The view from Billinudgel

Whitehaven Hoax

Thank the powers that be that we have the media to set decent standards.

For weeks the pundits of the press have been inveighing against Nicola Roxon’s attempts to set uniform, comprehensive and comprehensible guidelines about what constitutes offensive material, but they certainly know it when they see it, and  its name is Jonathan Moylan.

Last week Moylan pulled off a prank: he faked a press release from the ANZ Bank which said that the bank had withdrawn its backing from the Whitehaven coal conglomerate on ethical grounds. He sucked in, among others, the Australian Financial Review, AAP and the Business Spectator, who reported it as fact without bothering to check. And Whitehaven shares tanked, dropping nine percent and wiping $300 million off the company’s paper value.

Now a joke’s a joke, but you have to draw the line somewhere. This was about private property – money. Some investors actually lost it. Of course, when the hoax was revealed and the price recovered, quite a lot of others made money – not including Moylan, it should be emphasised. But that did not excuse him; if anything it made things worse.

If he had just been a speculator manipulating the market it would have been totally understandable. But he was a starry-eyed idealist, a nutty do-gooder trying to make a political point at the expense of the sacrosanct, infallible market. It was an attack on the very basis of free enterprise, an act of terrorism, almost of sacrilege. Cast the unbeliever into the slammer and throw away the key.

But hang on a moment. Okay, so he spread a story that turned out to be false and the market reacted. But surely that happens all the time: rumours, gossip and tittle-tattle are the very lifeblood of the market. Shares rise and fall constantly on the basis of whispers about takeovers, contracts, so-called “insider” information.

It doesn’t even have to be about the market, let alone be true; in 1986 a canard emerged from the Adelaide Stock Exchange that Paul Keating had resigned as Treasurer. The market plummeted. Even those who knew the story was nonsense joined in; one prominent broker later confided to his friends that he never believed it, but that wasn’t the point: everyone else was selling, so he had to as well. This is apparently what the commentators mean when they speak of economic rationalism.

So let’s, as  Barnaby Joyce might put it, take a reality pill. The stockmarket is driven, not by some divine law, but by fear and greed, and thoroughly deserves having the mickey taken out of it as often as possible. Moylan is hardly Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Jesus Christ, as Bob Brown hyperbolically suggested, but he is not the Antichrist either.

It was a spoof, okay? A bit of satire to make an environmental point. So if you can’t get it, get over it.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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