Perhaps though, the most critical cost associated with the program has been political given that the Greens’ vote rose substantially at the state election due in large measure to an anti-forestry fervor that was significantly enhanced by the prospect that timber plantations may be toxic. Indeed, the election was disastrous for Labor and saw it forced into an uncomfortable governing alliance with the Greens which may yet destabilise the state.
How much of this political fall-out is directly attributed to “Something in the Water” is impossible to assess. However, it is notable that senior Labor MP and Minister for Health, David Llewellyn - who was poorly portrayed in the program and was an incumbent in the electorate of Lyons, which embraces the St Helens region - lost his seat in the election held just weeks later.
It is also telling that the findings of the George River Water Quality Panel prompted the Tasmanian Premier, David Bartlett, to put-out a press release calling for an apology from the ABC:
These two episodes of Australian Story caused fear and distress in the St Helens community, and damaged the town’s tourist reputation throughout Australia … Indeed the river was found to be in near pristine condition … Yet this poorly researched and alarmist program is still available on the ABC website … I have asked the ABC to remove the program from the website … In addition, I have asked the ABC to explain to viewers that the St Helens water story was based on wrong information and to apologise to the people of St Helens for the distress that it caused. June 30, 2010.
In response, the ABC’s Australian Story executive producer, Deborah Fleming, has defended the program’s editorial integrity: “Our story reported the concerns of reputable figures in the community and drew on various high-level scientific opinions.” Clearly though, in view of the shortcomings listed earlier in this article, the program’s research was far from thorough and its presentation far from balanced.
Ultimately, a retrospective on-air apology can never undo the damage caused once a poorly researched or biased television program is broadcast to a national audience. In this instance, the concept of plantations being toxic to human health was adopted by the environmental movement as soon as the program was screened and now features prominently in its on-going campaigns against Tasmania's (and the nation's) forestry sector.
A short apology cannot undo this because it has far less power than the original sensationalist allegations, and because environmental activism has a long history of continuing to misrepresent acknowledged truths with impunity to an unquestioning supporter base.
Sadly, this episode also reaffirms that elements of the media are prone to an unquestioning acceptance of the views of environmental activists. While “Something in the Water” is the most recent major example of this, there have been many others including the near hero-status afforded to celebrity forest activist Richard Flanagan (also on Australian Story), and anti-Gunns crusader, Geoffrey Cousins, on various ABC programs including Lateline and Q & A.
It is easy to dislike an activity that involves cutting down trees, but it should not be so hard to also engender a high level of acceptance of it if the community is properly informed about its community benefits, its actual scale and proportional extent compared to areas where trees will not be cut down, and its inherently high level of planning and regulation with regard to environmental values. Unfortunately, the ABC in particular, has shown a long-standing predilection to give minimal emphasis to these aspects in its coverage of forestry issues.
For example, Four Corners has a history of producing one-sided programs about forestry issues such as its “Lords of the Forest” episode in 2004, which was subsequently derided by the network’s own Independent Complaints Review Panel for containing “instances of serious bias, lack of balance and unfair treatment” of forestry viewpoints.
Similar instances are commonplace on the 7:30 Report and Stateline where the views of government and forest industry spokespersons are sought but often presented as little more than tokenism in articles based primarily around the views of environmental activists which are never going to provide viewers with a balanced or well-informed narrative of the issues.
However, it’s not only about content - program timing can also be a critical factor. As with “Something in the Water”, the Four Corners program, “Spies in the Forest”, was screened in October 2006, just six weeks prior to the last Victorian election in which the Greens were campaigning strongly to close the native timber industry. While this program was reasonably balanced, its deriding of the timber industry during an election campaign for events that had occurred seven to ten years earlier was again suggestive of inappropriate support for a political agenda.
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