The NT News "I Float & I Vote" free sticker. Campaigning journalism or advertorial?

Late last week the NT News fired its latest shot in its remarkable media campaign against what fishing columnist and commercial tour guide Alex Julius described as a “recreational fishing no-go, no-take zone wish list.”

Julius was referring to the “I Float and I Vote” rally held at Darwin’s Stokes Hill wharf on the morning of Saturday 5th November and promoted by a raft of local fishing supply shops, Pete Davies – self-described radio shock-jock at Mix 104.9 FM – and the NT News, which led the charge.

According to Julius the rally attracted “awesome” support, with hundreds of people and boats gathered to protest against a proposal by the Australian Marine Conservation Society (the AMCS) that apparently called on the Federal Government to establish 12 fishing ‘no-go zones’ in Top End waters.

The first reference in the NT News to “fishing bans” was back in early August, when a brief piece by Nick Calacouras reported on Greens leader Bob Brown’s call for 30 per cent of the Australian coastline to be declared as marine parks.

A few weeks later Federal Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, released two “draft marine bio-regional plans and proposed marine reserves” for Commonwealth waters between Shark Bay in Western Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria in the east.

North Commonwealth marine reserve network proposal

Notwithstanding that Burke’s plan would be of immense interest to the NT News’ fishing constituency I haven’t been able to find any articles in the NT News on those plans or the three-month public consultation period associated with them.

The NT News’ silence continued for the next six weeks or so until October 18 when the AMCS issued a media release announcing the publication by the Save Our Seas Alliance of a booklet called “Twelve Tropical Sea Treasures.

Twelve Treasures makes a persuasive case for the establishment of marine conservation reserves across the Top End.

The next day the NT News launched a splenetic tirade against “tree-huggers and preservationists”, including this quote from a fisho with a novel approach to Darwin’s evolutionary theory: “Where do people get the idea we are supposed to keep everything on earth alive forever? Species have been coming and going for time immemorial.

To be fair, throughout the NT News’ campaign against the marine reserves (a term it steadfastly refused to use, preferring instead the misleading “no-go, no take zones”) at least senior journalist Nigel Adlam gave the supporters of the marine reserves some coverage, albeit limited.

But by any account, during the next three weeks of its campaign the NT News presented its readers with a biased and highly subjective view of the AMCS proposals that was a bull’s roar  away from “fair and balanced.”

On October 19 the NT News reported Amateur Fishermen’s Association president Warren de With (who also owns a fishing and hunting supply store) as saying that the AMCS “…agenda is contrary to all available scientific advice, which shows that our NT Fisheries, particularly our recreational fishery, are sustainably managed and that closures are not necessary.

de With’s comments not only went through to the keeper without challenge but were adopted by the paper as truth writ large.

In the next day’s editorial, the NT News railed against the:

“Politically-minded conservationists [who] are as capable of deceit and obfuscation as any mainstream politician: They will no doubt draw a stark picture of marine protection in the far north – pristine seas in need of saving from rapacious, unthinking, redneck Territorians.”

I can’t find any reference to rednecks in any material from the AMCS or elsewhere but I wouldn’t be alone in thinking that it was a reasonably accurate portrayal of more than a few local fishermen and women.

The subtext of the NT News campaign was that us good old boys in the north don’t want those meddlesome southerners messing with our “unique Territory lifestyle.”

This is the sort of xenophobic tosh that the NT News and conservative politicians (from both sides) love to trot out when it suits an agenda or sells papers.

Or radio ads. Here is self-described radio shock jock Pete Davies quoted in the NT News sister publication, the Sunday Territorian on October 23:

“If Canberra decides to pacify the latte-sipping oxygen thieves of the south, then they’ll just turn around and do it. They don’t give a shit about our vote.”

A week later the NT News announced that it would sponsor a “I Float and I Vote” campaign culminating in a land and sea-based rally at Darwin’s Stokes Hill wharf on November 5.

In the previous ten days the NT News had published eight articles on the “no-go, no-take” zones issue.

In the following week the paper published a further ten articles – including two editorials – all supporting the rally and repeating the untruths and spurious assertions that littered its earlier efforts.

This is from the editorial in the NT News the day before the rally:

“Southern conservationists say the no-go zones will protect fragile ecosystems. But there is no scientific evidence – not one jot – to show that Territory coastal waters are in danger from recreational anglers, the commercial fishing industry or even oil and gas explorers. Indeed, scientists have found that the impact on the marine environment is minimal. So why is there a campaign to try and fix what is not broken?”

It seemed that the only way that the supporters of the marine reserves could get their message across was to buy space in the NT News – which is what they did the day before the rally with a full page ad that set out eleven points in support of marine reserves.

Also on the day before the rally the AMCS and the Save Our Tropical Sealife alliance issued a media release – headed Territorians Deserve Facts on Marine Sanctuaries – that provided more than a few uncomfortable truths for the promoters of the I Float and I Vote rally:

Based on thorough scientific analysis, the alliance is calling on the Federal Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, to protect a proportion of the most important underwater habitats for tropical marine life that occur in Commonwealth waters, more than five kilometres offshore. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the alliance’s proposal would leave open the vast majority of these waters for recreational fishing.

