The start was just a tad encouraging.
There was Premier Paul Lennon’s sidekick Matt Rogers arriving to hear the four panellists at the Walkley Media Forum on the subject: Bring In The Big Gunns. Politics, Planning and the Environment.
Marvellous. What an open mind the Lennon Government has. How encouraging to see free speech encouraged; open debate engaged in.
But who was the gentleman with him?
He was, we were told, the sound recordist for the Government. His purpose? To record every last exclamation as panellists Matt Denholm (Australian), Sue Neales (Mercury), Roison McCann (ABC) and Jocelyn Nettlefold (7.30 Report) told-it-like-it-is in the day-in-day-out questioning of this most defensive of governments.
Encouraging became just a tad disconcerting. Have to be careful with every last inference. Big Matty is watching.
Big Brother is recording … everything.
Including the gentle piss-take observation of the evening’s Moderator, acting head of journalism at Uni of Tas, Libby Lester (whose new book, Giving Ground (Quintus) on media and environmental conflict has just been published), on the reason for Matt’s presence. Which is all it was, a presence. There was no public engagement during question time. Just observation.
There were just two pollies … Nick McKim and Christine Milne; and would-be pollie Cassy O’Connor. No Labor MP deemed it worthy of attendance, even though the evening was organised by a union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and had in attendance federal secretary Chris Warren and federal industrial organiser Pat O’Donnell.
The panellists were superb. And they pulled no punches.
Denholm, experienced in political reporting in Australia and the UK, was critical in his observation that the Lennon Government constantly over-stepped the mark in its dealings with journalists and academics when the spoken, written or broadcast message was not to the Government’s liking.
He gave as examples Press Releases issued by the Government Media Unit on March 23 and May 12 attacking his reports in the Australian.
The first accusing him of developing a conspiracy theory for a report in the Australian on the pulp mill planning process; the second a release quoting Treasurer Michael Aird accusing this objective reporter of “campaigning against the government and the pulp mill.”; another instance of current Media Unit chief Rod Scott likening a legitimate question on the alternative assessment process to “a Greens conspiracy theory.”
Denholm objected to this siege-mentality government (my term), its minders and forest industry spokespeople attacking the integrity of journalists.
Sue Neales, highly-credentialled journalist from war zones to the parliamentary floor, objected to the shoot-the-messenger personal discrediting of “people just doing their job.”
Two years in Tasmania as the Mercury’s Chief Reporter Neales said she had been disparaged as Deep Green or Green, simply for reporting facts.
They put you in a box to discredit you, she said. Or openly disparage; as the photo on the wall at Thursday night’s Republic pub venue of a placard at the recent pro-mill forestry rally in Launceston declared: Pulp the Mercury. Export Sue Neales.
A veteran of the Jeff Kennett era tactics (she had her house and computer broken into during the Crown Casino tender process), Neales was unfazed by any of this, but conceded this confrontational behaviour was intimidating for younger journalists.
She also bemoaned the absence of any forensic opposition (other than the Greens). Because Will Hodgman’s Libs were so acquiescent on the mill, it was too often journalists who ended up asking the questions a proper Opposition should be asking.
She also was critical of the sometimes intimidatory, time-wasting and nit-picking nuisance attacks of industry groups like Timber Communities Australia.
Roison McCann is Drive Presenter with the ABC in Launceston, and the pulp mill issue is one which has consumed both her community and her professional and private time as she has forensically examined the issue, digesting the huge IIS reports so her radio presentations were as professional as possible.
She observed the consistent inability of State government ministers interviewed on her program to answer simple questions about the pulp mill and the process; singling out, particularly, Jim Cox and Paula Wriedt.
She opined this may not simply be the fact that neither has actually read relevant-parts-to-their-portfolios of Gunns IIS, but they had been inadequately served by the scrapping of the RPDC process which would have answered the simple questions the public she served as a broadcaster wanted answers to.
And there were four recurring questions:
Will it stink?
What’s in the air?
What’s in the sea?
How many trucks will be on the road?
She was aware of the increasing intimidation of public servants; too confronted to offer legitimate opinion.
As a broadcaster she had observed the mood of Launceston change from one of majority support to fearful doubt.
And, the Lennon government had only itself to blame. They were reaping what they had sown, she said.
Joc Nettlefold, Tasmanian reporter for The 7.30 Report talked of her experience of still asking questions and not getting answers; of requests to interview Premier Lennon or John Gay denied; of discrediting attacks on her credibility such as the disparaging Government Media Unit response: You know what we think of you and your program.
And the niggling, nuisance value questioning of 7.30 reports by … you guessed it: Timber Communities Australia.