Crikey will monitor the media’s performance covering the Bali bombings and our first impressions were decidely mixed.

It took international media outlets to estimate that the majority of casualties were Australians – up to 75% of the 190-plus dead BBC TV told its global viewers at 9pm. However, this now looks on the high side. Meanwhile, Australian TV, radio and Internet outlets were beating around the bush, speaking of only seven “confirmed” Australian deaths.

News Ltd websites missing in action

Nearly 20 hours after the attack, the websites of The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, the Hobart Mercury, the Northern Territory News and The Advertiser had all failed to even mention the biggest breaking Australian disaster story in a generation, while The Sunday Times website in WA appeared to be down.

News Ltd’s umbrella online service through www.news.com.au only had three stories on the site at 8pm last night and they were all supplied by AFP, AAP or AP. The Herald Sun was the only News Ltd site to attempt some reasonable coverage and they had an AP wrap, the PM’s speech, some photos, a story of AFL survival and a couple of other minor contributions. Where were the eyewitness accounts, the tales of heroism, the analysis of the significance of the attack in the war on terror?

Explaining the geo-political implications

This was arguably the third serious terrorist attack inside a week, as al-Qaeda and its tributaries launch a firestorm on the West. The destruction of a French-flagged supertanker off Yemen and the bomb that killed seven in a Finland shopping mall appear to fit into the terrorism jigsaw. Not that you would know by watching the news. Channels Ten, Nine and Seven didn’t report the broader terrorism links. ABC TV reported developments on the Finland bombing as a separate item buried in the local bulletin.

Ninemsn slow off the mark

Ninemsn were also slow off the mark. At 8.45am on Sunday morning, when all the major news sites, here and overseas, were providing at least sketchy details of the bombings in Bali, the people at ninemsn were obviously still asleep. As far as they were concerned, “Authorities are on high alert after the United States warned Australia of a possible threat by terrorists to blow up power stations and electrical transmission lines.”

That news was at least 12 hours old. ABC News seemed to be most on the ball. In fact, a number of agencies were even quoting the ABC in their own reports. The SMH and News Ltd provided as much as they could. The BBC was reporting the possibility that “there may be Americans amongst the dead”, the Jakarta Post had carried comprehensive reports throughout the night, and even good old CNN managed to put the blasts as their number two story — although they seemed more concerned that the US consulate in Denpassar may have been a target.

The Washington Post, Straits Times and Irish Times all carried reports before most of the Australian News Ltd sites.

Meanwhile, at 9am, some sleepy head must have fired up the computers at ninemsn because the story was finally given a mention. Which should tell us all that it’s strictly office hours only at Kerry’s Web Site. Makes a mockery of the claim that “More people get their news on Nine”, doesn’t it. Or perhaps the folks at Nine just figure their huge audience will also be still asleep on Sunday morning. So why bother?

The Age and the SMH provided comprehensive coverage throughout the day, although not much of it was generated by their own people. At least they gave maps, video, transcripts and about six different stories by 8pm last night. The electronic media performed a little better. Most of the Perth-based reporters got on the first flight into Bali yesterday morning and Nine certainly got a flying start given that their reporter Mark Readings was actually partying on in the Sari Club and only survived because he’d just gone across the road to Paddy’s moments before the blasts. Barrie Cassidy did well on Insiders to handle a live interview with the coach of the Kingsley Football Club which looks like it could have seven missing players. However the panel discussion left a bit to be desired as The Daily Telegraph’s Piers Akerman attempted to politicise it and make predictions about the Cunningham by-election.

The ABC promised a special edition at midday but then only offered up about 5 minutes of coverage from Juanita Phillips. ABC Online did better with plenty of reports through the night on their “just in” page.

When we checked News Radio was sticking with normal programming but Sky News on Foxtel did quite well with Terry Willesee holding the fort solidly last night with breaking news. Alexander Downer did consecutive interviews with Insiders and Sunday Sunrise and John Howard appeared visibly upset when he faced the press a few hours later.

The big question about what is the largest ever terrorist attack in the Southern hemisphere is whether Australians were targeted because of our cosy relationship with the US. And that was one of the big questions conspicuously missing from yesterday’s coverage. The evening news bulletins were, naturally, full of horrific footage from Bali, but no analysis of the global context, or whether Australia’s policy had opened it up as a terror target.

Today’s papers had huge coverage as you would expect. The Herald Sun has cranked up the print run an estimated 10-20 per cent produced a 4 page wrap around on top of devoting the first 16 pages to the story and 22 pages in all. There was plenty of good detail on the footballers implicated and survivor tales.

The newspapers are naturally pumping the bulk of their efforts into today’s editions but with Lachlan Murdoch apparently settling into a new Melbourne office for a few weeks, let’s hope he really opens the purse strings so this yarn can be covered properly. Sales will rise by hundreds of thousands as a result of this story so let’s hope the extra revenue is ploughed back in to covering the story.

The Age is planning a second edition this afternoon. They’ll need it as there was only five pages of coverage up front plus the opinion page. However, the analysis from Mark Baker and the SMH’s Matthew Moore was better than anything the Herald Sun offered up. Andrew Bolt was probably the most hysterical commentator this morning and he fits into the “we’ve gotta be tougher on the terrorists” school. Many others believe the Howard government unnecessarily caught Australians up in the global terrorism battle by so vehemently backing George W Bush.

The Age’s business section only managed one down-page story when the Fin Review showed the way to go with eight pages of news coverage, much of it with an economic bent. The Australian did better than The Age with 7 pages of coverage but once again the business pages were disappointing with just one story tipping Qantas shares would fall today.

Don Greenlees had an informative piece about the confessions of al-Qa’ida operative Omar al-Faruq as detailed by Time Magazine recently. It would seem all roads lead to Jemaah Islamiah’s spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir.

Please send in your feedback on how the media is covering this story. This is our first contribution to the story so we’re not exactly quick off the mark ourselves. Let us know what role you’d like Crikey to play. Onpassing useful web links and generally assessing the media coverage and the politics will be important. And then there is the economic implications. For instance, Australian Governments at all levels will spend hundreds of millions of dollar as a result of this and already strained budgets will come under pressure.

There will be many weeks of stories of grief and loss and expect a huge reaction to support funds for the families of victims.

Finally, we need to be as accurate as possible with this story whilst also trying to cut through the spin and sensitivities. Hopefully there will be less than 100 Australian victims but with 220 unaccounted you have to fear the worst.

Speaking of accuracy, Eddie McGuire made 3 slip-ups in a row last night at the end of the heroic Aussie victory over the Irish in Dublin. At 1.55am he excitedly declared:

“Everyone’s heart was breaking from the massacre in Dili…I had friends injured in Dili…news came through from Dili on loved ones.”

We all make these slips but surely 3 references to the capital of East Timor in 5 minutes was a bit much.

Peter Fray

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