We need to get the balance right. Less than one percent of our marine environment is protected from sea floor mining, oil and gas exploration and bottom trawling,” said Gavan McFadzean from The Wilderness Society. “Currently we only have one conservation reserve in Territory waters and none in Commonwealth waters off the NT Coast.

The NT News ignored the reasoned arguments of the AMCS and the Save Our Tropical Sealife alliance – perhaps because it put the lie to the papers’ repeated assertions that there was no scientific evidence or research that supported marine reserves.

And that is most likely why the NT News also chose to ignore the media release by the NT branch of the Australian Marine Sciences Association (AMSA), Australia’s largest professional association of marine scientists, which for the last fifty years has been advancing marine science and its understanding in Australia.

AMSA expressed its “deep concern” about the recent media controversy in the Northern Territory surrounding the establishment of marine reserves in north Australian waters.

… public claims that marine sanctuaries have ‘no scientific basis’ were misinformed and regrettable and it was very important that Territorians be made aware of the national and global scientific consensus on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and their important role in ocean management.

NT Branch President of AMSA, Professor Karen Edyvane, in promoting the association’s national policy statement on Marine Protected Areas, stated that, since the first scientific studies on MPAs were undertaken in the early 1970s, a clear global scientific consensus has developed on their benefits, and also, the urgent need for governments to establish such areas.

“Australia’s marine science community overwhelmingly supports the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, particularly ‘no-take’ areas. This is recognised through almost four decades of independent, peer-reviewed science on the ecosystem and societal benefits of MPAs, and also consensus and position statements by our leading marine science experts and organisations.”

Professor Edyvane said “Like the public debate surrounding the science of climate change, recent public comments that there is no scientific basis for marine sanctuaries are, not only misinformed and regrettable – but highly counter-productive in a very important area of public debate.”

Even if the NT News saw fit to dismiss the Save Our Tropical Sealife alliance (consisting of eight well-respected environmental groups) and the Australian Marine Conservation Society as “southern latte-sipping tree-huggers” it is far more difficult to ignore the Australian Marine Sciences Association or its local representative, Professor Karen Edyvane.

And it isn’t as if Professor Edyvane is hard to find or reluctant to talk to the press. Any of the eight journalists that wrote articles for the NT News during this campaign could have found her by a quick look at the phone book, by a Google search or a drive out to the local university.

Professor Edyvane works at the Charles Darwin University where top of the list of her current projects is the development of the NT Marine Protected Areas Strategy, which involves the establishment of:

 … a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to be a part of the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas. In order to address national and international obligations and cater for unique Northern Territory circumstances, a stakeholder inclusive strategy for identifying, selecting, managing and monitoring a system of MPAs has been initiated.

The MPA strategy aims to recognise the unique and relatively pristine habitats of NT marine ecosystems, their strong socio-cultural associations and the prevalence of coastal Indigenous ownership and legal rights (e.g. Land Rights Act, Native Title Act, Sacred Sites Act). It will also recognise the significant social, ecological, fisheries and economic benefits of establishing MPAs and the need for a science-based and participatory approach to MPA identification and selection.

You can read Professor Edyvane’s impressive Curriculum Vitae here.

And for just a small part of the scientific evidence, research and rationale behind marine reserves the NT News could also have looked at the Australian Marine Sciences Association site, the Federal Environment Department’s webpage and the NT Government’s marine biodiversity homepage.

So much for the claims by the NT News of a complete lack of scientific evidence in support of marine reserves.

There is none so blind as those who will not see.

And what of those on the receiving end of the NT News campaign? Well, Stuart Blanch of the NT’s Environment Centre told me that:

“…the NT News vacated the field of quality journalism and really showed that ideology, populism and running with the mob triumphed over quality journalism. And that’s a shame. They really could have done a lot better.”

Professor Edyvane is no less scathing.

“With the inaccurate, misinformed and highly partisan, ‘anti-Marine Park’ views of the Territory’s only daily newspaper, the NT News, Territorians are neither being informed of the basic scientific facts, nor the overwhelming scientific consensus and support for Marine Parks – including ‘no-take’ Marine Sanctuaries.”

The NT News has instead, engaged in gross misinformation, inflammatory and partisan anti-Marine Park media coverage and editorial commentary – directly fuelling major public outrage and vehement opposition to Marine Parks.

We are literally seeing a ‘race to the bottom’ as each pro-fishing lobbyist and politician (on both sides) in each edition, tries to ‘outshock’ the previous ‘anti-Marine Park’ public statement.”

“This is not only a triumph of short-term, self-interest over long-term, public benefit, but also, a tragedy for public debate in the Territory on an issue of major public and environmental concern. At a basic level, this debate has to recognise that Marine Parks are, quite simply, essential for ocean management and managing the Territory’s outstanding marine ecosystems and heritage. At a fundamental level, the debate is also, very much about the long-term and particularly, the legacy and the quality of ocean life we want to leave future Territorians.”