

I emailed the journalist concerned requesting that the tweets be removed. The editor emailed back, noting that stories were normally not altered, but acquiescing seemingly on the grounds that I had asked nicely. They were replaced with an extra bullet point at the top of the piece: “There are reports he earlier posted a series of worrying tweets.” Helplines were added to the bottom of the copy.

Most other stories were well intentioned. I was a missing person, and the overriding concern was that I be found. It was hard to escape the feeling, though, that to some I’d ceased to be a human being: I was a story to be “got”. At least one piece referred to me in the past tense. The publications to which I’m most grateful are the ones for which I do the most work, as they all decided not to report the story at all.

What to do, though, when social media is racing ahead of the news cycle? Such a frenzy, Simons says, “will have journalists acting both as participants and also feeding off it, and a lot of that can happen before [a situation is] even clear”. Engaging an online audience often extends to the moderation of comments on stories, the inclusion of which may be dangerously inappropriate in such circumstances.

We have also become conditioned, in an age of overexposure, to want to know everything. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that a few editors were keen on what I’ll call the “Oprah” version of this story; naturally, a first-person tell-all would also have been cheap to commission.) “We can end up in a very precarious position where a story can quite quickly go from being in the public interest to not being in the public interest,” Skehan says. “We have this blend between traditional and digital and social media, and it means that people can forget when lines are being crossed.”

Every case is different, each presenting editors and journalists with a new set of considerations and complexities. And every media organisation faces another question, if it stops to ask itself this question at all: when to pull back? “At what point, when the initial story is over and the person is found, do we need to continue to stalk and hound and look for every single tiny detail associated with that story and try to summarise it in a headline?” Skehan asks.

This is especially the case when reporting on public figures. Sporting identities including former Essendon AFL captain and coach James Hird, former Olympic swimmer Grant Hackett and another celebrated AFL footballer, Lance Franklin, have found themselves the subject of heavy public scrutiny in recent times. All have received varying levels of support – or endured different degrees of intrusion.

Franklin, who took time away from the sport with depression (something that, in any other job, we would call sick leave), was treated with the most sympathy. Hird, who had been at the centre of a years-long scandal over the use of performance-enhancing supplements that eventuated in 17 players being suspended for 12 months, was admitted to a psychiatric facility in January 2017 after an overdose of sleeping tablets.

Hird and his family had learnt to live with media camped outside their home; now the cameras followed them to the clinic, where Hird’s condition was the subject of rolling updates as drawn-looking family members came and went. A familiar scene ensued: Hird’s wife, Tania, reading a prepared statement asking for the family’s privacy to be respected, in front of a scrum of cameras and microphones.

There is no common law tort of privacy in Australia, a subject that has been examined by successive law reform commissions. In 2004, years before the phone-hacking scandal, model Naomi Campbell successfully sued the English tabloid the Daily Mirror after it pictured her leaving a rehabilitation facility, in a three-to-two majority ruling that Campbell’s right to privacy, in that instance, outweighed considerations of press freedom. “You could argue the same with the Hird case,” Simons says.

Hird later wrote – by editorial request from the Herald Sun, but seemingly on his own terms – about his experience: “Everyone has a breaking point and I reached mine after years of continual stress … In 2002, I fractured my skull and required multiple metal plates in my head. I, for one, would prefer multiple skull fractures to the feeling of deep clinical depression.”

I have read Janet Malcolm’s excoriation of her craft (and mine) many times over. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” reads the famous opening sentence of The Journalist And The Murderer. Malcolm goes on to talk about the “catastrophe” suffered by the inquisitor’s subject:

On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

It is the most uncomfortable truth any serious writer of non-fiction must acknowledge. This is not to say that journalists as a group lack empathy or consideration: “I think we get an incredibly bad rap when actually we really, really care about getting it right,” says Davey, and it’s obvious that she does. The point, though, is that a journalist’s first duty is not to our subjects. It is to our readers. I am no different.

In their study Black Saturday: In The Media Spotlight, Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda (Simons’ predecessor at the Centre for Advancing Journalism) examined the thorny issue of gaining informed consent from people who are traumatised. What practical meaning does informed consent have when the subject is in shock or distress? And how can a journalist assess the subject’s capacity in this regard? Survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, they wrote, “described themselves as being in a kind of daze in which they were responding to questions while disoriented by a sudden and violent displacement, worried about the fate of friends or property, agitated by lack of knowledge of what had happened to their towns and communities”.

