5 October 2005
Senator MILNE (Tasmania) (7.29 p.m.) — I rise tonight to talk about the culture of fear, intimidation and menace that currently exists in Tasmania as a means of maintaining the power of the forest industry in Tasmania, particularly by Gunns Ltd which, in fact, has become the de facto government of Tasmania and the puppet-master of the Labor Lennon government. Tonight I would like to talk specifically about the case of a young journalist, Wes Young, who was employed as a cadet journalist at the Examiner newspaper. He was employed there until such time as he tried to do his job. His job was to write for that newspaper in a column called ‘Around the region’.
This young journalist was trying to write stories about what was really going on in the Tamar region of Tasmania, in response to the announcement by Gunns that they would build a native forest based pulp mill at that particular place, wanting access to native forests for 30 years. Allegedly, in the first place, it is a chlorine-free pulp mill no longer. It is now to be elemental chlorine-free, which means that it will use chlorine dioxide with all the associated pollution problems. The problem for Wes occurred when he tried to write the stories of the region, including a story about the emergence of a group called the Tamar Residents Action Committee, which was formed to oppose the particular technology and the siting of the mill. It was made very clear that the Examiner was not going to run the story of the formation of that particular group.
He then tried to write another story. This time it was in response to West Tamar Deputy Mayor Peter Kearney telling him that there would be a motion tabled at the council meeting calling for an elector poll along the lines of, ‘Do you support the proponents of the proposed pulp mill’s decision to build it in the Tamar Valley?’ It was clear that the Examiner chief of staff did not want that story written, and so he indicated to Wes Young that he was not prepared to run the story unless he saw something in writing. When the something in writing turned up at the newspaper by way of a fax to confirm that the story was true, the story was run, but Wes Young was then hauled over the coals for having run the story. The fact is that it would have been impossible for a cadet journalist to write a story like that, off his own bat, to get it past the night editor and the subeditors and to get it into the paper if it had not been seen and approved by all those people in the hierarchy.
The power of Gunns is as one of a de facto government
What is going on here is that the Examiner newspaper has a special relationship with Gunns and the state government. You only have to look at the relationships in Tasmania to see that. The former editor of the Examiner now works in the Premier’s office. A former journalist from the Examiner is the public relations person for Gunns. You also have a longstanding history going back to 1989, when the chairman of the board of Gunns Kiln-Dried Timbers attempted to bribe a member of parliament to cross the floor, saying that the reason he did so was that, if the Labor Green Accord came to power, it would affect his timber interests and the profits from those timber interests. The royal commission that followed found him guilty and he was imprisoned for that attempt to corrupt democracy in Tasmania.
The power of Gunns is as one of a de facto government. The journalist concerned was trying to do his job at the Examiner. He was then offered a job with Rural Press at a neighbouring newspaper and he accepted that job because both the Examiner and this other newspaper are owned by Rural Press. It was, in effect, a transfer. He spoke to the Examiner about that transfer. In the meantime, the chief of staff then rang the other newspaper and spoke in a way that undermined the journalist, Wes Young, and the offer of the job was withdrawn as a result. When Wes went back to the Examiner, saying that the opportunity for the job in the sister newspaper, if you like, had been withdrawn and therefore he withdrew the transfer, the chief of staff took the opportunity to say that he had not regarded it as a transfer, that in fact it had been a resignation, that he had accepted the resignation and that was the end of it. All of the journalists at the Examiner were horrified by this treatment and signed a petition to that effect to the management but to no avail, and the matter is now in the Industrial Commission in relation to unfair dismissal.
This is really about freedom of speech in Tasmania. It is about a community trying to have the facts and the news reported as news rather than as an advertorial for this particular company, Gunns. We have already seen with Gunns 20 how Gunns have taken to court people who have dared to promote what they are doing in Tasmania. In fact, an article in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald said:
Gunns supporters say the company is simply exercising its right, via the courts, to operate its business in peace. But for Brown — that is, Senator Brown — his co-defendants and supporters what is at issue is the right to speak freely on issues of public interest without the risk of being sued.
And, in the case of Wes Young, without the risk of losing your job because you are trying to do your job in a frank and fearless way. There are stories by other journalists at the Examiner. One was about Les Rochester and another was an interview with John Gay. In that interview, John Gay admits that the pulp mill is not going to be state of the art and so the Examiner did not run that story, but it was very keen to run very prominently an article written by Greg Barns critical of Les Rochester, the spokesperson of TRAC.
Lies, innuendo, smears
What we can clearly see is that the Examiner’s coverage of the pulp mill issue is biased — that is without doubt. One only has to look at the coverage to see that that is the case. There is example after example of the suppression of stories that are in any way critical and the promotion of stories that are in favour. Media Watch exposed the ludicrous situation earlier this year when the Examiner ran as news what was in fact partly taken straight from an advertising feature, presumably a fair bit of which was paid for by the state government. The point of raising this here in the Senate tonight is to inform people around the country of just how serious the situation is in Tasmania. Richard Flanagan a while ago indicated:
Lies, innuendo, smears, the threat of no more employment: all these devices are used and used to great effect to bring an oppressive silence back on this island.
That is what is going on in Tasmania — it is an attempt to bring an oppressive silence back to our island. I stand here tonight to stand up for the people of Tasmania who are asking for freedom of speech, for the right to control their own destiny, for the community to be properly consulted and for a capacity for people to challenge the relationship between the state government, the big end of town and the newspapers that operate in Tasmania — in particular, the Examiner newspaper.
I make a plea for people to support young journalists such as Wes Young and take an interest in this matter because, whilst it is happening in Tasmania at the moment, Tasmania is a microcosm of the rest of the country. As we are seeing a rush to take away civil liberties and freedom of speech around the rest of the country with excessive laws, we might well think about what is going on in Tasmania and fear for the future unless people of good heart stand up for an open society in which debate is encouraged and where journalists can report without fear or favour and be supported for doing so by their editors and chiefs of staff instead of being dismissed in the appalling way that Wes Young was.
I think he should be reinstated. People should get behind him. Even the ABC was threatened with legal action because they dared to interview Wes Young and talk about his situation. It is disgraceful. The people of Tasmania need to really challenge this relationship between the state government and Gunns and the culture of fear and intimidation. It is time to get rid of both the puppet and the puppet master.
The Hansard link:
How The Examiner responded:
Read all the history: