Overdoing it

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 15 December 2007, p. 39.

We sometimes get a very distorted view of Australia’s place in the world from our media. Reading the accounts of the Bali climate change conference, you might conclude that the key event was our new Prime Minister’s announcement that Australia would, at last, ratify the Kyoto agreement. This was a belated gesture if ever there was one, given that Australia had been one of the early promoters of that accord.

The notion that this catapults us into a leadership role in the post-Kyoto negotiations is wishful thinking. The reality is that the big issues are being discussed behind the scenes by the United States, the Europeans, Japan and China, and the Labor government’s decision to await the results of the inquiry led by Ross Garnaut further circumscribes our capacity to ‘lead the world’. Furthermore, though our per capita emission record is woeful, because there are only 21 million Australians on an island half as big as the moon, we could shut down our carbon emissions completely and it would only make a small dent in the world’s production of greenhouse gases.

It is not only in big international matters that the media needs to be read very carefully if you are to get the proportions right. Journalists in print, radio and television, with perhaps the honourable exception of SBS, are always looking for the local angle on a news story. I have to plead guilty myself. When I was working in Melbourne on Victorian Premier League soccer matches, my colleague Greg Blake used to call me Cyclops—the one-eyed North Geelong supporter. Mind you, North won the Premier League at the first attempt after it was promoted from the State League Division One, something which has never been achieved since, so there was a basis for my predilection for the Geelong team.

A paper like the Geelong Advertiser always has to tread a fine line between being a critical analyst of international, national and local issues and the voice of the city and its region, which implies an element of promotion. Its very name Advertiser, which John Pascoe Fawkner and James Harrison gave it way back in 1843, captures the latter approach. But for a while it had an additional word on the masthead, the Intelligencer, when it merged with a short-lived paper with that name. That title reflected both a reporting element—news of shipping and market movements—and a critical take on local and national political issues.

Of course we all want to read about people we know and their doings, or people whose names are well known on the local scene even if we do not have first-hand knowledge of them. But this can easily result in a dangerous local boosterism which sets expectations both for the person concerned and for us in our capacity as readers, which are often very difficult to fulfil. The second half of last season’s football activities showed this, both in the way the media treated Geelong’s Cats and in the extraordinary lengths to which the club went ‘to keep a lid on it’.

Training in discounting ‘hype’ and taking a broader perspective is a key element in education at all levels. Being able to see when the local is being overemphasised in the interests of attracting readers is vital for a critical reading of the media. Of course Australians are not alone in all this. The same focus on the local can be found in media around the world. But perhaps our distance from other major centres and our relatively small population means we have to be especially careful not to overestimate our role and influence.

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