When a person is in crisis, comparatively little thought may be given to the state of mind of those closest to them. For 24 hours, my former partner – a private person with no media experience – found herself fending off inquiries and requests for photographs. At the same time she was trying to liaise with police, with no more idea than anybody else where I was or whether I was dead or alive.

Dr Stephen Carbone, leader of policy, research and evaluation at beyondblue, says anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is not going through it alone. “Their loved ones are going through the same emotional turmoil, particularly if they’re bereaved. It’s especially painful when people have been bereaved by suicide; it’s a very confronting and challenging type of death for people to deal with.”

“When someone is in a state of a distress and concerned about the welfare of someone else, then their cognitive abilities can be impacted,” Skehan says. “If media are asking them to comment, they’re actually asking them at a time in which they are incapable of doing it in the same way that they would if they weren’t in the current situation.”

On the other hand, as Simons argues, it is also the media’s job to help people tell their stories. This becomes particularly difficult when reporting on subjects with potentially reduced capacity: the homeless, for example. “Would the journalist be entitled to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to tell your story because you’re not in a position to make that decision’? That could be insulting, and equally ethically questionable.”

Then there is the issue of verification. Muller and Gawenda quote one frustrated reporter lamenting that the demands created by the 24/7 news cycle, and the insatiable appetite for it, means that “what is fact right now can be proven to be fiction 20 minutes later … Obviously there are some things we are going to, with all good intentions, publish that in an hour or two, or the next day, [are] going to be found to have been incorrect.”

Social media, of course, only stokes the blaze. Journalists, now trained to embed tweets in their stories, can find themselves updating reports from what is often little more than a rumour mill in close to real time, with precious little opportunity for fact-checking. “It’s one thing if we know that a Facebook post has come from an organisation and that’s their statement; it’s another if you’re getting a bunch of random strangers speculating or making comments that we don’t know are true and then turning that into a story,” Davey says. This is exactly what ensued in my own case: without wishing to diminish anyone’s genuine care or concern, the effect was to turn smaller players into heroes while central ones, including my former partner, remained mute.

“If a person has disappeared, you’ll be updating it by the hour,” says Simons. In the case of the missing Victorian family, she says, “There were a lot of people reporting episodically, and gradually everybody became aware there were mental health issues involved. I think the tenor of the reporting did change a bit. But they were already a long way down the rabbit hole by then, and that’s partly the rolling deadline issue.”

IN AN essay for The Saturday PaperMartin McKenzie-Murray explored in further detail the rare phenomenon of the folie à famille raised by Marnie O’Neill. He noted the police had refuted the wilder suggestions in relation to the family: of mob debts, drug-induced psychosis or cult membership. “What remained was a curiosity so intense we somehow felt entitled to resolution.”

We only had questions, McKenzie-Murray said, questions mostly responded to with speculation, which he then only added to. Eventually he admitted: “All of which is to say, we do not know. And perhaps that’s fine.” His conclusion is freighted with guilt: “Our curiosity turns people into puzzles to be solved, and people like me assume the role of solving that puzzle for readers’ entertainment.”

Johnston notes that the case was an extreme one, and it’s unfair to generalise about the reporting of mental health based on it. In many respects this is true. But it also serves as a perfectly distilled example of how the institutional and structural pressures on journalists can very quickly lead them, and their readers, into places they may never have intended to go, and to things that were no one’s business to ever know.

Johnston acknowledged as much in a follow-up opinion piece. Stories about the family, he said, all “rated through the roof online”. And because there were few facts to go on, “the fantasies took hold”. Again, the piece was accompanied with a photo of the man at the centre of the mystery leaving the police station, protecting his face from view, proffering only a middle finger to the camera.

Leave me alone, it says.

Johnston was sympathetic. “They’ve had reporters – including us – knocking on their front door every day since last Thursday, but they were patient and understood they needed the media to help find their dad as much as the media needed them to try to explain to a growing mass of confused, engaged readers what had happened.” I respectfully disagree: while the media might have needed the clicks, the family owed readers no explanation whatsoever.

