May 3, 2016

Bleaching whitewash

By Andrew Stafford
Bleaching whitewash

Bleached coral off Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Dorothea Bender-Champ for ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Queensland’s Courier-Mail still has plenty of questions to answer about its coverage of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef

Last night, ABC TV’s Media Watch followed up a story I wrote for the Saturday Paper on the Courier-Mail’s coverage of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Questions were put to the paper’s executive editor, Neil Melloy. He says that claims that the paper has under-reported what is happening on the reef are “frankly baffling, and appear to have been made by someone who does not read the Courier-Mail”. You can read his full response here.

“Anyone wishing to be clear about the Courier-Mail’s position on the issue should read the paper’s editorial from Saturday April 23,” he said. The headline for this editorial reads “Scaremongering won’t save our precious $5.4b tourist drawcard”. Well, no, it won’t, but neither will obfuscating the extent of the problems it faces.

I have in fact been following the Courier-Mail’s coverage of this issue quite closely, and in response I have my own questions to ask of Melloy and the paper’s editor, Lachlan Heywood (some of which I have put to him previously). I will ask them again.

The aforementioned editorial concludes as follows:

Perversely, the overblown claims also hinder action to protect the Reef as the science to date simply does not back up the hyperbole. And, like the wider issue of climate change, with the Reef it is the science we need to rely on, not the hysterical claims made by those on the fringes of the debate trying to exploit the issue to further their own agendas.

It also says:

The problem with responding to this threat in a rational and effective fashion though is some of the wildly overblown claims made by groups such as Greenpeace who paint the Reef as being on the brink of catastrophic extinction.

Two days before this editorial, 56 climate and marine scientists, with more than 1200 years of collective experience between them, put their names to a statement in a full-page advertisement on page 6 of the newspaper. (A short piece about bleaching on the reef followed on page 13; one of the signatories, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, said the scientists were partially motivated by the paper’s poor coverage of the issue.) The advertisement read in part:

As you read this a catastrophe is unfolding [original emphasis]. The reef is currently experiencing the worst coral bleaching event in its history. From Cairns to the Torres Strait, vast swathes of the once-colourful reef are now deathly white.

My first question to Melloy and Heywood is as follows: since it is their view that we need to rely on the science, would they say the views of these scientists are “hysterical claims by those on the fringes of the debate”?

The advertisement goes on to say:

Why is this happening? As the Earth’s temperature rises due to climate change, our oceans are experiencing record-breaking heatClimate change is driven by the greenhouse gas pollution of fossil fuels from burning coal, oil and gas [original emphasis]. The Great Barrier Reef is at a crisis point. Its future depends on how much and how quickly the world, including Australia, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit ocean warming.

My second question to Melloy and Heywood, then, is this. In another editorial, on 3 April, the Courier-Mail ran hard in its support of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, which alone could account for a full 4% of global emissions by mid-century. Does the paper see any incompatibility between its support for the mine and its purported desire to save the Great Barrier Reef?

That editorial begins: “In the real world you need jobs.” While Adani has claimed in its press releases that the mine will employ up to 10,000 people, its own expert, Jerome Fahrer, has conceded that the real figure is closer to 1500. This leads to a third question: either way, how do these figures compare to the 70,000 jobs at stake on the Great Barrier Reef (leaving aside the reputations of Queensland and Australia)?

And a fourth: remembering that “it is the science we need to rely on”, does the Courier-Mail believe that the burning of fossil fuels is causing anthropogenic global warming?

Getting back to the editorial of 23 April, it also said:

Twice in the past year Greenpeace has been caught using misleading photos to try to whip up fear about coral devastation – one of the photographs taken in the Philippines after a typhoon, and another in Western Samoa, some 4500 km away.

That may be so, but if the paper wanted to see what was really happening on the Barrier Reef it could have asked someone like Professor Terry Hughes, who has been conducting extensive aerial surveys of the reef and has made public any number of location-tagged photographs of bleached coral. To Melloy and Heywood: isn’t focusing on Greenpeace missing the bigger story in your own backyard?

And why didn’t the paper send one of its own journalists into the field, either with Hughes or with the swarms of researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, to verify the claims for themselves?

The 23 April editorial also takes its lead (as do many of the paper’s stories) from the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators. If it’s the science we need to rely on, why give so much attention to vested interests from the tourism industry?

While it is true that the Courier-Mail has occasionally run stories giving prominence to the views of Hughes and other scientists, that coverage has mostly consisted of wire copy, which is dwarfed in stature by pieces from bylined and leader writers. On other occasions, when the views of scientists (including Hoegh-Guldberg) are included, they are buried at the bottom of the copy.

Finally, why did the paper so grotesquely misrepresent the views of Sir David Attenborough, with its front page of him standing atop coral at low tide next to the headline “Sir David’s verdict: Still the most magical place on Earth”, with an inside spread adding: “Reports of Reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough”? This quote came from a subeditor; the lead quote came from Greg Hunt, the federal environment minister.

Here is what Attenborough actually said:

The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reefs will be gone within decades. And that would be a global catastrophe … Do we really care so little about the Earth on which we live that we don’t want to protect one of its greatest wonders from the consequences of our behaviour?

That’s another question I’d like Mr Melloy and Mr Heywood to answer. And I’m sure many others, especially Queenslanders, would like some answers too.

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