Investigative Journalism : the long Asbestos trail 3

It’s a bit depressing when your key contacts keep dying on you, according to ABC journalist Matt Peacock. Peacock, who began investigating James Hardie Asbestos in 1977, reckons that up to 60,000 Australians could eventually die from disease caused by asbestos industrial products. In a forty year career in journalism, Peacock worked on  investigative programs including This Day Tonight, Four Corners and the 730 Report. Last year, he released the book on his investigations into asbestos, Killer Company.

Peacock’s interest in asbestos was sparked by an inquiry about an innocent interview Peacock had broadcast, made by a PR consultant representing the asbestos company. “I had to play it back to find it [the reference] ,” Peacock said. There was a brief claim  by the interviewee who said, “It’s not all bad. Some companies have really cleaned up their act, notably the asbestos company, James Hardie”. Peacock asked himself why a PR company was monitoring “a fairly obscure Radio National program and wanting to use this quote”? “It was just a bit too strange. What were they trying to cover up?” More…


Technology : a very short history of journalists and computers 1

Australia’s most prestigious newspaper group, Fairfax Media, this week moved to sack about eighty experienced sub-editors to outsource production and cut costs. The move followed share price falls resulting from from weak advertising markets, currency fluctuations and the impact of the internet on readership. It may have long term implications for the journalism culture which has sustained quality Fairfax newspapers.

Newspapers, like the automatic wrist watch or the big gun battleship, were inventions of the mechanical age. Journalists were at the front end of an information assembly line where reporters collected the raw materials, sub-editors refined it, lay out staff boilerplated the words together and printers manufactured the industrial out put. Newspapers were called “the daily miracle”.


Reporting Disasters : Police PR and social media Reply

Queensland police media had thirty nine million Facebook hits in twenty four hours during the flood crisis.

Social media “saved us”, according to Queensland Police Media Executive Director,  Kym Charlton.

“That equates to someone looking at  our Facebook site 450 times every second”, she said. More…

Reporting Disasters : local journalist 1

Communities left without power and phones by Cyclone Yasi looked to local newspapers during the emergency.

John Flynn, 39, is a reporter for the Innisfail Advocate, a newspaper located at the very centre of Cyclone Yasi’s  storm damage in north Queensland.

Flynn said that when he attended the local disaster management comittee , he was told that he would have to evacuate his house at Flying Fish Point, where there was expected to be a six metre ocean storm surge. More…

Reporting Disasters : aid worker 2

CNN locates Queensland in Tasmania

Disasters are big news. In sheer size, they don’t come much bigger than Queensland’s floods and cyclones. Muddy waters inundated land as big as Germany and France, wrecked thousands of kilometres of roads  and railways, swamped dozens of towns including the state capital, and resulted in more than twenty deaths. Category Five cyclone Yasi then brought 280 kph winds which flattened crops, smashed marinas and generated an eight metre tidal surge.

Queensland became an international media event.

Parachute journalists dropped into the chaos. Television crews roamed the shattered streets looking for talent. The Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, delivered updated situation reports on regular news conferences, broadcast live on national and commercial television stations which suspended normal programming during the crisis.

Tim Mc Inerny, who ran the Red Cross the evacuation Centres in Rockhampton and Ipswich, said international journalists seeking telephone interviews would wake him at dawn and call in until bed time. At the peak, he would do more than “two dozen plus” interviews a day, with everyone from the BBC, to French documentary makers to German children’s television.

The Germans  were presenting regular news features from a kid’s perspective. They wanted to interview children for their perspective on what was fairly difficult circumstances. I struggled to find a child who could articulate what they wanted. At the end of the day the child we found wasn’t able to come up with the goods and we had to say, “Thanks for coming, but you’ll have to try elsewhere!”

Mc Inerny organised formal press briefings each day at eleven, attended by more than a dozen media outlets. “It was very time consuming, but I had a good team [of relief workers] and it was better they [journalists] got it from the horse’s mouth,” Mc Inerny said.