And did the family need the media? “With all due respect to journalists, it’s not their job to solve a missing persons case, other than if they’ve been asked to support the police,” Carbone says. “If you’re already half out of your mind with worry, the last thing you want to deal with is questions from complete strangers who obviously don’t really care about the person; they’re just after a story.”

Simons takes a more pragmatic view. “The police regularly turn to the media for help in finding missing people. I’ve been a journalist for 35 years; one of the main ways in which police look for missing people is to cooperate with the media in getting pictures and descriptions out there, and sometimes that can be very beneficial.”

The problem arises when such stories take on a life of their own. “It became clear part-way through the saga that it was a very domestic, very intimate familial build-up of psychological issues that got the better of them, possibly briefly, in the end. Now it is up to the family to figure out how to go on,” Johnston concluded. I can relate to this. Psychological issues can get the better of any of us briefly, sometimes in terrifyingly destructive ways.

Such episodes, once experienced, become an inescapable part of one’s history: to be navigated; learned from; hopefully avoided; eventually accepted. If we’ve become the subject of wider attention along the way, we return to the world in the knowledge that it knows more about us than we might ever have wished it to. We put on our mask and get on with our lives, trying to resolve our inner battles behind closed doors.

We are all puzzles. Few people are as consistent as they appear, or would have others believe. We shapeshift; we project different versions of ourselves to our bosses, colleagues, partners and friends. Sometimes we lose sight of ourselves along the way. The puzzle of who we really are when we are most vulnerable is the missing piece of sky in the jigsaw that is hardest to complete. It’s also the most intensely private.

First published in Griffith Review 57: Perils of Populism, 1 August 2017; extracted in The Guardian, 13 August 2017

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Why I ain’t gonna work today

UNDER NORMAL circumstances, today I’d be doing what I normally do: travelling down the coast to cover an AFL match for The Age. It’s something I’ve been doing for 12 years, and consider a privileged part of my job. Not only is it fun, it keeps me on a contract for five months of the year (I won’t say six because in those 12 years the Brisbane Lions have seen September action once, and the Gold Coast Suns, in six full years in the competition, haven’t made the finals yet).

As many of you may be aware, Fairfax’s decision this week to cut another quarter of its workforce – well over 100 journalists, most of them from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – has resulted in unprotected strike action. So I won’t be going to work today. This means forgoing a week’s pay, which I can ill afford, and we are all risking our jobs, but so it must be. Fairfax’s proposed changes include auditing contracted freelancers such as myself. Exactly what that might mean for me I’m not sure yet. They also intend to further reduce contributor rates from a per word to per article rate, targeting the arts section in particular. Wages growth has been negative for a long time in journalism (unless, perhaps, you’re one of those superstar right-wing columnists – a pretty crowded field in itself these days, as everyone tries to get a piece of the outrage).

As I also write a fair bit about arts and music for both papers, these changes stand to very directly affect me and others like me. They might not quite stop me from writing, but it will absolutely impact my ability to continue to cobble together a living from what I love doing.

Fairfax Media seems to have made no real attempt to look for alternatives to these cuts. Concerns over the boss’s $2.5 million bonus, and the exorbitant salaries and bonuses of those around him (which would have saved dozens of jobs on their own), were dismissed as irrelevant. Domain, the profitable part of the enterprise which takes real estate advertising, was recently split from the business. Of course, journalism – the core of Fairfax Media – was once sustained by these revenues; now journalism itself is treated like a drain on the coffers.

It should go without saying that we need good journalism and good writing now more than ever before.

Please show your support. You can start by taking out a subscription – including to Fairfax, despite everything. We have to face up to the fact that if we want to read about something other than what happened on Masterchef, we’ve got to pay for it.

And if you want to add your voice, you can watch this video made by my colleagues, and write to Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood (he of the extra $2.5 million for further driving a once-great company into the ground).

Solidarity to all my fellows, friends, colleagues and comrades at Fairfax, both full-time and freelancers, today and into next week. Not covering the federal Budget will make things very interesting.

Bleaching whitewash

Last night, ABC TV’s Media Watch followed up a story I wrote for The Saturday Paper on The Courier-Mail‘s coverage of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Questions were put to the paper’s executive editor Neil Melloy. He says that claims that the paper has under-reported what is happening on the reef are “frankly baffling, and appear to have been made by someone who does not read The Courier-Mail“. You can read his full response here.

