An open letter to the press gallery about choices and consequences

Dear friends,

You know me, and you know that, although I’ve pestered you for years, I’m not one to join in general press gallery bashing. I respect and understand the work you do. Hey, even the Australian acknowledged me as “the most sensible Green we know” when I left my post as Christine Milne’s Communications Director.

That’s why I hope you’ll read this open letter and think about it.

After a week where, once again, rumours and speculation occupied your attention so completely that you didn’t register a visit to our country by a multi-award winning, globally respected, hugely popular writer talking about an existential threat to our nation, I want to talk to you about the choices you make and the consequences that those choices have.

Understand that I am not saying Kevin Rudd is not a story at all. Of course he is. And of course you have to report on his antics. But is it reasonable, is it balanced, is it fair to your readers, that Rudd gets pages of coverage of barely changing rumours and speculation, while Bill McKibben’s new take on solid science, his economic warnings based on the work of PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency, his direct commentary on local politics (highly unusual for an international visitor), get nothing – not one sentence from anybody in the Canberra Press Gallery?

Surely you can appreciate the irony that, after telling us for years that we need a completely new angle every day if climate change is to be newsworthy, you fill pages of newsprint and hours of broadcast with essentially the same story over and over again. That, in this 24 hour news cycle, supposedly constantly hungry for content, you focus on one or two stories each day instead of reporting on the great diversity of issues our parliament grapples with.

It’s not as though there aren’t numerous stories to tell about climate change that are relevant to your beats. How many different angles have many of us offered you that you haven’t found interesting? Never mind stories about threats to lives and livelihoods, security implications that trouble the Pentagon, and the likely extinction of countless species. You’ve dismissed political interest stories about government agencies hiding information; stories about scientists and technology developers bullied into silence in fear of losing grant funding; stories about mismanagement of government resources; stories about accounting systems we all rely on being based on incorrect assumptions that make them the equivalent of the GFC-inducing ratings agencies – only with impacts that, as McKibben says, will make the GFC seem like a hiccup.

Bill McKibben was a trove of stories at the National Press Club. Think about all the questions you could’ve asked this guy! What’s his opinion of the carbon price as against Direct Action? What’s his view of Clive Palmer’s political ambitions? Does his global divestment campaign have implications for both Gillard and Abbott’s aim for surplus? Hey, you could even have asked him what he thought of Kevin Rudd’s actions and rhetoric on climate change as against Julia Gillard’s, if you really wanted to.

Instead, one of the few questions McKibben was asked was whether the lack of media stories on climate change was a sign that people are less interested in the issue than previously.

The irony of saying that to a man whose books are on best-seller lists, and whose public appearances in Australia quickly sold out, with hundreds turned away disappointed, was not lost on the audience. And Bill was in hot demand from ABC, local and community radio, and the Guardian Australia. But they don’t have the influence on Australia’s political debate that you have.

Yes, this is where we come to the vexed question of influence vs reporting.

No, don’t stop reading now, and please don’t get defensive. Many of you like to insist that you only report facts, you don’t influence debates. But consider for a minute Fairfax commissioning and publishing a seat by seat Rudd vs Gillard poll on Sunday complete with the beyond irony line, “The poll is almost certain to fuel further leadership speculation”. The stories you choose to file, and the ones you choose to bin, the polls you commission, the spokespeople you interview and those you ignore – all these add up to a huge influence on the way Australians see our politics. Let’s face it, they influence the way Australian politicians see our politics.

The influence vs reporting question was highly relevant to me when I was amongst you daily working for Christine Milne. I was on numerous occasions told by many of you that your editors or producers had instructed you to leave the Greens out of stories. You will deny that to each other just as Rudd backers will publicly deny being the source of leaks and speculation. But you know it’s true. And you know that, after Senator Milne’s ascent to the leadership, that policy tightened. Media outlets predicting that Milne would be lower profile than Brown actively shut Milne out of the news, creating that lower profile and fulfilling their own prophecy. You report a lot less of Christine Milne and the party’s vote tails off a little.

[As an aside, it’s worth noting the old chestnut ‘balance’. Balancing climate science with denial, environmentalists with coal industry lobbyists, is like suggesting that every story about political corruption should be ‘balanced’ with voices saying there’s no proof corruption is bad: “These guys are only trying to make a living”. It is devastating to public debate that journalists who understand that climate change is a huge story and seek to write on it regularly are shunned, treated as partisan, have their independence questioned, lose their jobs. Think Graham Readfearn, Rosslyn Beeby, Giles Parkinson, Paddy Manning. Meanwhile, journalists who wear their anti-science prejudice on their sleeves are celebrated as independent and balanced.]

As I conclude, I want to repeat that I write this from a position of understanding, respect and hope. What you in the Parliamentary Press Gallery are doing when you make your choices is no different from what the vast bulk of humanity do facing the climate crisis. Far from being deliberately destructive, it is a natural human tendency to focus on the short term and the highly visible, and to stick with the pack. It is hard to break away from that.

But you are different. You are powerful and influential. That is particularly the case given your position of leadership in journalism as the privileged few who inhabit Parliament House. Though you publicly deny it, you shape the world as we see it. If you choose not to report frequently and in detail on the vast array of political stories about the single greatest threat to our future, you ensure that it remains a marginalised issue, peripheral to politics, until it may be too late and we squander our children’s entire inheritance – this beautiful planet – in the name of a quick buck.

This is the choice you face. All I can do is leave it in your hands.

Tim Hollo

Image: David Pope Canberra Times cartoon, June 6

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