In Rockhampton where the flood waters rose slowly, parachute television journalists became increasingly desperate for a fresh angle. Mc Inerny said that he would arrange access to “little events”, like a Black Hawk helicopter landing or a concert  by flood victims, to give them something to report on. “It was a challenge for a lot of them [journalists], sticking it out,” he said.

In Ipswich, visiting high-profile personalities became a focus of  media attention, with scrums developing around politicians, entertainers and even a group of 90 footballers.

All of a sudden all these people found they have histories traced back to Ipswich. No-one ever admits it prior. They would walk in and start backslapping. It was good though. It built up people’s energy and kept them positive.

Nevertheless conscientious journalists sought out the stories behind the disaster, the plight of the evacuees.

We had people who have come in shaken and can barely talk. Their homes have gone. They have had to swim out or get out by boat.

Mc Inerny saw himself as a “conduit” between these disaster victims and the press. He said most of the journalists he dealt with were competent, “as long as they understood my priorities and the pressures I had”. “Journalists who empathised  with the community and were respectful of the challenging circumstances,  I would give them all the time I could.”

What of those that didn’t?

People saw right through them. There was one journalist who had pre-arranged to come into the centre at eight o’clock at night and one of the evacuees told him in an Australian manner where he should be heading.

Mc Inerny’s advice to journalists covering disasters..

Emergencies are intense periods and the people you are going to talking to have a lot on their plate. So you might want to sit back and take half an hour to soak it up before you get that five minutes of some body’s time . Learn what’s going on without being invasive. You don’t have to have all the details before you get there, but you do have to be flexible.

  • “Covering the Boxing Day Tsunami: the media mandate.” Australian Studies in Journalism. University of Queensland.  Brisbane. Number 15. pp 56/ 91 2005

Hong Kong stinks 3

“What’s wrong with the sky?” the child of one of my Hong Kong friends asked on a recent visit to the US. She replied that outside China, the sky is usually blue.
Hong Kong on a good day is still beautiful.
But most days here are not good days any more.
Ok I admit it, Hong Kong pollution has beaten me. As much as I love the place, I can’t ignore the toxic smog. Today is white grey, with the Kowloon mountains and most of the harbour hidden by fumes.
I shudder and reach for my inhaler.
I have spent more than two weeks in the last two months in a ward in a private hospital, hooked up to a slow drip. I came back from Malaysia with lungs darkened by the smoke from the forest fires across the straits in Indonesia, where criminal magnates are clearing land.
But Hong Kong’s lethal mix of power station stench, motor fumes and factory stink almost finished me off. A crisp youngish pulmonary specialist, gave me the once over with a stethoscope, and packed me off to hospital for a crash course in intravenous antibiotics. At first it wasn’t too bad. I was really there so they could monitor the drug impacts.
People fed me and washed my clothes. They let me out in the afternoon and evenings to walk around the Peak . In between, I could lounge in my own room watching CNN or using broadband. I asked one of the nurses whether this was what being married was like.
She said not.
After a week, even the novelty of having Nuns pray for me started to wear off.
They let me out for indifferent behaviour. But within a week the condition returned and I was re-admitted. This time it was not so much fun. The drug doses were increased, building up to a twelve hour infusion. My veins started to resist and began to swell and hurt. When I was on the point of passing out from drug overload, the doctor called off the infusions.
It took me about a week to get over from the second hospital term. I am not sure whether my long suffering travel insurance company will ever recover. The good Christian hospital where I lodged, wanted cash in advance and lots of it.
I won’t be back for a while. I’ve been offered good jobs here, some of which I have hankered after for a decade. But I won’t be taking them.
A Hong Kong think tank reported recently that if the Hong Kong government acted now, air pollution would improve by 2010. It’s not soon enough for me.
Next week, I leave for Australia, where the minds may be smaller, but at least the air is clean.