Australia’s fires point to another inferno: the state of the country’s media

The role of the media is a life-and-death story in Australia.

Australia’s fires point to another inferno: the state of the country’s media
News Corp’s greatest threat doesn’t come from the baying calls for boycotts, demand for change from within, or empirical evidence of the realities of climate change. It’s how to keep selling as the country burns. Image: Shutterstock

In times of disaster, the media post-mortem usually begins after the event. But Australia’s summer of fires is no usual disaster and the debate around the role of media here is certainly different. 

The unprecedented destruction raises questions about our leadership, our environmental management, and our capacity to respond. But your answer to this could depend entirely on which newspaper you read. News Corp newspapers, such as Sydney’s Daily Telegraph or Melbourne’s Herald Sun, are, despite their market domination, seen to be mouthpieces for the conservative movement. On the other hand, Nine newspapers, formally Fairfax, are considered to be the record of choice for those on the political Left. Both point fingers at the other side, claiming the other is wrong and responsible for tragedy. 

Whose ABC is it?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the national broadcaster, has long been a favourite battleground for the country’s culture wars. Australians to the left of the political spectrum accuse the broadcaster of featuring misinformed voices in the name of ‘balance,’ while conservative Australians have deemed it ‘Their ABC.’ The loosely organized campaign accuses the ABC of political biases and representing only left-wing Australians while being funded by all. The merits of this argument have been debated seemingly endlessly, with studies into which political alignments receive the most airtime. 

Still, this criticism usually melts away for at least a few weeks each summer. Whatever one’s political views, the basic purpose of the ABC — to keep Australians informed — takes centre stage. Local ABC radio blasts information and warnings from authorities in a continuous loop in areas affected or threatened by fires. The country’s rural backroads are dotted with signposting updating travellers on the local frequency as they move through the country. Internet penetration has proven to be a limper challenge to the ABC’s mission than predicted, with widespread disconnections and infrastructure loss reported.  

This summer has been different. With the fires themselves highly politicised, the ABC is finding itself —  if not burnt — a little scalded. Budget cuts announced earlier in 2019 have found themselves freshly criticised, while leading figures in Australian media tweeted their praise of operations. Still, that hasn’t stopped perennial critics at the Murdoch-owned broadsheet The Australian from launching a morality campaign and publishing letters in support of axing the ABC entirely and diverting funding to rebuilding efforts.

 

Murdoch media won’t be changing

British and American writers sometimes like to warn us Australians. Brexit, Donald Trump, this is all your future too if you don’t rein in the Murdoch press, they say. This ignores a few very important points. Most obviously, he’s ours. Sure, he’s an American citizen now after giving up his Australian passport for ownership regulations in the U.S., but he’s Melbourne-born and his empire began here. More importantly, it’s not a future for Australia; it’s a decade-long reality. 

We’ve never had a Brexit or Trump moment because we haven’t needed it. We’ve remained a largely conservative-led country since the mid-1990s. Brief moments of progressive politics see the most ferocious of News Corp responses, such as attacks launched on then-prime minister Julia Gillard and the carbon tax. On the state level, local newspapers across the country either dominate the competition or have wiped it out entirely and reflect the same biases in local politics.

This is why, for all the talk of the long-needed reckoning of Murdoch press in this country, business will return very much to normal. It could spell the end of the “everything but the reporting” defences, which attempts to justify continued support for News Corp newspapers or particular shows on Sky News which do, genuinely, have great reporting and analysis. But even then, that line had already lost credibility in recent years leaving past proponents of the approach — myself included — wondering how clicks becomes complicity. 

How it looks inside the belly of the beast is a different story. While Dear John letters from former News employees are a favoured genre of non-Murdoch-owned press in Australia, it does preach to the progressive-voting choir. These pieces are surely cathartic for the writer and tend to confirm readers’ suspicions that the entire operation is as sinister as they believe and a fundamental threat to the country. Few, however, put themselves on the line like Emily Townsend, a senior News sales employee turned folk hero. 

“I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies. The reporting I have witnessed in the Australian, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun is not only irresponsible, but dangerous and damaging to our communities and beautiful planet that needs us more than ever now to acknowledge the destruction we have caused and start doing something about it,” Townsend wrote in a company-wide email leaked to the Guardian (before being swiftly deleted from internal inboxes). 

Elsewhere, a split among the Murdoch family will surely provide fascinating fodder for the third season of Succession, but it’s unlikely to fundamentally change an editorial approach which has left readers pointing the finger at everything but climate change. 

News Corp’s greatest threat doesn’t come from the baying calls for boycotts, demand for change from within, or empirical evidence of the realities of climate change. It’s how to keep selling as the country burns. So far, it’s winning. 

 

Fake news makes noise

Elise Thomas, a cybersecurity researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, writes that a recent study from the Queensland Institute of Technology on Twitter bots has been “misconstrued” in media reporting. The study found around a third of accounts tweeting a particular bushfire-related hashtag “showed signs of inauthentic activity.” But, Thomas stresses, this in and of itself is not cause for alarm. 

Bots typically use high-performing hashtags in messages as a means to amplify, not necessarily to spread misinformation. Instead, the spread of misinformation is far more likely to happen via very real people, using established networks built around a particular political viewpoint or conspiracy theory. 

Instead of an orchestrated campaign launched by an undefined bad actor, the findings are more likely evidence of underground conspiracy theories suddenly launched into the light. 

Many of the popular conspiracy theories sound outlandish but have gained traction. The role of arsonists in causing much of the damage is fiercely debated despite being debunked by authorities. Another theory suggests authorities have allowed destruction along the East Coast to clear land for a high-speed rail project. “It’s much easier to say it’s the nefarious greens or high-speed rail. It gives you a graspable answer when it’s very complicated,” Australian National University’s Dr Colin Klein, who studies why people believe conspiracy theories, told BuzzFeed News.

Part of that complication, Dr Klein adds, comes from a perception of opacity from governments. Which then, paired with an unwillingness to believe in the role climate change plays in the disaster, makes it extremely difficult for authorities to build trust with the community.  

If this is the new normal as scientists and activists warn us, the role of the media in Australia becomes truly a life-and-death situation. There are no answers yet in how we rebuild an Australia which pays more attention to faceless science reporters and less to overpaid self-interested Murdoch columnists. But we need to collectively work that out before there’s nothing left to burn.

Southeast Asia-based Erin curates Dari Mulut ke Mulut, a paid weekly newsletter service with analysis and coverage from across ASEAN and Timor-Leste. She also produces newsletters with OZY, Coconuts and Splice, while filing a weekly column with the Diplomat. Follow Erin Cook on Twitter.

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