“Anyone wishing to be clear about The Courier-Mail‘s position on the issue should read the paper’s editorial from Saturday 23 April,” he said. The headline for this editorial reads “Scaremongering won’t save our precious $5.4 billion drawcard”. Well, no, it won’t, but neither will obfuscating the extent of the problems it faces.

I have in fact been following The Courier-Mail‘s coverage of this issue quite closely, and in response I have my own questions to ask of Melloy and the paper’s editor, Lachlan Heywood (which I have put to him previously). I will now ask them again.

The aforementioned editorial concludes as follows:

“Perversely, the overblown claims also hinder action to protect the Reef as the science to date simply does not back up the hyperbole. And, like the wider issue of climate change, with the Reef it is the science we need to rely on, not the hysterical claims made by those on the fringes of the debate trying to exploit the issue to further their own agendas.”

It also said: “The problem with responding to this threat in a rational and effective fashion though is some of the wildly overblown claims made by groups such as Greenpeace who paint the Reef as being on the brink of catastrophic extinction.”

Yet, a mere two days before this editorial, 56 climate and marine scientists, with over 1200 years of collective experience between them, took out a full-page advertisement on page 6 of the newspaper. (One of the signatories, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, said the scientists were partially motivated by the paper’s poor coverage of the issue; a short piece about bleaching on the reef followed on page 13.) The advertisement read in part:

As you read this a catastrophe is unfolding [original emphasis]. The reef is currently experiencing the worst coral bleaching event in its history. From Cairns to the Torres Strait, vast swathes of the once-colourful reef are now deathly white.”

My first question to Melloy and Heywood is as follows: since it is their view that it is the science we need to rely on, are these scientists’ views “hysterical claims by those on the fringes of the debate”?

The advertisement goes on to say: “Why is this happening? As the Earth’s temperature rises due to climate change, our oceans are experiencing record-breaking heat [original emphasis] … Climate change is driven by the greenhouse gas pollution of fossil fuels from burning coal, oil and gas. The Great Barrier Reef is at crisis point. Its future depends on how much and how quickly the world, including Australia, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming.”

My second question to Melloy and Heywood, then, is this. In its editorial of 3 April, The Courier-Mail ran hard in its support of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, the total emissions of which could account for a full four per cent of global emissions by mid-century. Does the paper see any incompatibility between its support for the mine and its purported desire to save the Great Barrier Reef?

That same editorial also began: “In the real world you need jobs.” While Adani has claimed in its press releases that the mine will employ up to 10,000 people, its own expert, Jerome Fahrer, has conceded the figure is closer to 1500. This leads to a third question: either way, how do these figures compare to the 70,000 jobs at stake on the Great Barrier Reef (leaving aside the reputations of Queensland and Australia)?

And a fourth: remembering that “it is the science we need to rely on”, does The Courier-Mail believe that the burning of fossil fuels is causing anthropogenic global warming?

Getting back to the editorial of 23 April, it also said:

“Twice in the past year Greenpeace has been caught using misleading photos to try to whip up fear about coral devastation – one of the photographs taken in the Philippines after a typhoon, and another in Western Samoa, some 4500km away.”

That may be so, but if the paper wanted to see what was really happening on the Barrier Reef it need only have asked Professor Terry Hughes, who has been conducting extensive aerial surveys of the reef and has made public any number of location-tagged photos of bleached coral. To Melloy and Heywood: isn’t focusing on Greenpeace missing the bigger story in your own backyard?

And why didn’t the paper send one of its own journalists into the field, either with Hughes, or with the swarms of researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, to verify the claims for themselves?

The 23 April editorial also takes its lead (as do many of the paper’s stories) from the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators. If its the science we need to rely on, why is the paper privileging vested interests from the tourism industry?

While it is true that The Courier-Mail has occasionally run stories giving prominence to the views of Hughes and other scientists, that coverage has mostly consisted of online-only wire copy, which is dwarfed in stature by pieces from by-lined and leader writers. On other occasions, when the views of scientists (including Hoegh-Guldberg) are represented, they are buried at the bottom of the copy.

