Media lies and the new McCarthyism

Issue 

Media lies and the new McCarthyism

Greenpeace under fire

With the hole in the ozone layer larger than ever and growing much faster than predicted, and all the big environmental problems of our planet growing worse by the day, wealthy and powerful forces are worried — and they're looking for scapegoats. Dealing with these problems is going to require big social and political changes and cost a packet, so representatives of the status quo are turning their fire against the green movement and others proposing solutions. In scale, vehemence and dishonesty, these attacks are beginning to take on the shape of a new wave of McCarthyism.

In recent months, Greenpeace in particular has become a favourite target of right-wing ideologues across the not-very-broad political spectrum from the National Civic Council to Labor MPs such as federal environment minister Michael Duffy and Senator Peter Walsh. With the economic "rationalists" desperate to shift the blame for their present worldwide economic disaster, columnists such as financial journalist Padraic P. McGuinness, former National Party senator John Stone and the Age's Michael Barnard are just a few of those queuing up to sink the boot into the hated greens.

Seldom overlooked when the Australian political and economic establishment goes hunting, Aborigines are also coming in for a new round of media bashing, with accusations that land rights and cultural sites claims are blocking important projects and "locking up" vast areas of pastoral country.

The November 5 Bulletin surpasses itself in this regard with a four-page racist outpouring against Northern Territory Aborigines and the 1976 federal Aboriginal Land Rights Act: "Many realise that the gut-busting work of generations of settlers and cattlemen may ultimately be to no avail ... the Territory's future is being changed forever. Up to 80% of it may be back in Aboriginal hands by early next century."

The Sunday beat-up

On September 29, Greenpeace was the target of a spectacularly dishonest beat-up by Channel Nine's Sunday program. Even in the light "current affairs" genre, in which sensationalism, creative editing and lack of regard for truth and accuracy are the norm, this show must have gone close to setting new records. Hours of interviews with Greenpeace representatives were pruned down to a few minutes, with speakers cut off mid-sentence and material massively rearranged and presented completely out of context.

Former Greenpeace worker Molly Olsen was sought out in the hope that she might be disgruntled with the organisation. But after seeing the program, Olsen pointed out that the Sunday editors had found only about a minute of tape that suited their purposes in a 90-minute interview. "The program was not a balanced and fair report', she said, adding that Greenpeace is a fine organisation that has her support.

The Sunday program was made shortly after sources in the Prime Minister's Department made it clear they were extremely irritated with he Labor government's latest version of new federalism, which had become an issue in the continuing leadership struggle between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Greenpeace had pointed out that the proposal to shift more power over environmental matters to the states could result in governments bidding against each other to grant environment-destroying favours to big business polluters. Federal intervention has been essential in securing the preservation of such important environments as Kakadu, Fraser Island, the Franklin River and the Daintree rainforest, and the states have a notoriously poor record of standing up to big companies over other issues, particularly Aboriginal land rights.

There are strong suspicions that the Sunday program was a set-up engineered by close supporters of the government. Similar suspicions hang over the recent media beat-up concerning opposition leader John Hewson's bitter relations with his former wife. With a very lucrative deal hanging on a political decision over the Tourang bid for the Fairfax media empire, the Packer media group at present has a particularly powerful incentive to ingratiate itself with the government.

Green equals red

But the new wave of green and Aboriginal bashing is not due just to conjunctural factors. Age columnist Michael Barnard outlined the right's agenda very clearly on October 14: "The course set by militant environmentalists as the new saviours, especially in their presumption that they and only they can speak for and act upon common concerns for the natural environment, and in their tendency to bend the truth or even indulge in outright deception, marks them as natural heirs to Marxism ... The greens are replacing the reds."

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bureaucratic regimes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, the establishment needs new scapegoats for problems it is unable or unwilling to address at home, and the greens fit the bill. They are proposing fundamental solutions to serious problems. If they are allowed to conduct a fair and rational discussion, they will convince a lot of people even despite being allocated far less access to the media than their antagonists. Therefore, the atmosphere must be poisoned.

