QUARTERLY ESSAY 43 Bad News

 

Correspondence

Tim Flannery

Robert Manne’s Bad News documents, among other things, evidence of bias in the Australian’s reporting of climate change. Here I wish to add a note explaining how right-wing media in Australia can manufacture news to suit their bias. The example concerns my role as chief climate commissioner and the issue of sea-level rise, as reported by 2GB, the Daily Telegraph and the Australian in July and August 2011. 

On 28 July, just six days after a right-wing Norwegian terrorist killed seventy-six people whose views he disagreed with, the 2GB opinionist Ray Hadley announced on air that he’d received a call from a man identified as “David.” He claimed to be a neighbour of mine who lived on the Hawkesbury River. The 2GB website states: “‘David calls in to Ray Hadley to confirm’ that Tim Flannery owns a waterfront home.”

David described exactly where my home is and gave a (somewhat misleading) description of it. This breach of privacy had implications for my security and that of my family. Led by the far right, the climate debate in Australia had by this time become hysterical. Several scientists associated with the climate commission had received death threats, and the commission had found it necessary to beef up security at its public events.

Prompted by David’s “revelation” that I lived by the water, Hadley inferred that my home was vulnerable to inundation by sea-level rise. This inference is false (the house is in fact located well above the 1.1 metre mark above sea level), but was taken by Hadley as evidence of hypocrisy on my part. Urged on by Hadley, David then implied that I broke the law by speeding through 4-knot zones and had a highly polluting outboard motor (again false). 

Hadley’s justification for running the interview was clearly my supposed hypocrisy: “It’s terribly important that people know about these people,” he said by way of justifying putting the conversation to air.

Several weeks later I had established the identity of the caller David and the location of his home. On the afternoon of Sunday 21 August I visited him and questioned him about his call to 2GB. His stammering voice was so unlike the smart-aleck tone I’d heard on the radio that at first I thought I had the wrong person. But he soon admitted that he knew Ray Hadley. In fact, he said, he worked for him. 

David then stated emphatically that he had not called Ray Hadley at all. Instead Hadley had asked him to appear on the show, and had called him. David said that Hadley had sought him out after learning that I lived nearby. The story, and all of the supposed “facts” that David was to raise during the interview, had, according to David, been assembled beforehand by Hadley and his team. Notes taken by my wife as I spoke with David reveal the true motive for the interview. David stated: “You’re on the other side of the fence [regarding climate change] … they hate you … they’re out to get you.”

What a listener might have taken to be a neighbour dobbing in a hypocrite and law-breaker was in fact a slander based on a completely manufactured story.

Hadley’s piece was soon taken up and embroidered by other right-wing opinionists. Andrew Bolt ran a blog which further invaded my privacy by adding details of our home’s value at purchase and its mortgage status, and needlessly invaded the privacy of my wife, who is not a public figure and has no role in the climate debate. He also included a photograph, taken from Google Earth, of our home. 

The publication of the photograph of my home concerned the security officer at the climate commission. She briefed the Australian Federal Police on the situation. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran an article drawn from Bolt’s blog, but the photograph was removed from the paper’s website following a call from a QC to the newspaper’s editor. 

I then began receiving phone calls from journalists at the Australian requesting an interview for stories relating to sea-level rise. Leigh Dayton called me several times, asking for an interview for a serious article on sea-level rise that she said she was researching. In her last call she stated that she intended to do some serious journalism, and that “I wouldn’t lie to you, Tim.” 

On Friday 5 August Ean Higgins of the Australian called the climate commission requesting an interview with me for “an intelligent article” he was writing on climate change. As he had informed the commission’s publicist that he was interviewing a number of experts for the story, it was recommended that I take his call. 

I gave Higgins a thirty-minute interview on the work of the climate commission in relation to sea-level rise, virtually none of which made it into his story. Instead Higgins wrote a re-hash of the Hadley story. As with Hadley, the rationale was that I had been hypocritical in purchasing property vulnerable to inundation by sea-level rise. I had pointed out to Higgins during the interview that this was untrue – a fact that did nothing to blunt his compulsion to publish. 

Higgins could not resist embroidering his story, adding a comment from the blogger “Old Salt.” But Higgins went further than the blogger, stating in the article that I was swindling the elderly out of their properties by frightening them into selling up with talk of rising sea levels. Accusations of hypocrisy had now become malicious libel, and I decided to challenge the Australian legally.

My action against the Australian resulted in the withdrawal of the article and the publication on the following Saturday of a page-three apology, as well as payment of all legal expenses, amounting to $5000.

The experience has taught me several things about the hate media in Australia. First, as they seek to slur those they hate, they do not hesitate to manufacture a story if one does not exist. Second, as the story is picked up by other opinionists, they are prone to weave ever more scandalous fictional tidbits from the blogosphere into the story. Third, in their efforts to obtain an interview some journalists will lie and ignore the truth when it’s inconvenient to them. 

Perhaps most dismayingly, the Australian has chosen, to its eternal discredit, to publish such detritus. If even our national newspaper can’t keep its nose clean, strict rules around media misconduct can’t come soon enough.

 

Tim Flannery has published over a dozen books, including The Future Eaters, The Eternal Frontier, The Weather Makers, Now or Never: A Sustainable Future for Australia? and Here on Earth. He was Australian of the Year in 2007.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 44, Man-Made World.


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