Finally, why did the paper so grotesquely misrepresent Sir David Attenborough, with its front page of him standing atop coral at low tide next to the headline “Sir David’s verdict: Still the most magical place on Earth”, with an inside spread adding: “Reports of Reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough”? This quote came from a sub-editor; the lead quote in the story came from federal environment minister Greg Hunt.

Here  is what Attenborough actually said:

“The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change, an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reefs will be gone within decades. And that would be a global catastrophe … Do we really care so little about the earth on which we live that we don’t want to protect one of the world’s greatest wonders from the consequences of our behaviour?”

That’s another question I’d like Mr Melloy and Mr Heywood to answer. And I’m sure many others, especially Queenslanders, would like some answers too.

First published in The Monthly (online), 3 May 2016

The great barrier bleach

The images went around the world. The snapshots of the Great Barrier Reef, from Cairns to Torres Strait, looked more like a pile of bones than coral. Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, was surveying the reef by plane and helicopter. It was, he wrote on 26 March, “the saddest trip of my life”.

From 22 March, Hughes criss-crossed 520 individual reefs in four days, covering 3200 kilometres by air. Just four showed no evidence of bleaching. The further north Hughes travelled, over what were once the most pristine waters of the reef, unspoiled by the runoff that pollutes the south, the worse the bleaching became. Fringing reefs in Torres Strait, he said, were “completely white”.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science currently has 300 researchers swarming over the reef, complementing the aerial surveys. Reefs are scored on a scale of zero, which indicates no bleaching, to four, which means more than 60 per cent is bleached. Their observations have replicated Hughes’. In the meantime, Hughes has continued southwards, trying to find a limit to the unfolding tragedy beneath him.

Like most scientists, Hughes prefers to talk in numbers. “I wouldn’t talk about the Barrier Reef dying or the killing of the reef or whatever. I think that’s overstating it,” he says. “I’ll say what number of reefs we’ve surveyed, how many are severely bleached and how many are not severely bleached – but then often the language gets changed, depending on the style of reporting by particular outlets.”

To clarify, bleached coral is not dead coral. It’s just very unhealthy. Varying combinations of heat stress, bright sunlight and poor water quality cause coral to expel the algae, or zooxanthellae, on which it feeds, and which also gives it its brilliant colour. This exposes the limestone skeleton beneath. Different types of coral are more susceptible to bleaching than others.

Hughes is clear, though: this is really, really serious. “There’s a window of opportunity to survey the corals when they’re severely bleached, because after a few weeks they start to die, and then the skeletons get covered in seaweed and you can’t see them from the air anymore,” he says. “We timed our northern surveys to coincide with the peak whiteness of the reefs, before there was significant mortality.”

North of Cooktown, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is now reporting up to 50 per cent mortality rates. The full extent of the damage, Hughes says, will take months to unfold. “Different corals linger for longer before they die – and also, of course, some of them won’t die, they will recover. I’d expect most of the corals from Cairns southwards to recover.”

When Hughes returned from his first sojourn north, his phone rang off the hook. In the week before 7 April, according to the media monitoring company Meltwater, the story was reported more than 1000 times in 70 countries. Video footage given to ABC TV’s 7.30 and later used by the World Wildlife Fund has been viewed more than four million times. “It’s fair to say it’s getting more coverage outside Australia than inside,” Hughes says.

By any objective measure, the bleaching of the reef is a massive story. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world – the only Australian environmental feature to be granted such status. It’s home to about 215 species of birds, 30 types of whales or dolphins, half a dozen kinds of sea turtle, and 10 per cent of the entire world’s species of fish.

Any potential danger to the reef is economic and diplomatic as much as environmental. According to a Deloitte study commissioned by the Australian government in 2013, its value to the national economy is about $5.7 billion annually. It attracts two million international visitors each year. It employs close to 70,000 people on a full-time basis.

There have been some efforts to inform people about the devastation under way on the reef in the media. News Corp’s The Cairns Post – with a local readership whose livelihoods are directly threatened – has reported the issue, as has Fairfax’s Brisbane Times. But in Queensland’s only statewide newspaper you wouldn’t have read about Hughes’ findings or their ramifications. Since his surveys began, The Courier-Mail hasn’t interviewed him, nor sent one of its journalists into the field to verify either his or his colleagues’ observations.

