Image for Tasmanian Times: A Rage Against  the Dying of the Light ...

Who: I’m Lindsay Tuffin, Founder/Publisher/Editor of http://www.tasmaniantimes.com

What:  Tasmanian Times is a tiny gnat on Heritage Media’s enormous arse. It is part journalism/ part Agitprop/ part social networking. It is entirely organic begun in 2002 as this perhaps arrogant journo’s rage against the cartels and grids of mainstream journalism; a tiny slap back against the superficiality, celebrity and marketing-platform fascinations of mainstream media, particularly print; a rage against the conformity of a tabloid world – particularly exemplified by Rupert’s tabloids in most capital cities - captured by a celebrity and magpie mentality which picks up issues then capriciously discards them, skating freely without realising the ice beneath is a thin veneer, well and truly cracking ...

When, Where, Why: TT is bottom up, the inspiration sparked eight years ago while running off a hangover soon after resigning all senior positions on Rupert’s Hobart tabloid, The Mercury.  What can you do when you have a gut-rage that media is not fully doing its job ... and have no money. Well,  start a website!

I was convinced in Tasmania - rightly or wrongly - voices were being suppressed, the whole story of issues untold, and if told, told superficially, except in standout cases, such as by Tasmania’s best investigative journalist of the past two decades, Simon Bevilacqua.

So I decided - while happily staying in Rupe’s employ downtable subbing - to start pissing outside the tent.

This has been not without its tensions. Early in this fine balancing act – money from Rupe while often ramming it up Rupe – I was subtly invited to leave Rupe’s employ; I survived for 8 years partly through the good graces of Mercury Editor Garry Bailey, though I would have loved to have seen a battle over freedom of speech had I been sacked for pissing activities. (I nearly was for other pissing activities).
 
Tasmanian Times is in the tradition of dissenting Tasmanian journalism, drawing inspiration from the first great Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, John West (b. 1809). West earlier had a strong association with The Launceston Examiner, founded in 1842. He successfully used its columns as a vehicle of dissent to promote the abolition of the transportation of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land. 

West wrote this in his History of Tasmania (1852): “The newspapers of this hemisphere were long mere vehicles of government intelligence, or expressions of the views and feelings of the ruling powers. Malice or humour, in the early days, expressed itself in what were called Pipes—a ditty, either taught by repetition or circulated on scraps of paper: the offences of official men were thus hitched into rhyme. Thus, the fear of satire checked the haughtiness of power.”

I have another quote which has been an inspiration over the years. “ The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

Amen to those.

TT’s first edition was in October 2002, the first website put together by a News Ltd mate who unlike me is not technologically illiterate, but who doesn’t want to be identified. Let’s call him Mike. The first edition (HERE )  roped in favours and desperate pleas from hither and yon and included a not unimpressive stable of writers: Hilary McPhee, Bob Brown, Peter Hay, Richard Flanagan, Bob Ellis, Bob Cheek, Julian Burnside, Danielle Wood, Natasha Cica, Greg Barns*.

Tasmanian Times: A Rage

(*Barns incidentally is the only person to have followed up a threat of defamation action with an actual writ; an enormously time-consuming defensive exercise initiated by someone purporting to be a champion of free speech, resulting in the resisted writ still languishing in The Supreme Court of Tasmania.) (It is a policy of this Editor never to sue; and to immediately request for publication on this site of anything critical of the Editor or Tasmanian Times; unless it is obviously defamatory or patently mischief-making.)

Speaking of writs, Tasmanian Times got its first Great Leap Forward when then Premier Jim Bacon threatened to sue over the most unlikely article, for daring to publish - and refusing to remove - the manuscript of an interview in which he said he was mis-quoted in the great French morning daily Le Figaro. ( ON TT: HERE )

Further Leaps Forward have coincided with other combative forays – once for daring to accuse Tasmanian Heritage Media – ABC, Mercury, Examiner and Advocate - of colluding to delay publication of the news of Jim Bacon’s cancer ( HERE . For lots of debate on this including some national debate read the March-April 2004 archive,  HERE  ); for questioning, on-air (ABC Local Radio) renovations by a Gunns Ltd subsidiary of then Premier Paul Lennon’s house (  HERE ); providing a forum questioning the existence of foxes in Tasmania, including the offer of a $5000 Reward ( HERE ) for publishing questions regarding Senator Eric Abetz’s eligibility to sit in the Senate ( HERE ).

But its slow, inexorable growth has generally been because it appears to have built a reputation as a trustworthy home for the incremental build of what its writers believe to be Truth; or a trustworthy Journal of Record. Early on, former ANZ Bank Chief Economist Saul Eslake lodged his observations on the Tasmanian economy on Tasmanian Times because he believed (my interpretation) it was a trustworthy home which avoided contamination and misinterpretation by the Grids of Journalism. Likewise Tasmania’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Tim Ellis. Treasury chief Don Challen once told a parliamentary estimates committee hearing that he wanted something on record, in case an incorrect version popped up on Tasmanian Times.