In recent years support for greener, more just politics has grown rapidly. In the context of a massive rise in environmental consciousness, a vigourous recruiting campaign by Greenpeace Australia has increased its membership from around 9000 in 1988 to 89,700 at present.

Environmental issues have been vital in deciding several recent elections, and it's very likely they will continue to be so, regardless of the outcome of attempts to form one or more green parties. All this is fuelling a counteroffensive by the forces which fear they have most to lose in a greener, more socially just world. Very large, very wealthy, chemical, mining and pastoral companies are prominent in this pack.

On August 29, John Stone, of Joh-for-PM fame, outlined a view similar to Barnard's, accusing Marxists of unwillingness "to look facts in the face, if to do so would put at risk the rickety ich had given them their place in the scheme of things", and going on to accuse the environmental movement: "Yet do we not see precisely the same unwillingness to acknowledge the truth on the part of the militant environmentalists, whose maxim, like that of the Communist movement, is simply that the end justifies the means?"

It turns out that Greenpeace's now-famous May 1990 action against the Victorian chemical company Nufarm was something perilously close to a good old-time, Communist plot: "When Greenpeace International carried out its well-publicised raid on the chemical works at Nufarm in Victoria, were they not acting in conformity with that same evil maxim?"

International campaign

While the attacks on Greenpeace Australia are mainly over local issues, similar campaigns are taking place internationally. In Europe and the United States, prominent magazines have recently run smear campaigns against the group.

In Germany, Der Spiegel, the magazine that helped bring the world the bogus Hitler diaries, ran a 14-page story on Greenpeace earlier this year. The story followed a suggestion by Greenpeace that the magazine should print on non-chlorinated paper. After the publishers said this wasn't possible, Greenpeace widely distributed a send-up issue, printed on the more environmentally sound paper.

Among other things, the German magazine accused Greenpeace of being a multinational corporation with a lot of money (a worldwide budget of around $175 million in 1990 — admittedly a lot of money, but tiny by multinational corporation standards), being large and successful (having a navy bigger than Portugal's — but then so have some Australian fishing companies), and being internally undemocratic. Greenpeace has about 700,000 members in Germany.

Spiegel's list reflects what scares the establishment most about Greenpeace. Not only is it a militant organisation with policies that threaten the status quo, but it's popular and has enough resources to embarrass big companies and governments sufficiently to push them into real changes. While Greenpeace's internal structure is controversial in some green circles, Spiegel is not noted for its advocacy of democracy in the green movement or anywhere else, and obviously raised the structure issue simply as a point on which it might erode some popularity.

Spiegel made the claim, based more on hope than reality, that Greenpeace is facing its greatest crisis and is wracked by internal strife. The Melbourne Herald-Sun has expressed a similar hope: "disillusionment with the group's tactics have now placed its future in question. With the group set to lay off up to five staff [out of about 50 in Australia] it appears the direct action tactics adopted by the environment group have resulted in much of its support withering on the vine. Has Greenpeace lost its way, or have community attitudes changed because of the recession?" The answer is, none of the above. In fact, Greenpeace has continued to grow throughout the recession.

The Spiegel story has been followed by similar attacks in the United States (including in the big business Forbes magazine), lia, New Zealand and Britain.

Spiegel's complaints are echoed by Padraic McGuinness in the August 16 Australian. Boiled down, his main whinges seem to be that environmental issues are being raised and discussed in specific circumstances requiring action, and not merely as vague concerns ("good and worthwhile causes"), and, what's more, environment groups have too much money and governments are spending too much on environmental matters such as environmentally sustainable development inquiries.

The responsible attitude is to be "concerned" about the environment but do nothing. People who put polluters on the spot are "fanatics", and McGuinness has been wracking his brain to come up with a way they can be forced to pay "for the damage they inflict on the economy". Don't hold your breath waiting for him to come up with proposals to make corporate polluters pay for the damage they inflict on the environment.

In fact, you'll have to read a lot of op-ed pages before you ever get to see the likes of Stone, McGuinness and Barnard even mention the environment or social justice, unless it's to attack the green movement or urge politicians not to be "intimidated" by the green vote.

