Image for Launceston Examiner :  Subverting Freedom of the Press?

There is a real conundrum in the region of northern Tasmania, centred on Launceston, about the role of the local print media as a free press. 

This conundrum centres on the failure of the Launceston Examiner to examine the issues associated with the proposed establishment of Gunns’ pulp mill on Launceston’s front door, in the Tamar Valley unless it accords with the views of the mill’s proponent.

This is an issue of real importance, because it means, and has meant for many years now, that the people of Launceston who rely on the Examiner for local news are being deprived of information about what is happening in their local and regional area.

This applies to all aspects of possible negative impacts of the mill, whatever they are.  But one particularly glaring failure is to do with what is happening now – and will continue to occur on a larger scale - in Launceston’s rural hinterland, and in highland areas and watercourse areas which are the source of the city’s and the larger region’s essential water supplies, from the headwaters of the North Esk and South Esk Rivers until they meet on the upper reaches of the Tamar, the site of Launceston.

Some years ago I wrote an article for the Examiner about forestry clear-fell operations in Launceston’s water catchments, and sent it to Fiona Reynolds*, who was then Editor.

I received no response at all. 

Some months later, at a public meeting where she was a guest speaker, I asked her about the issue of the local media providing analytical investigation about Launceston’s future water supply, its quality and its sustainability. 

“You wrote to me some time ago about that, didn’t you?”, was her response.  “Yes”, I replied.  Next question please.  Dismissed, but not without an essential confirmation of the parameters of journalistic investigation as practised by the mis-named Examiner.

I wonder if Launceston’s water catchment areas are off-limits to the Examiner’s reporters and photographers.  Has anyone ever seen a photo in the Examiner to show what is really happening in the places where Launceston’s population gets all its water supplies? 

No way.

Has anyone ever seen an independent journalistic investigation by the Examiner about the state of Launceston’s future essential water supplies, in terms of quality and sustainability? 

No way.

This is just one example of the proud failure of the Launceston Examiner to examine anything which might conflict with its corporate allegiances.  The culture of subservience to the navel-gazing local establishment is long-standing, extending well before the years of Edmund Rouse, and continuing unabated ever since.

But there is another less than endearing characteristic of the Examiner which should really raise questions about its capacity to exist as a newspaper within the loose definitions usually applied to the standards applicable to local or regional commercial print media in the free world.

The question goes beyond the deliberate censorship of local and regional community views if they do not coincide with the Examiner’s editorial position, especially in relation to its alliances with corporate interests where those interests are seriously challenged and argued coherently in detail at local and regional level.

The surface question is why is the Examiner always last, and unquestionably always reluctant, to report any story about what is happening in Launceston’s hinterland which could adversely affect the health and welfare of Tasmanians in the greater northern region if that could in any way, shape or form reflect badly on the major corporate interests in northern Tasmania?

The more interesting underlying question is more substantial, and goes to the heart of the essential nature of freedom of the press.  It involves the question of whether Examiner reporters are deliberately constrained by management to ignore certain community opinion, and therefore work more as propagandists rather than real reporters.

The Examiner has had more than six years to explore the full range of issues about the establishment of a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, but has consistently failed to do so, quite deliberately.  This is an appalling abdication of the hard won norms of professional journalism at this time in our history.

This failure is now more apparent than ever.  It defies all manner of obfuscation that the Examiner would ignore, as it is now blatantly doing, the letter of Gunns boss Greg L’Estrange to all and sundry forestry and pulp mill stakeholders, but condemning the loud reply from local community organisation Tasmanians Against the pulp mill (TAP) – based in the Examiner’s erstwhile region of the Tamar Valley.

For a period of time on Friday, February 11, the Examiner gave first spot on its online local news section to an attack on TAP’s response to Gunns’ letter as a belated assertion of its editorial censorship. 

The online Tasmanian news outlet, Tasmanian Times, was the initial vehicle for publication of the L’Estrange letter and TAP’s response (Dear Mr L’Estrange, HERE), then taken up by all other media outlets except the Examiner.  But this has typified the behaviour of the Examiner for years.  It is no coincidence, even when the issues have vital importance for northern Tasmanians.

The questions that the Examiner need to answer are about their role.  Are they the Pravda for the corporate interest in northern Tasmania, censoring community views in a forelock tugging role for certain establishment corporate interests?

Do they ensure that community voices, as expressed on Tasmanian Times and other more diverse representations of opinion from northern Tasmania, are deliberately ignored and in fact proscribed?

Most interesting of all, does the Examiner demand, as a matter of policy, that its reporters are blocked from Tasmanian Times?  This might seem a ridiculous question, but given the failure of the Examiner to pursue even the most obvious matters of public interest raised on Tasmanian Times for many years now, it is a question which the Examiner needs to answer.

*Fiona Reynolds is now ABC state manager.