The website’s development, however, could never have been possible without the extraordinary goodwill and support of mates* ( *List of mates, HERE ) and readers. Daily I am taken aback by goodwill. A couple of years ago, finding the coffers empty (which they perpetually are) and a design tweak long overdue, I appealed to readers for help; $6000 instantly came in; including a $2000 cheque from a benefactor I still haven’t taken to lunch!

Another anonymous benefactor contributed thousands of dollars to enable FOI searches, investigative journalism and general editorial help for the harrassed one-and-half man band.

Now to a critique of Tasmanian Heritage Media. Individual excellence in Tasmania media is obvious from the reporting and feature writing of Tasmanian media award winners Matthew Denholm (Australian), Sue Neales (Mercury), Andrew Darby (Age) etc etc. There are a host of dedicated journos, though the ranks of experience and excellence have been severely thinned in recent years as journos have trekked to the Dark Side to take fat government media unit cheques. This seems to be the new road to Journalist Nirvana in Tasmania: establish a reporting CV then supplicate at the feet of Government largesse.

Well, they’ve got to earn a crust somewhere and the media experience in Tasmania isn’t helped by management that has lost its way ... through timidity and a desire to keep the Masters and Overseers and Advertisers happy (particularly true of The Examiner whose home town Launceston is also base to perhaps the nation’s most reviled company of the past decade, Gunns Ltd).

Other reasons are the daily-changing media landscape as the Net revolution lays waste, and the intolerable pressures of declining circulations, revenue and staffing levels; a pervasive emphasis on superficiality and celebrity and uniformity - a media monoculture if you like (only browsing animals and snails live in monocultures);  graduate journalists who have not learnt the way of terror and failure; and the development of Journalist As The Story,  or part of the story, rather than telling the story.

Tasmanian Meedja also has a very fragile glass jaw ( HERE ). Criticise them and they lash back, or decide to put you on virtual ignore. This can almost childish. Once I was peremptorily shut down at a media forum for daring to suggest Tasmanian newspapers weren’t as loved by their readers as they might believe ( HERE ). Margaret Simons’ view HERE .

Tasmanian Times is used to having the stories published by its readers nicked and never acknowledged. Why would you be upset about that ... that has been part of Meedja from the beginning. But when it means, as recently it did, that the full story and its history isn’t told, it becomes patently ridiculous. The most recent example of that was when Mercury finally took up the story of John B. Hawkins v. Eric Abetz, a challenge to Senator Abetz’s eligibility to sit in the Senate which has been running for two years on Tasmanian Times,  HERE.

Another recent example was an article by Dr Clive Marks which I will detail shortly. The Tasmanian ABC - I can only surmise because of the local management’s virulent disdain for TT - went out of its way to avoid mentioning Tasmanian Times, an avoidance procedure which caused one reader to be enraged enough to write to TT:

Why is that ABC Tasmania – whose lack of courage in going near any story questioning power in Tasmania during the dark years of the Gunnerment has passed into lore not only on this island but throughout the greater ABC world – refuse to acknowledge in any reporting when its stories are sourced from Tasmanian Times.

Last night for example ABC TV news ran as one of its lead items the story about Dr Marks’ explosive report throwing large question marks over the scientific methods used to examine the existence of foxes in Tasmania. This was done without the name of where the report was published (Tasmanian Times) - and careful filming of the online article to exclude the website’s masthead (Tasmanian Times).

The source was continually referred to as “the website”.

There are of course endless stories about the good journos in the state network who have had their hard stories compromised or quashed, as well as the endless soft stories promoting the powerful with whom the local ABC satraps frequently are seen to by be dining and taking coffee.

It seems to be standard Tasmanian ABC practice to never acknowledge the existence of Tasmanian Times.

But then, if you have steadfastly refused to break the news for best part of a decade it is perhaps ill advised to point people to the outlets that are.

They are not my words. They are the words of a reader. They have not been published until now. How much of that perspective is true, or not, is up to you to decide.

But it is not just easy to upset the glass-jawed Tasmanian Meedja. You can also upset another cartel: local academia. A few years ago I was taken to task by a journo academic for publishing a piece by a student critical, but not scathingly critical, of the journalism courses at the Uni. I was rung and told I should have warned the Uni. I said the netspace of TT was open to a response as long or as short as wanted (this is always the case). But that was apparently outside uni protocols. I used to be invited to give the odd contribution (very odd). But after that little incident I haven’t been invited back, not that I am bothered; but I am puzzled.

