Ever since Fairfax Media’s The Examiner broke a story on Sunday about graffiti and “an explosive device”/”smoke bomb” at the Launceston home of John Gay, the chairman of wood-chipping company Gunns, logging industry supporters have been whipping themselves into an anti-environmentalist frenzy.
In its initial story, which had no byline, The Examiner cited anonymous “family sources”, stating that Gay and his wife were “extremely nervous about a radical anti-pulp mill element in the community.” In case readers were in any doubt about who the most likely culprits were, The Examiner helpfully reported that “the attacks coincide with a fiery community cabinet meeting at Beaconsfield last Sunday where 21 anti-pulp mill protesters were arrested.”
What started out as a few facts overlaid with a large dose of speculative reporting, soon took on a life of its own. Early on Sunday morning The Mercury picked up the story, though the “explosive device” was downgraded to a “smoke flare”. The incident though, the article opined, revealed “the personal cost to Mr Gay and his family of the long and bitter debate over the proposed $2.2 billion Tamar Valley pulp mill”.
AAP, too, got in on the act, dispatching a story which was heavily reliant on The Examiner story, complete with implying that opponents of the pulp mill were the most likely culprits. AAP’s post was picked up by The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and Business Spectator.
Some later reports featured statements from Tap into a Better Tasmania, which opposes Gunns’ proposed pulp mill, and Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne cautioning media and commentators from jumping to conclusions.
But while the courts work on the assumption of innocent until proven guilty, some logging industry supporters seemingly prefer that environmentalists have to prove their innocence. Ken Jeffries, a former ABC reporter and now head spin doctor for Forestry Tasmania, a government-owned logging company, claimed that “condemnation of the attack on the private residence of the Gunns Limited chairman” was an “embarrassing” setback “for the anti-forestry movement”.
Paul Lennon, the former Labor Premier who championed the Gunn’s pulp mill proposal, opined in The Examiner that “anybody who seriously believes this latest attack against John and his family was not orchestrated by the anti-pulp mill campaigners is kidding themselves.”
Shortly after Lennon’s column had been published, acting-detective inspector John Parker, of Tasmania Police, announced that a 20-year-old West Launceston man had been charged with injury to property and trespass. “Investigations have established that the damage caused was in relation to a prank involving several males, and involved a level of intoxication,” he said.
How a minor drunken prank escalated into a major Tasmanian political story may be as good as topic as any to kick off the journalists union’s Future of Journalism forum in Hobart on Thursday night.
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Bob Burton is a Hobart-based freelance journalist and author of Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry, Allen & Unwin.