In a never-printed letter to the editor, Greenpeace national press officer Beth Powell replied to McGuinness, "taxpayers' money allocated to industry is way out of balance with that set aside for environmental protection. The recent federal budget provides assistance to industry to the tune of $1.6 billion, compared to $143 million allocated to the environment.

"A small amount of the environment department's budget is spent as a result of the work of environmental organisations. However it costs far more to ignore environmental degradation than to act to prevent it."

Fast-track scam

Another prong of the big business attack on the green movement is so-called fast-tracking: the view that a range of big development projects should be pushed through quickly because of their supposed economic benefits. The fast-tracking argument is surrounded by a haze of populist talk about the need to cut red tape, which consists especially of environmental impact studies and Aboriginal land and sacred sites claims.

According to Julie Power, writing in the October 31 Financial Review, "new figures from Access Economics showed more than $9 billion in projects being considered were at risk from environmental and Aboriginal veto".

The fact is, there is no such thing as an environmental or Aboriginal veto. Environmental impact studies and Aboriginal land and sacred site claims are all processes defined by law and subject to rigorous guidelines. Disputes over these matters are usually marked by court actions in which wealthy companies, often with state or federal government support, commit unlimited legal budgets to getting their way. When, occasionally, the decision goes against them despite all this, terrible howls of indignation rend the air, dutifully amplified through the media by the likes of McGuinness-Stone-Barnard.

It's true that environmental impact studies, Aboriginal claims and other newfangled ideas have added to the time and cost of setting up new projects since the good old days when industries didn't have to worry about the social or environmental impact of their actions until decades later, when whole cities were choking in fumes and thousands of workers were coughing their lungs out from various forms of poisoning. Fast-tracking is the latest big business scam to get around attempts to impose some level of social responsibility on industrial planning.

The cruelest aspect of this scam is its attempt to win support among unemployed people with exaggerated claims that fast-tracking will help to provide new jobs. It's true new projects create new jobs, but they can also destroy old jobs. New open-cut mines often lead to closures of older, underground mines; new high-tech factories often mean closure for older plants. Very rarely does all this get mentioned when big business sets out to sell a new project.

The real hope of the fast-trackers was outlined in a several-page attack on Greenpeace in the October 20 Melbourne Herald-Sun: "With more than one in 10 adult Australians out of work, it seems the concentration of public concern has shifted from the environment to employment. It could be the end of an era for the green movement." In a traditional business tactic, the big companies are trying to extract maximum economic and political advantage for themselves from the present recession.

Lies and credibility

A constant refrain of the recent attacks on Greenpeace is that it lies about, or at the very least exaggerates, environmental problems.

The present cause célèbre of the green-bashers is Nufarm, a Melbourne-based chemical company forced to close temporarily and submit to Australia's first environmental audit, at a cost to it of $5-6 million, following a spectacular Greenpeace action in 1990.

Greenpeace had discovered dioxins and furans in the company's discharges into Melbourne's sewer system, with the possibility these could find their way into the food chain via meat from animals raised at the Werribee sewerage farm.

The company had been warned previously over its waste-dumping practices, and is now facing revocation of its licence to discharge chemical waste into the sewers because of its refusal to sign an agreement with Melbourne Water. Unless it signs the agreement or finds another method of waste disposal, it could be forced to close by early

The 1990 audit eventually found that the company was not discharging dangerous levels of dioxins or furans, a finding that Greenpeace disputes, claiming there is scientific disagreement. Some scientists now say that dioxin is less dangerous to humans than previously thought, a dramatic departure from the previous acceptance that it is one of the most toxic chemicals known.

As a result of the Nufarm episode, the group has been widely accused of using the tactic of the big lie. Whether or not Greenpeace was right in all details of its claims against Nufarm, the real big liars of our time are those who seek to conceal and underestimate the extent of the environmental and social problems facing our planet.

"It's not surprising we've become a target of powerful interests", concludes Beth Powell. "That has happened because we're effective. The money spent trying to discredit us would be much better directed to developing cleaner production technology."

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.