This morning (15 January 2012) I experienced an unpleasant sense of deja vu as Australia’s tv channel 7 ran a propaganda piece for the so-called “mountain cattlemen” who are battling the federal government to once again allow their cattle to smash up the national parks of the high country. The new conservative Vic state government saw it as a high priority to give approval, and now only the Australian govt stood in the way.
The program was almost identical to one made in similar (though with the opposite politics in state and federal levels) political circumstances, and by the same reporter, then working for the main rival commercial tv network. The only differences were that on this occasion most filming was done at a country show, and was done before the political protest rather than during.
I was so outraged by the latest version that I put in a formal protest:
“Reporter Nic MacCallum presented a report on cattle in high country. The report purely presented, in the most emotive and political terms, the views of “mountain cattlemen” with the obligatory film clip from “Man from Snowy River”. Ecological claims, political statements, were made absolutely unexamined, no contrary view of any kind presented. MacCallum ended with the cattlemen making threats of political action against “Canberra”. They then came back to the studio where presenters made statements about the ecology and how harmless cattle were, and how bad it was Canberra didn’t understand the real world, how it was “red tape” stopping this perfectly rational action of putting cattle back into national parks.
Not a single dissenting view was presented during this propaganda piece. Not a single ecologist was interviewed , the federal minister was uninterviewed, no historical background was presented, the issue was completely unexamined other than as pushing the cattlemen’s position.
This is the worst piece of unbalanced tv I think I have ever seen.”
The question, or a question, is why did both tv networks present this story in the same way? Are they idiots? Exercising power – doing it because they could? Did they think the bulk of their audience, primed by years of such reporting would approve the message. Were they ingratiating themselves with conservative politicians and bushies? Were they looking forward to the excellent televisuals of a protest? Were they showing a left wing minister who really has the power? Were they flattered to be seen as onside with these rugged sons of the earth? Are they idiots? I report, you decide.
To show how little had changed from 2005-2012, here is the email I sent following the coverage of the ‘cattle in the high country’ political battle between Victorian and Federal governments in 2005 by Channel 9′s Today Show. It is as relevant now as it was then. Over and over again the commercial media, and now also the ABC, choose the first narrative model when it comes to environmental stories, and they are helping kill the planet. I received no reply from Channel Nine.
From: David Horton
Subject: to Jebby Phillips
Date: 9 June 2005 10:52:52 AM
To follow up on my earlier email complaining about the Man from Snowy River segment. I am currently working on my new book. Here is the part I have written about the Today story this morning. You will see why I am angry. I am a little puzzled as to why you never allow, or require, Nic McCallum to do the second story. I have my own guess as to why you don’t (and I can’t believe it is because you think you don’t have an audience for the second story) but I would be interested in your explanation. You are not alone of course, all the media outlets follow the first script.
“It is a story that has been repeated often over recent years, and the narrative is clear. The ‘Man from Snowy River’ is an icon. He is an icon because he was the subject of a poem which every schoolchild learns and then of a film and a television series based on the poem. So he is a fictional construct, unlike say Ned Kelly, Phar Lap, Don Bradman or Simpson and his donkey. Even though he is a fictional character though, the existence of a movie with a star means that the actor can become the icon made flesh, and indeed in the recent protests the star of the film was the star of the protest, and in turn of the breakfast television segment.
The segment, as always, was pure propaganda of a Leni Riefenstahl kind. This is an Australian icon here, so there are images of campfires roaring in the mountain, riders on horses, magnificent cattle, whip cracking displays. Interspersed are images from the film with notes that some of the real cattlemen took part in the film, and music from the film soundtrack. Images and the media and reality blur. No need to say anything really, powerful images conspire to stimulate powerful emotions, and here we are aiming to stir the emotions both of the commuter and office worker with dreams of open spaces, and of ‘trail bike riders. hunters, four wheel drive owners, farmers’ all of whom were also taking part in the protest. We have our desired audience of red blooded men and wannabe redblooded men onside with barely a need for any script.