“It basically shows they’re either in denial about the science,” says Ian Lowe, emeritus professor in the School of Science at Griffith University, “or they’re colluding in obscuring the science so the community don’t understand the threats being posed to the reef, both by climate change and by the associated acidification of the oceans, both of which put real pressure on corals.”

On 25 March, the day Hughes completed his survey of the northern section of the reef, the newspaper ran a short piece on page three, lambasting Greenpeace for sharing an image of bleached coral taken in American Samoa that was incorrectly labelled as being from the Barrier Reef.

Last week, on 7 April, The Courier-Mail ran on its front page a story titled “David Attenborough’s verdict: Still the most magical place on Earth”, accompanied by a picture of the famed naturalist and filmmaker standing atop some coral at low tide. Inside was a double-page spread headlined “It takes your breath away”, with the sub-head “Reports of reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough”.

Well, at least that was what the sub-editor said. The lead quote came not from Attenborough, but from federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, after he was granted a preview of the first part of Attenborough’s TV series on the reef that aired last Sunday. “The key point that I had from seeing the first of the three parts is that clearly, the world’s Great Barrier Reef is still the world’s Great Barrier Reef,” Hunt said.

Had Hunt seen the third part, or had the reader progressed to the end of the article, they would have noted Attenborough’s conclusion: “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the ocean temperature and in its acidity – threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reefs will be gone within decades.”

The Courier-Mail’s relationship with environment organisations has been frosty since the departure of long-serving reporter Brian Williams. Williams says these issues have always waxed and waned. “Not long before I left The Courier-Mail I was doing stories on the prospect of this bleaching occurring, and I actually spoke to some friends in the conservation movement and suggested that the debate would swing back again.”

For now, though, the newspaper is running heavily in support of Adani’s massive Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin, which had been given the go-ahead by the Queensland state government on 3 April. “In the real world you need jobs,” began an editorial on the same day, which lamented “hashtag activism” and defended the regulations it claimed would protect the reef.

“The science on the health of the reef is plain,” the paper said. “This great natural wonder loved by all Queenslanders faces a range of stresses – as it has during the entire past century – from agricultural runoff to the current coral bleaching.”

No mention was made of climate change. The science on that is plain, too: according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, bleaching is caused primarily by heat stress. The authority also notes that the reef has in fact been bleached only twice previously in the past century – and those events were in 1998 and 2002. This event is far worse. Hughes has said the reef is being “fried”. It’s perhaps more accurate to say it’s being boiled alive. Water temperatures are up to 35 degrees around Lizard Island, and about 2 degrees above normal summer averages generally.

Climate scientists say that in addition to 2015 being the hottest year since records began in 1880, water temperatures around Australia are at all-time highs. They point to more frequent El Niño events, and more intense cyclones. It’s not just the Barrier Reef that is suffering, either: corals are being bleached across the southern hemisphere, from the central and eastern Pacific across to the Caribbean.

Scientists usually fare poorly in the media for their struggle to speak in lay terms. Now, the government’s own experts are being dismissed as activists.

John Cook, a climate communication fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, says it’s a deliberate strategy. “It’s an attempt by people who oppose climate action to deliberately lump them together, and so when a scientist publishes empirical research about climate change, then they get labelled an activist.” Politicising science, he says, is a way of casting doubt on it.

“I remember having conversations with editors about how climate should be covered, and being told that it was a political story,” remembers Graham Readfearn, who launched his GreenBlog at The Courier-Mail in 2008, before resigning in 2010. “The politics are a distraction when the issue is quite literally staring you in the face, in the form of white coral.”

The newspaper’s website has since deleted all of Readfearn’s posts. Questions to The Courier-Mail’s editor, Lachlan Heywood, went unanswered.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science at the University of Queensland with a special interest in the communication of science issues, notes that the premiere of Attenborough’s series on Sunday night was watched by 10.6 million people in Britain alone. But in Queensland, there is an eerie silence. In politics and in the state’s most-read newspaper, no one wants to talk about what is happening in front of them.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 16 April 2016

Giving oxygen to thieves

In early 2007, I found myself on the Atherton Tablelands, researching a story about politics in far north Queensland for the late, lamented Bulletin magazine. This was the year of John Howard’s demise and Kevin Rudd’s ascension, and I wanted to see how the men and women of the frontier saw the up-and-comer from their corner of the world.

