The Australian is generally a quality newspaper that produces some of the best journalism in the country. But every now and then it does its best to outdo the worst of the world’s tabloids by running gutter stories. And in today’s edition, there is another shining example of just how low the Oz can go.

The story, written by Samantha Maiden, is titled “Long way to beach for man of tears”. It is about the Tuvaluan climate negotiator, Ian Fry. The information that was deemed so important that the story ran on the paper’s front page is that Fry happens to live near Canberra, which if your geography isn’t great, is a long way from Tuvalu. As Maiden helpfully points out, it is also 144km away from Batemans Bay.

What seems to have sparked the Oz’s interest is that Fry made an impassioned plea to the international climate conference at Copenhagen for temperature increases to be kept to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Fry’s position, and that of the Tuvaluan government he represents, is that increases beyond this will threaten the long-term viability of Tuvalu and other low-lying island states.

That low-lying countries should take this sort of position should come as no surprise. They have been arguing for a 1.5°C target for some time and, despite protests from developed nations including Australia, have shown few signs of backing down. And why would they? Most people would do what they could to avoid forced migration.

Despite the logic behind the Tuvaluan position, Maiden thought the best way to respond would be to belittle Fry and raise questions about his bona fides because of where he lives. The extract below gives you a flavour for the story.

It was a tear-jerking performance that prompted wild applause among the crowded Copenhagen conference floor.

The lead negotiator for the small island nation of Tuvalu, the bow-tie wearing Ian Fry, broke down as he begged delegates to take tough action.

“I woke up this morning crying, and that’s not easy for a grown man to admit,” Mr Fry said on Saturday, as his eyes welled with tears.

“The fate of my country rests in your hands,” he concluded, as the audience exploded with wild applause.

But the part-time PhD scholar at the Australian National University actually resides in Queanbeyan, NSW, where he’s not likely to be troubled by rising sea levels because the closest beach at Batemans Bay is a two-hour, 144km drive away.

She continues:

At home, he practises what he preaches with a water tank, chooks and a vegie patch in the backyard, although there’s a window-mounted air-conditioning unit down the side and a late model gas-guzzling Ford cab ute in the driveway.

Maiden’s thoughtful story was accompanied by photos of Fry’s house and car, and even a photo of the air-conditioner.

From what I can tell, Maiden’s position seems to be: how dare this man work for Tuvalu and express concern about the fate of its inhabitants while he lives in suburban Australia. This is the type of childish argument that a toddler might run; before thinking better of it. Yet there it is on the front page of The Australian — and it flows over to take up much of the second as well.

Of course, the story does not engage on issues of substance. There are no details of the Tuvaluan position, or Fry’s research. It does not mention how grateful the Tuvaluan government is for the assistance he has provided or the fact that Fry receives what most would regard as a modest salary for his efforts.

Maiden’s journalism brings back memories of that magic moment in September 2005 when the Oz attacked Australian of the Year, Prof Mick Dodson, for owning a house in Canberra. It published details of the location of the house and even gave the readers an evaluation of its value. According to The Australian, indigenous Australian’s shouldn’t own homes in suburban areas unless they agree with its editorial line on indigenous policy.

If The Australian wants to be the “Heart of the Nation” (as its advertising blurb says it is) it needs to extract itself from the gutter, grow up, and concentrate on what it generally produces — good journalism and analysis on things that matter.

For the purposes of full disclosure, Ian Fry is an associate of the ANU Centre for Climate Law and Policy, for which I work. Prof Mick Dodson is also a member of staff at the ANU College of Law.

Peter Fray

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