What has The Australian got against a destitute farmer? Compare their coverage of one farmers protest with other hunger strikers:
- When a sex offender protesting his innocence went on a hunger strike, it only took 6 days for The Australian to write about it.
- Taiwan’s former president went on a hunger strike which was reported as it ended after 5 days.
- Serial killer Ivan Milat only had to wait a couple of days to make the Australian with a hunger strike that only lasted for five days all up, and its conclusion was noteworthy too.*
- When three Australian Tamils went on a hunger strike they made headlines after 3 days, and also here.
- Some Sri Lankan asylum seekers agreed to end their hunger strike after 2 days and the story was covered sympathetically.
This is not to detract from the seriousness of some of the above claimants. But compare the reportage about Peter Spencer who started his hunger strike on November 23, 2009. For 25 days there was not even a short note to alert other farmers or landholders that there was a hunger strike underway by an Australian citizen, on Australian soil.
It was Day 26, before he got a mention in The Australian, just as a sideline
Where is the balance?
In the end, it was apparently “worthy” to note that a convicted serial killer had stopped a hunger strike after 5 days, but a law-abiding farmer, protesting against the government laws that had contributed towards the loss of his life savings (and which potentially affect hundreds of other farmers) wasn’t considered newsworthy until Day 42. And then most of the reporting was the repetition from one of Spencer’s brothers about the debt he owes the family, or a dark one-off event from 40 years ago. Peter Spencer’s claim for compensation for all farmers has still not been investigated by The Australian.
When more than 200 asylum seekers went on a hunger strike that lasted just two days The Australian reported quoted them saying they would be “willing to die”, even though in the same article it reported that they had already given up their hunger strike after just two days. The reason given by the spokesman for the Tamils was that
“There are already 100,000 Tamil civilians who have died in the war in our country, and we don’t want to add to that number unnecessarily, so that’s why we ended the strike.”‘
(Possibly they could have thought of that before they started). But The Australian interpreted the end of the brief hunger strike as “an indication of how much their case is being held up as a beacon by the international Tamil Community”.
Giving asylum seekers the benefit of the doubt, and bending over backwards to put a good spin on it is one thing, but The Australian appears to go out of it’s way not to report the case of an Australian facing ruin, feeling suicidal and asking for a fair go. Spencer has had it tough within our legal system, even a justice decreed his case was unconscionable. There are many stories of other farmers with sorry tales to tell on the internet, but instead of trying to verify whether this is a systematic failure of our legislation, The Australian seeks out views from those who oppose Spencer.
Even if you are a man who picks up hitchhikers and stabs them to death in lonely woodlands you don’t have to try as hard as an honest farmer to get your grievances aired in our National Newspaper.
Could it be that The Australian cares more for our carbon emissions, than they do about the lives of our farmers? Do the editors feel that somehow the country is better off if we don’t look too closely at any of the drawbacks of legislation aimed to reduce our carbon output?
The Australian’s coverage:
- Day 26: Spencer finally gets a mention in The Australian, just as a sideline, in a story that was really about Barnaby Joyce. The paper reported on the labor effort to ridicule Barnaby for backing “a hunger striker” and suggesting the government should pay $100 billion. (It’s notable that the Labor Party did not protest the legality, or that the land was effectively “expropriated”, but they protested because $100 billion was a big claim. In a legal case, surely justice is decided on the merits of the case, not by the cost of the claim.)
- Day 44: after a protest by over 300 people at Parliament House The Australian interviewed and headlined… Bill Heffernan–a man who helped create the legislation that is part of what Spencer is protesting about, and who claimed Spencer was no longer of sound mind.
- Day 46: Spencer finally got a front page headline, but the news was not about his case but about how he owed money to his family and about an incident with a gun 40 years ago. I wrote about the attempt to smear him: Investigative Journalists work hard to … protext the government from the people.
- Day 48: The Australian put in more articles, a repeat of the debt information from the day before, along with an anonymous letter allegedly from Peter Spencers family, but unsigned. It’s repeated in full on the Australians site. Another commentary was about Spencer’s work in Papua New Guinea before he took up farming. It was interesting, but hardly a high priority compared to all the other angles that need to be said. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the family being caught up in this toxic legislative mix, but remember that if it is from the family, they probably want their money back, which might complicate their perspective. The Australian will publish anonymous letters “from the family”, but not named ones from Spencers neighbour, or other supporters, or legal experts.
Which debate are the fringe online supporters derailing? (Certainly not a debate in our national newspaper.)
- Day 50: Spencer was at least in the headline, and the story was reported as a news story with direct quotes from a radio interview with the man himself.
- Day 51: (Jan 12th) Despite the lack of space for legal considerations, or words from supporters, there was room to print a commentary with vague allegations against unnamed people who might be distorting the debate. “SUPPORTERS of hunger-striking farmer Peter Spencer risk derailing debate on vital issues of property rights with their fringe views, a leading agri-politics expert has warned.“ Would these be the same property rights that The Australian doesn’t consider worthy enough to independently research, or to interview other alleged victims of? Which debate are the fringe online supporters derailing? (Certainly not a debate in our national newspaper.)
UPDATE – Legal Commentary: Simon on AustralianClimateMadness is a lawyer and engineer and he’s done what The Australian should have–looked closely at the legal history and cases. For those interested in more detail, an interesting legal commentary is here with more followup on the Native Vegetation Laws. It’s yet another example of why big media is losing ground to the internet. Bloggers offer for free what the mainstream media won’t even touch with millions of dollars to back them up.
UPDATE: Great news! After 52 days on the tower, Peter Spencer has agreed to come down a few hours ago. Can we talk him into running for the Senate?
* for some reason both the Ivan Milat stories are linked to by the search engine on the Australian, but the links are broken.