I would have thought journalism academies should encourage free thinkers and those who piss outside the tent; that the larrikin instinct should be lauded, to a degree. I do know that if I were in a position I would employ that questioning journalism student at the drop of a hat; because he showed independence of thought and a desire to question; precisely the qualities which should be encouraged in journalism; not Group Think and sticking inside protocals and the boundaries.

Now to Dr Clive Marks: Dr Marks is the director of Nocturnal Wildlife Research Pty Ltd and was the head of the Victorian government’s Vertebrate Pest Research Department for over a decade.  He has published widely on aspects of fox biology and control in independently peer-reviewed science journals (some of this scientific knowledge is hot-linked to abstracts of papers to support his argument in this article HERE.  All of them are available as full versions for your critical consideration). I will quote from an article he wrote of his experience with media.

Clive’s critique went live on TT a couple of hours ago as FOXing the facts at the ABC ( HERE ).

Here’s some excerpts:

Dr Clive A Marks

I did not intentionally organise an experiment to test the hypothesis that the media has been implicated in the three-ringed circus of confusion that surrounds the Tasmanian fox saga.  But I could not have got more convincing data that my recent experience if I had done.  I published an article on the strange data and their inconclusive implications concerning whether foxes are established in Tasmania (The Fox That Wasn’t There? http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/the-fox-that-wasnt-there/). 

I chose to put my full argument, analysis and conclusions on-line (lock, stock and barrel) to avoid any need for confusion. With everything there to be read, the cyber-cow to be milked at will, you might think that the rest would be easy.

But it took little more than a week for the media to hoist upon its own petard. The main problem was, they did the same to my arguments, adding to confusion when I sought to allay it.

The news media template for science reporting is well known.  It seems to demand one of either broad category.  There are scientific stories that offer opportunities to announce that a breakthrough or a world first is at hand - however spurious the claim.  Then there are scientists who come out to slam something.  The news media loves a good slamming. 

I have always though that the ABC traditions of great science journalism would filter into news reporting.  I had always trusted Aunty with my research in the past and she had never failed me.  Until now.

........................

This time I had politely suggested that my arguments and circumstances were a bit too complex to suit a news bulletin.  I said that I’d be happy to discuss things in a bit more depth on radio, write articles where I could report facts as I saw them.  When I got back to Melbourne from working in Indonesia, sure, I would do an interview.

But would ABC news in Tasmania have any of it?  Not on your nelly.  Apparently someone could recognise the opportunity for a good slamming when they saw one.

..............

Who cares about small changes in words and meanings and completely altered conclusion?  Me, I care a lot!  I’m a scientist and getting it right is my job, even though all of us make mistakes; when we do we hopefully correct them.  But after the first mistakes were pointed out the ABC posted these inaccuracies all over Australia.  Disseminating known errors really sticks in my scientific craw.

In the process of being recast as a slammer, detail had got a little lost right at the start and it only got worse.

The first handful of inaccuracies had been fed into the media sausage mix and the media fed upon it, building upon them.  The absolute bitter irony of it all was that my original on-line story dealt precisely with the consequences of misinterpretation, inaccuracy, poor deductions, flawed data and an inability to discern between belief and knowledge. Like a Greek tragedy, the media martyred itself to these very failings.

........................

Science-based stories that demand accurate reporting because of their very complexity.  One ill-advised turn and you go down a completely different track, often a blind one.  For while scientists are most definitely concerned with accuracy, you would think that they would have a natural ally in journalists, whom legend has it, seek to “get it right”.

Perhaps you might cotton on to the sub-text of this issue?  The decade long Tasmanian fox saga has been ridden with reporting such as this, what chance have the public got to get an objective picture?  None.  Confusion eventually feeds upon itself and provides fuel for a bandwagon that drives on down an uncertain road, with no one having the foggiest idea if it has the credibility to do so or even if its on the right road. 

Because yesterday’s cyber news can’t even wrap up fish and chips, it has no value at all, not even the fish flavoured utility of self-respect gleaned from a job well done, unless it gets it right the first time.

.................

Overall in Tasmania, the relentless inaccuracies, poor analysis and the Jackson Pollock approach to news reporting has made the Tasmanian fox saga the intractable, fact aversive and odious saga that it is today.  And people are being asked not to criticise?  Really?

ABC news cannot be held responsible for all, or even a good swag of the current confusion.  Not by any means.  At least they were prepared to have a crack at the issue and try.  Yet tabloid reporting has left everyone badly confused, and the issue has become “a sun drenched bucket of prawns” as one person so vividly described.