The piece was called “The Seventh State of Mind”, an acknowledgment that, yes, Queensland is different, and north Queensland even more so. It also stemmed from a long conversation I had with Bob Katter, who neatly showed me how he would partition the state from Rockhampton up, with the aid of a folded serviette (which looks a bit like Queensland) and a knife.

Katter practically left me with my ears bleeding that day, but naturally I couldn’t resist leading my story with this prominent and long-serving politician’s call for secession. I reported plenty of other interesting views in my travels, including those of a Yungaburra lady who was convinced tampons were laced with asbestos and who sold “rainbow rags” (colourful sanitary pads) in her shop as an alternative.

But there was one person whose opinions I chose not to report. I encountered him in the township of Mt Molloy, and he regaled me with some startlingly racist views, including a claim that Aboriginal people had smaller brains. You don’t have look hard to find such views in the far north, but I decided that airing them would colour the entire piece. And anyway, why give oxygen to an oxygen thief?

I’m still not sure that was the entirely right thing to do, especially considering I also approached Pauline Hanson for a quote (as if her opinions were somehow less flammable). True, she didn’t say Aboriginal people had smaller brains, but the mere presence of the most polarising political figure of her generation had a way of enlivening any story back then. These days Hanson seems rather quaint.

I’m reflecting on all of this because I’m thinking about the ABC’s decision to invite Andrew Bolt onto The 7.30 Report last night, to talk about all the ways Adam Goodes is supposedly dividing the country. And the mother of the 13-year-old girl who called Goodes an ape, who thinks he is the one who should “man up” and apologise. At least she is part of the story, but did we really need her to kick the can of hate further down the road?

I’m also thinking about Kim Vuga, the “star” of SBS’s Go Back To Where You Came From. Vuga was recently invited to share her views on The Project, which were in turn widely reported upon. Vuga wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near a microphone not so long ago, her opinions so divorced from any quantifiable reality and so incoherently expressed that they amount to little more than spasms of rage.

Now, rage being the currency of our times, those opinions amount to ratings and clicks. Reporting someone’s views doesn’t have to mean endorsing them, of course. But the decisions made by producers, editors and journalists to allow one person’s views invariably means someone else’s silence. What public interest is being served by elevating Vuga, however temporarily, to national prominence?

Even if it was paranoid about being seen to be balanced, surely the ABC had other options available to it than Bolt, a man with more than enough platforms of his own from which to spruik. Lord knows we heard from enough white men yesterday about what racism really was, what it meant and what it felt like. If someone hadn’t bothered to ask Stan Grant, we might never have known.

We don’t ask Holocaust deniers their views about what really happened in World War II. We don’t ask anti-vaccination campaigners about autism. For the same reason, many media outlets are increasingly refusing to give climate change deniers inappropriate levels of airtime, for to do so would be to be guilty of  “false balance”, a recognition that someone’s media profile should not be out of proportion to their credibility.

And if you’re a contrarian or a conspiracy theorist, be you on my left or right flank, have at me. Because of course in the hyper-democracy that is the web the truth is out there – on the hundreds of fringe news sites, and thousands of Facebook pages, and the millions of comments attached to articles.

That’s where the views of Vuga and my old mate from Mt Molloy belong. And where they should remain.

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum: three cheers for Crikey

Dear Crikey,

First, I’m sorry for all this fuss. I wasn’t talking about a revolution; I just wanted to get paid, and you picked the wrong guy at the wrong time to ask for a charity donation. I’ve had one foot in and the other foot out of journalism all year, partially as a result of the prevalence of this kind of malarkey. People who don’t feel they’ve got a lot to lose are dangerous. And what am I losing? The opportunity to write for you for nix? Woe!

I couldn’t have anticipated, though, that my screed on The Daily Review asking me to write for free would attract such attention. All it took was an entry on a blog that hadn’t seen much action lately, a reprint on mUmBRELLA and a mere 380 Twitter followers. It hasn’t resulted in any more food on the table, or enabled me to quit my night job, but it did start a conversation about for-profit media organisations exploiting writers – especially arts writers – desperate to get their names out there any way they can.

That’s a conversation writers and editors have needed to have for a bloody long time, so props to you for eventually responding to the fracas in your editorial on Friday. It’s good to hear you “highly value all [your] writers’ work”, that you’re “talking to people about the conditions under which they contribute” and especially your admission that you would, in fact, be nothing without them.

