The Asian tsunami may have been a very difficult story to cover, but you do have to ask why the media were being so conservative on the death toll, when they all knew official figures would massively lag the reality, says Stephen Mayne.

Before leaping into any strong criticism of governments and media over the coverage and reaction to the Indian Ocean tsunamis, it should be acknowledged that this is one of the most difficult stories to cover and disasters to deal with. And it couldn’t have happened at a time when more people were on holiday and tuned out.

That said, the response of media and government has been mixed and the resources being committed by both is rising by the day as the scale of the disaster becomes apparent. It was certainly a slow initial response from many key groups. George W Bush finally interrupted his Christmas vacation on his Texas Ranch on Wednesday American time to speak and the key message that came out of this was rejecting a sledge about stingy rich nations emanating from the United Nations.

By Thursday UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had still not interrupted his Egyptian holiday to speak about the catastrophe and he was starting to cop strong criticism at home.

By comparison, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer were both very active.

However, you do have to ask why the media were being so conservative on the death toll when they all knew official figures would massively lag the reality? Surely the reports could have included lines like “fears of up to 100,000 deaths” much earlier.

Crikey has been watching plenty of Sky News and they have done reasonably well. However, in the battle between CNN and Fox News, the Time Warner offering was far superior on this story as Rupert Murdoch’s controversial news channel does tend to confine itself to American issues and at times barely deviated from its normal coverage.

This story could eclipse everything else from the past 20 years for consecutive front pages and its global reach is also unprecedented given the number of foreign tourists killed or injured. With the likelihood now of more than 100,000 lives being lost and more than $100 billion of damage and losses being inflicted, this is like nothing we’ve seen before.

Various “rich countries” are quickly increasing their commitments but you’d have to say Alexander Downer was today making comments that would suggest a $500 million slug to the Federal budget should not be ruled out, especially when you consider the tax deductibility of donations.

There is little doubt the handling of this relief effort will make and break many political careers, governments and alliances across Asia in the coming years. The failure to have any sort of early warning system, as the Japanese and Americans have for the Pacific, is already a black mark against Australia as arguably the richest country in the Indian Ocean.

Some of the insurance companies were sounding smug talking about the low levels of insurance in the stricken countries but that will only increase the financial burden on various governments. If insurers aren’t there, governments always step in as the insurer of last resort.

With the Australian cricketers donating their $17,000 match fee from the Melbourne test, there will no doubt be countless other such examples of generosity and kindness. Rupert Murdoch was very quick to donate $US1 million to the family of a Fox employee killed in the S11 attacks and it will be interesting to see how generous the world’s billionaires are this time around.

For instance, Nine initially only promoted the Red Cross appeal. Has Nine, PBL or any other part of the Packer empire made a contribution to the appeals? Gee, being worth billions you’d expect some sign of festive largesse from the family of Australia’s richest man, wouldn’t you?

Likewise Kerry Stokes at Seven, Rupert Murdoch, Frank Lowy, Richard Pratt and all our other billionaires. Let’s start listing the notable Australians who are putting their hand on their pockets.

Meanwhile, you won’t be able to escape the global division over Iraq as the world community attempts to present a united front in delivering relief. Expect to hear lines such as the following:

  • “America has happily spent more than $US200 billion destroying Iraq, imgaine if those funds had gone towards the poorest nations in Asia.”
  • “Instead of spending more than $500 million on detention centres, why couldn’t the Howard Government have spent that money helping Asia’s poorest countries?”
  • “If John Howard wants to prove he’s moved on from those Asian immigation comments in the 1980s he should allow tens of thousands of homeless victims of the tsunamis to come to Australia and start a new life.”