But after my experience, my advice to ABC management is to please call Robin Williams.  Check to see if he’s in good spirits and rude health and likely to live for many years more.  Maybe offer to pay for regular health checks, throw in an assistant or three, perhaps even send him a card with “thanks for the accuracy” written on it.  Does he smoke?  Get him on the Quit Program if he does.  Butter him up a bit and hope like hell he sticks around.  Because others in your organization have a lot to learn about science reporting – and getting it right – they need role models. 

This is not meant to be a Bash the ABC exercise; it just so happens they have kindly provided the most recent examples of the disconnect between what appears to be intended and what is disseminated.

Another recent example was a story - inevitably for Tasmania on forests: On TT: HERE

As Tasmanian Times reader and occasional contributor Dr Neil Smith said:

Mischievous reporting indeed by the ABC. They are leaked a draft - momentous enough in itself - which doesn’t mention Gunns’ Tamar Valley pulp mill, but insist on pretending that someone has decided to support just that. Very unprofessional. Do they have a reason for it, or are they just unbelievably sloppy?

Then he goes on to detail a subtle change in reporting of the issue, concluding:

Some improvement in truthfullness, one might think. But, blow me down, the caption to the photo at the top still says: ” A draft forests peace plan obtained by the ABC reveals logging in high conservation value forests could be stopped, in exchange for green groups accepting Gunns’ Tamar Valley pulp mill.

Jeez. Either they have a very compelling reason for wanting to cause trouble, or they are super-super-totally incompetent-sloppy. Which is it?

The same disease infects Sue Neales from the Mercury.  Her online story, amended today 12:45am, repeats much of the earlier story but attempts to take into account the reactions to the leak by certain environmentalists.

Accordingly, she cites Vica Bayley as follows: 

“Local Wilderness society campaigner Vica Bayley said the negotiating agreements discussed the approval of a pulp mill somewhere in Tasmania, not the specific $2.5 billion Gunns bill approved by the federal parliament.”

Despite this better information, Sue still insists on heading the piece with:

“DEEP splits emerged this morning between peak environmental groups and the Tamar Valley community over apparent plans to approve the Gunns pulp mill in exchange for saving Tasmania’s native forests from logging.”

Is the word “apparent” supposed to get her off the hook, whilst she merrily goes on peddling untruths? (By the way, what’s that about federal parliament? Isn’t it the federal Department of the Environment etc etc, and aren’t some approvals still outstanding?)

Further down, we still see the unchanged misinformation, as quoted on TT earlier:

“Key details of the deal include: (snip) Agreement from environmental groups for Gunns to build its $2.5 billion pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, without protest and obstruction in financial markets.”
Do we really need journalists and media like this?

Posted by Neil Smith on 26/08/10 at 11:01 PM

Perhaps a reason for this is the minute by minute insatiable maw of media, and the lack or loss of old-style skills. As Chris Masters once memorably said: The leak is the beginning of the story. It should not be the story. Now we tend to rush to print. Or on to the airways. The leak - and sometimes the journo running it - become the story.

As the driver holding the reins of this little gnat - Tasmanian Times - I cannot end without having a lash at John Hartigan, Chairman and Chief Executive, News Limited

This speech last week to PANPA is everything from appropriate recognition of the new media reality to a certain gross corporate arrogance: HERE

He’s dead right about this:

I am not consigning newspapers to the scrapheap. Not by a long shot. But this tipping point is going to change journalism forever. In my opinion, very much for the better.

Last month the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, told a group in London: 

“the internet is the most disruptive technology in history, even more than something like electricity, because it replaces scarcity with abundance.”

What he means is abundance of choice. Instead of a few newspapers, TV and radio stations we can now choose from thousands of media sources.

This kind of home-grown innovation is why, with the greatest of respect, News no longer regards you as our primary competition. Our competitors are people who are challenging journalism aimed at mass markets. And replacing it with well targeted, low cost, specialist news and information services.

Our competitors are anyone who can satisfy an audience need with a richer experience than traditional media has been willing or able to provide in the past.

It is already clear that reading news will move to digital devices quite quickly. The effect of mobile devices on media consumption - particularly smart phones and now the iPad - is staggering.

Among young people, the internet and mobile devices has prompted a huge increase in their consumption of media. They now spend over seven and a half hours every day consuming media of one sort or another.

He’s dead wrong about this:

My contention is this -  We have the opportunity to move from setting the agenda each morning….to actually owning the agenda. All day. Every day.

Own the agenda Indeed! What supreme arrogance.

I’ve got news for you John. The Agenda is no longer owned.

Best of luck with your corporate overlordship of the Agenda, mate.

I’m not joining you there.

Never! I prefer the company of the little people ... I’d much prefer to be a Rat in the Ranks of Outsider Journalism, pissing outside the Tent ...

*Published to coincide with Tuffin’s appearance on two panels at the Melbourne Writers Festival: HERE