But a final touch is needed and the narrative allows for it. ‘What was your reaction when you heard the news that cattle were to be excluded from the National Park’ asks the reporter of the protest organiser, as rugged a redblooded cattleman as you could ask for in the casting department. ‘I cried’ says this tough man and the propaganda is complete.
Nothing can defeat the rugged Australian cattleman icon of course. Bushfires, drought, steep terrain, wild horses, fierce cattle. Only one thing can do it, the unfeeling bureaucrats in the city. The effeminate city men and their co-conspirators the whacky greenies. This brutal combination may bring our icon down, and he knows that at last the odds are stacked against him and he cries. For him to cry means that the cause must be just, the odds immense, and his tears, not wasted, appeal to the camera for help and through the camera to the real men of Australia who will come to the rescue, shoulder to shoulder.
We see the enemy briefly, very briefly, in this segment. In a brief nod to ‘balance’ we see the minister concerned, typical city man in his grey suit hiding his grey soul. He is seen at a press conference explaining the reason for the decision, but the narrative doesn’t allow for more than a fragment of that, the minister commenting that cattle cause damage, and the reporter sneering that ‘they say it will mean more wildflowers’. Wildflowers! Namby pamby stuff when there is an Australian icon at stake here and a tough man has been reduced to tears by these flower loving whackos.
Back to the icon, asked to comment on the damage ‘claim’, ‘no, no, we have been managing this country for 170 years’ says the icon. In an earlier interview the film star pseudo icon is asked the same question about damage and is allowed to say that ‘opinion is evenly divided’ on that. There is no follow up question as to what he means, but it is clear from the context. Cattlemen don’t think, or don’t care, that the cattle cause damage, or don’t think that it is damage (wildflowers indeed). On the other hand all scientists in Australia know that there has been extensive damage which is continuing and is now exacerbated by the after effects of fire and drought. Whether or not ‘opinion’ is divided between cattlemen and scientists, there is no division between scientists on the facts.
The story could have been presented from the totally opposite point of view. The reporter could have found an iconic and photogenic ecologist who has worked in the high country. The ecologist could have introduced the reporter to the masses of scientific study showing the conservation problems in the high country, how little wilderness is left and the implications of that, and specific studies on the effects of cattle on this fragile ecosystem. The animals and plants under threat or near extinction could be listed and their importance in maintaining ecological balance in this country, particularly as global warming gathers pace.
Then the ecologist, together with a number of other ecologists expert in different aspects of the high country – vegetation, marsupials, birds, frogs, insects say – could have taken the reporter for a trip. The camera could have lovingly lingered over areas where cattle have been excluded, with soothing music and the occasional sunset, while rugged and down to earth ecologists in moleskins and jumpers, ruddy faced from years or decades of being out in the bush studying ecology, could have explained what the camera was seeing, how complex it was, how long it had taken to evolve, why it was important, and why they are so passionate about trying to save it at the eleventh hour. This high country is unique to Australia, they could explain to the camera, an Australian icon that has taken millions of years to evolve, and it is close to being lost forever.
Then they could take the cameras to see the damage that cattle have caused to grasslands, trees, shrubs, the impact of their hooves on ponds and swamps and riverbanks. There will be tears shed here by these tough ecologists, but the reporter may want to keep those for later. Tears are rarely shed by tough pragmatic ecologists, trying to do a hard job for Australia’s future. Difficult to defeat them because of their hard work and dedication. The only thing that can beat them is the powerful media coming in on the side of the cattlemen and forcing a government backdown. The final scene could be a roaring campfire in the mountains, the reporter sitting around it with these dedicated people. ‘What did you think when you heard that the federal government might intervene to keep cattle in the National Park?’ he could ask. ‘I cried’ would say the leading ecologist. Fade away to a sunset with perhaps the Pastoral Symphony in the background.