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September 16th 2014 print

Roger Franklin

When Reporters Opt to Miss the Obvious

Once upon a time journalists were encouraged to maintain a sceptical distance from their contacts. As anyone who saw the most most recent Q&A will be aware, far from serving as the public's inquisitor, the news business all too often is content to do stenography

izzy stoneThe late American journalist I.F. Stone was an irredeemable leftist (and quite possibly for a time an agent of Soviet influence), but when it came to leaks and anonymous sources he knew how the world works. If you get into bed with your contracts, he warned young reporters, don’t expect to emerge with virtue intact.

“You’ve really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity,” Stone observed. “Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.” When he died, the Pat Oliphant cartoon that marked his passing showed a small, gnomish and thickly bespectacled figure declining the offer of a cloud and typewriter inside the Pearly Gates. “He’d rather hang around out here and keep things honest,” an angel tells St Peter.

Stone went to his grave 25 years ago, but press accounts of the Abbott government’s purported “war on science” have invoked his advice that a journalist who places his or her sympathies above ruthless objectivity is no better than a stenographer. Last night’s Q&A was a further catalyst for recalling Stone’s words, as it assembled five men and women for a festival of bitching about the bloody-minded pig ignorance of any government that would question the value for money of the bodies they represent and the projects that pay the panel participants’ mortgages. Take the question from a certain Jacqui Hoepner, who asked:

“Many scientists despair that public acceptance and action on climate change doesn’t reflect the scientific consensus …. If winning people over with “more facts and less opinions” was plan A, what’s plan B?”

Worth noting, especially as Q&A did not, is that Ms Hoepner, a recent journalism graduate, is a warmist to her low-carbon boot heels. Currently doing her PhD on “opposition to wind power in Australia on the basis of health impacts and how these concerns have been communicated or opposed by various groups”, she appears to be laying the foundation for a future career in the climate industry.  Since her supervisor is Dr Will Grant, who believes “we have to fight against giant mining companies” (a call to action he makes at the 8-minute mark of the video below), one probably doesn’t need the gift of clairvoyance to anticipate on which side of the issue her research will fall.

Mind you, Hoepner’s question, together with the response that things are pretty crook in the science shop, could have been put to and received from any of the panellists, four of the participants being on-the-record climate-change catastropharians with a near-total financial dependence on the ongoing flow of public monies for innovative research (like this $220,000 earner, for example). Click these links to see what four of the five panellists have said of Gaia’s sweaty peril –  Suzanne Cory; Peter Doherty; Brian Schmidt; Ian Chubb;– and then wonder how it came to be that the ABC could not invite a single scientist likely to question the show’s publicly funded “climate consensus”. Actually, don’t bother, and ignore altogether the fifth talking head, the youthful Marita Cheng, who expressed her sympathy for the warmist cause but is mostly into robots. Instead, recall Izzy Stone’s warning about the danger of putting a news organ at the disposal of a favoured cause and you’ll comprehend in an instant why, week after week, the national broadcaster swallows whole and regurgitates the pronouncements of whichever alarmist happens to be ready for a close-up.

Not that the ABC is alone in violating Stone’s golden rule. As former readers have noticed, the Fairfax press never misses an opportunity to serve as a warmists’ megaphone. As Q&A was promoting last night’s chosen alarmists, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald were rolling off the presses with yet more agit-prop about that nasty and stupid Mr Abbott’s “war on science” in general and his assault on the  CSIRO in particular.

“Some highly skilled scientists and project leaders at the CSIRO are being kept from their research to clean laboratories, write promotional material, sort mail and refill photocopiers after government budget cuts and a efficiency drive that have forced the departure of 100 support staff.”

Shocking stuff – and it gets worse! Toward the end of the article, which nowhere quotes any of those much-put-upon CSIRO boffins by name, as the Fairfax Code of Ethics says should be standard operating procedure, there is this further evidence of how much alleged damage Abbott & Co., are doing to Australia’s greyest matter.

“Last month, management confirmed eight infectious disease researchers at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, the country’s only facility for researching live samples of deadly diseases such as Ebola, would also lose their jobs.”

To explain why this was a crime against humanity, the writer turned to the Greens’ Adam Bandt, who must have had a spare moment in between serving, along with his fellow party members, as the ABC’s go-to arbiters on the weighty moral issues of any particular day. Even blind pigs find acorns every now and then, and so it is with senior Greens — the big distinction being that sight-impaired swine are smart enough to know when they have snorted-up something worthwhile. In citing ebola research, Bandt found his acorn but entirely missed its significance.

Think of it this way: eight infectious-disease researchers lose their jobs and (presumably) serious work on projects that might, just might, save millions of lives is abandoned. Yet, while nasty bugs are allowed to retain their secrets, the CSIRO continues to pump millions of its budget-reduced dollars into climate-change research and the careerists who have made it their secure and lucrative specialty. Follow the link below to learn what warming-related inquiries the CSIRO believes are essential to probe and loudly publicise. Meanwhile, the spurned Infectious Eight clear out their desks as anonymous functionaries whine about the onerous burden of having to collect their own mail.

Here are some of those things the CSIRO believes to be far more important than finding the cure for ebola. There are some doozies on the list, not least the crew that gets to motor through the bush monitoring CO2 levels (not a bad job, one guesses, especially if it comes with a picnic lunch). But the best gig of all would have to be producing this video illustrating how climate change has led Tiwi Islanders to rap music.

Just what I.F. Stone would have made of climate change can never be known, although if that consummate sceptic about all things government and bureaucratic had hewed to the orthodoxy of his day we can guess his greatest fear would have been of global cooling and a looming ice age. But, setting aside the science and the expensively modelled pseudo-science, we can be sure he would have taken a dim view of reporters and TV producers who not only regard themselves as being on the right side of history but are determined to make sure their readers join them there. The first element of their twofold method, as we saw last night on Q&A and today in a pair of dying newspapers, is the simple practice of denying an airing to all other points of view.

The second element is the compulsion to take dutiful dictation from those with barrows to push while never, ever wondering if the people you are quoting might be able to make better use of the taxpayer dollars they have been handed.

Such a denial of curiosity is sad for science and sadder for journalism. But it verges on the tragic for citizens who have so few advocates in the Fourth Estate prepared to wonder if and where their taxes are being squandered.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online