But there’s no need to apologise for not being open and honest enough about payment and copy-sharing – at least, not to me. Ray Gill could hardly have been more up-front about the payment on offer (zero) for the privilege of writing for The Daily Review. I know your CEO doesn’t actually believe I had this conversation, but the emails say I tried my best to negotiate with him. Sadly for me, no matter what tack I tried, the answer remained the same.

With that in mind, I admit to being flummoxed by the following statement: “Daily Review has a limited contributors’ budget at the moment, and that’s directed towards pieces we think are core to the site’s mission. We prioritise payment for commissioning stories from professional writers.” Does this mean the budget has suddenly gone from zero to “limited”? Or is music coverage not part of the mission of a new digital arts weekly? That’s an odd strategy.

And I’m frankly a bit miffed to hear you say that you “prioritise payments for professional writers”. I’d really like to know how you define professional, because after 20 years in the business, during which time I’ve produced an award-shortlisted book and written for most of our major mastheads, I’m not sure what that makes me in your eyes.

You give three cheers to your “talented” and “generous” and “phenomenally dedicated” bloggers. For those who have been writing for you for years, unpaid, and who now find themselves seemingly entirely unrewarded by this new venture, those three cheers might translate more ruefully: yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. The invocation of piracy is deliberate.

The especially galling thing is your surely indefensible admission, in your response to my original blog on mUmBRELLA, that you are indeed trying to grow your enterprise on the back of free labour, taking on no financial risk yourself, secure in the knowledge that there are reserves of talented, generous and phenomenally dedicated writers out there for you to call on, all the while crowing: “We reckon this is fertile advertising ground.”

How fertile, exactly? Because it seems pretty obvious that Crikey writers (without whom, remember, you’d be nothing) are entitled to a more equitable share of the revenues they generate – via advertising, subscriptions and merchandise – that contribute to Private Media’s bottom line.

Crikey’s advertising portal appears to be down at the moment, so unfortunately we don’t have any immediate way of knowing. But Googling “Crikey advertising rates” produced this cute little First Dog-illustrated rate card from 2009 which, despite being four years old, at least gives us some clues about what kind of readers you attract – and what sort of cashola (as opposed to exposure), it takes to reach them.

First, we know your readership boasts a high proportion of those elusive As and Bs that advertisers adore. As of 2009, 18 percent were CEOs, CFOs, senior executives or owner/proprietor types. You also seem to appeal to a high number of retirees, general, departmental or divisional managers, and media professionals (sorta sad to realise I’m not one of them). Forty-one percent had postgraduate tertiary qualifications.

Not surprisingly, the card goes on to tell prospective advertisers that they have the opportunity to “market to an audience with real wealth”: 55 percent of survey respondents reported an income above $80,000 per annum, with 39 percent exceeding $100,000. Sixty percent owned shares in a publicly listed company, with 38 percent of those holding portfolios worth a whopping $100,000 or more.

Your website scored 1.5 million hits a month from 175,000 unique browsers, including a subscriber base of 15,000, 95 percent of whom read the daily email circular either every day or most days. Again, I have to acknowledge this information is four years old. But given you brag of hiring journalists while the rest of the industry is laying them off, I’m guessing things at least aren’t going too terribly for you.

Finally, there are the ads themselves. The weekly rate for a 300 x 250 pixel ad was $4900. A 160 x 90 ad, $1900. And the best bit; a 100 word advertorial was $900, when 900 words would be lucky to net a contributor much more than $100 now. It reminds me of the cynical journalistic aphorism about the words existing to fit around the ads, rather than the other way around.

So, let’s call a spade a shovel here. You guys sat around in a room and cooked up the idea for a fancy new way to sell advertising, without budgeting for the contributors who would provide the bulk of the content, because you assumed that there would be no shortage of desperadoes and fools all too willing to provide it for nothing.

Finally, it seems to me that a big part of the backlash you’ve suffered this week comes from those who thought better of you. Crikey derives a fair bit of its reputation from its iconoclasm, its scepticism, and for not running with the mainstream media herd. But, as a friend of mine put it to me last week, you can’t be the edgy new guy on the block and expect to remain above the fray when you pull this sort of shit.

I’m as disappointed as anybody.

Andrew