When I recently flew into Montana, in the smack of America’s conservative mid-west, I knew I was about to attempt something I would have no hope of achieving in Australia.

Here the media is held under such tight check by political and bureaucratic minders that it would have been almost impossible for me do the story I just filmed in Montana, about crystal methamphetamine or “ice”.

In Australia, journalists have faced criminal charges for attempting to interview prisoners. In Montana, it wasn’t too difficult to organise to take a camera for the first time into the state’s brand new prison for meth addicts.

Dateline researcher Cathy Carey and I only had a week to line up interviews with Montana’s Attorney-General and the State’s Justice Minister, and to organise going out on a raid with the drug squad, meeting drug addicts, and to film families who are now working in the community to help others who have children whose lives are spiralling out of control.

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When Montana first began to respond to methamphetamine use spiralling out of control across rural America, it did so publicly. A massive privately funded advertising campaign, which is now supported by the State led the way. While some in the community expressed concern it would tarnish the state’s image, the campaign was overwhelmingly embraced. The media was encouraged to report on developments to both inform and help educate the public about the drug.

Some might think it ironic that it was a trip to the Land of the Free that really brought home to me how much Australian media’s access has been whittled away over the years.

When I was posted to Thailand as the ABC’s South East Asia Correspondent ten years ago, it was a time of great optimism in the region. Countries such as Vietnam were loosening their controls and opening up.

One of my first trips in the region was to Singapore to report on the “nanny state”. The focus of the story was on the bevy of rules that dictate the lives of its citizens and the tight controls the government exerts over the media.
But in today’s media environment in Australia this would be a non-story. Not so much because Singapore has changed, but because Australia has.

I am still stunned by how easy it was to line up all the Montana interviews and footage. I’d hate my bosses to think that getting the job done was always as easy as this, but then again they are used to working in Australia.

Ginny Stein’s report “The Ice Storm” was broadcast on SBS Dateline this week.

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Josh
Sydney, NSW

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