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MediaNovember 13, 2019

Two days in Sydney as Australia burns

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The catastrophic bushfires in Australia are framed very differently depending on which media you consume, writes Duncan Greive from Sydney.

The horizon started the day crisp and clear, the bushfires out there but not palpable. A group of 60 or so media from across Australia and New Zealand, all holed up in an expansive function room 40 floors up, gazing out at the Harbour Bridge and off into the hinterland. 

As the day wore on, that view started to haze. At first almost imperceptibly, but by late afternoon the outer reaches of the city were muddy and indistinct. One of the organisers told us that the short walk to the dinner venue could prove unpleasant.

So it proved. As soon as we left the building it hit you in the chest. The air was thick, dry and superheated. It had that very specific quality of air fanned out from deep within servers.

Everyone you talked to brought up the apocalyptic feel. Upon reaching our destination my throat was scratchy and the air had a faint scent of woodsmoke.

We started the day with this news remotely and exited with it lapping at the city fringes. Yet while wildfire is up there with flooding as the starkest manifestation of our changing climate, being here while it burns can serve to reinforce how radically Australia is divided by its media. 

On the ABC it’s presented as a catastrophe made by nature, but that “climate change is making a bad situation worse”. The Guardian fact-checked claims that the Australian Greens had worsened the crisis by refusing to allow controlled burns, quoting a former NSW fire and rescue commissioner as saying “blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim.”

ABC and The Guardian

Meanwhile, in the Murdoch-owned media, it’s quite a different story. In the Australian, its editorial says that the Green party’s “cynical response to fires should be a turning point”. Sky News’s key identity Andrew Bolt went further, talking of a “sick attempt by Greens MP Adam Bandt to blame these fires on global warming”. Speaking slowly, wearily, Bolt describes attempts to link the fire to climate change as “vicious, stupid, wrong in so many ways… there is such a thing as just plain weather”. He went on to dispute any claims of the fires being “unprecedented”, listing off fires of decades and centuries past by way of evidence.

Unfortunately the following morning his own news operation tended to disagree.

Sky News Australia: “Unprecedented fire conditions”

The dissonance is expressed in Australia’s politics too, which seem far more emboldened and enabled by media than New Zealand’s. From Scott Morrison’s recent call to crack down on climate change protests targeting business to Barnaby Joyce’s characterising of two killed by bushfires as likely to have been Greenies, the scope of acceptable discourse is far broader here. 

While climate science isn’t really disputed in New Zealand and debate largely confined to the scale and pace of the response, Australia feels divided into two realities depending on which politicians are speaking, and which media are reporting on their speech.

As of this morning, one million hectares – an area around a tenth the size of the North Island – has burned, and the fires still rage and shift. At dinner last night someone held out a fork and talked of what will happen now that a southerly has arrived. “The scary thing is that when the wind changes, the tail becomes the front. So places which are nowhere near the fire are suddenly in its path.”

We ate outside, voices rasping and tending hoarse by dinner’s end. This conference has been held in Rio de Janeiro and Sydney in recent times with delegates travelling in from LA, meaning that smoke from wildfires has been in the air on three continents and in three cities for some of those attending. The conference’s purpose is to help find stability of funding for fact-based media into the future – watching the chaos and wildly different framing of this event, that seems more urgent than ever.


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