Media and public perceptions of drought

Bureau of Rural Sciences Seminar 13 June, 2003

Media and public perceptions of drought

Åsa Wahlquist

On Wednesday this week the Melbourne Age ran a story headed “Australia’s seven year drought is largely over”.

As Blair Trewin from the National Climate Centre, who pointed it out to me, said, they’ve done well: two mistakes in just seven words.

I just want to take a quick look at this excellent example of mis-reporting drought.

The story opens: “Australia’s crippling seven-year drought is largely over. So says the nation’s chief commodities forecaster.” that’s ABARE.

The story then quotes wheat farmer, Mick Foott, “`The bastards. How can they say that now?” Mr Foott, of Watchem in Victoria’s southern Mallee region, later expands his analysis to “It’s a load of crap.” Mr Foott said crops were looking good now, but farmers remained cautious about the outlook, especially as there had been only patchy rain.
Now, for the record, despite the press reports, ABARE did not say this week that the drought was over: executive director, Brian Fisher did hint that the end of the drought was in sight, but warned that recent, patchy, rainfall had been limited to specific areas.

In fact, I know this to be true because the figures come from the Bureau of Rural Sciences, 40 per cent of mainland Australia is currently eligible for Federal Drought assistance.
The Age story exemplifies some of the factors I want to talk about today, on the reporting of drought.

Most city Australians have little knowledge of life in rural and regional Australia. Most of what they do know, they learn through the media.

Communicating the reality of drought presents a great challenge for the media. Most are city-based, with little conception of the complexities of the experience of drought.

For example, radio and television weather presenters largely define good weather as the absence of rain. Nor does any increase in prices, due to drought shortages, really affect most city dwellers, with food and fibre a comparatively small part of the average budget. It is only when water restrictions kick in, as they did in Sydney in 1995, and again in 2002, in Melbourne currently and next month in Adelaide, that city people begin to take cognisance of long dry periods.

Most city people have little understanding of modern agricultural production, or of the Australian climate and the significant role that El Nino plays.

A good parallel is city Australians’ reaction to bushfires. Though all the state capital cities have large adjacent areas of bushland, the outbreak of bushfires – the worst of which are linked to El Ninos, such as Ash Wednesday in 1983, the Sydney bushfire of 1994, the terrible fires around Canberra, in southern NSW and Victoria early this year – routinely provokes first astonishment, then calls for the area to be made bushfire-proof. This is despite the fact that Australia is a continent with a long fire history, and a vegetation in many areas that is superbly evolved to live with fire.

The reality is that Australia can be neither bushfire-proofed, nor, as the Wentworth Group has so authoritatively informed us, can Australia be drought proofed. Learning to be Australians means learning to live with El Nino and its droughts and bushfires.

But these days 64 per cent of Australians live in the capital cities, while 86 per cent live within 80 kilometres of the coast. Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Not only are many Australians migrants, or first generation Australians, with no connection to rural Australia let alone farmers, but the farm sector itself is dwindling. The Australia Bureau of Statistics reported last week that the number of farming families in Australia decreased by 22% between 1986 and 2001.
So how do urban Australians, or those who live along the great coastal arc from Barwon Heads to Cairns, who do not have the country cousins of several generations ago, learn about life in country Australia?

The answer is through film and books, but mostly through the media.

Generally farmers are portrayed as poorly-educated men, who wear big hats, and speak slowly, struggling with the modern world: people engaged in a lifestyle, not a business. There is little evidence of the reality that one third of farmers are women, most are computer literate, around 40 per cent belong to Landcare, and thus are more active conservationists than many of the city people who like to think they are green,

and that broad-acre farmers made a very respectable annual productivity gain of 2.5 per cent over the 20 years to 1996/7.

But most members of the media reflect their country: they are overwhelmingly city people, with little understanding of country life.

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of specialist rural reporters in most

metropolitan media. The Age is a case in point: an experienced rural reporter would have made the seven year drought error in the story quoted above.

Travelling to the country is expensive, and the media seems to be forever tightening their financial screws.

This plus the axing of country correspondents, and the increasing focus of newspapers on lifestyle stories, has meant less informed reporting on the bush.

My own experience, as the rural writer for the Sydney Morning Herald from 1991 to 1994 was that the operative word in the title was ‘Sydney’. In this, it was a typical metropolitan paper.

However, working for The Australian, a national newspaper, has been a very different experience, with The Australian seeing reportage of rural Australia as a fundamental part of its news gathering.

This doesn’t mean the bush isn’t important. It is: just look at the impact of the drought, and other rural based issues, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, native title, land clearing and salinity, and genetically modified food.

But who gets the running on these issues? Too often, it is the city-based shock jocks, like John Laws and Alan Jones.

An outstanding example of this was Alan Jones’ call, in late 2002 for some of the large coastal rivers, such as the Clarence in northern NSW and the Burdekin in Queensland, to be turned inland. It was a call made with (misplaced) sympathy for drought-stricken country people.

It was roundly dismissed as impractical, by a large group of people from the Prime Minister down. But it did have one profound impact.

The Wentworth Group of scientists was formed in October last year, to counter Jones’ ideas, and instil some science into the debate. I think it is fair to say they have been successful beyond their wildest dreams, they have been widely consulted, and their proposals embraced by the Prime Minister, Simon Crean and Bob Carr.

Why did a group of scientists saying nothing that was new to anyone in this room suddenly grab the headlines? It is called the news cycle.

Alan Jones was step one, grabbing the headlines with his preposterous but highly imaginative suggestions. The Wentworth group, in roundly, authoritatively, and in the case of some individuals rather colourfully contradicting it was step two.

In a fully informed society, step one would not have occurred, and step two would not have been necessary, but that is not what we are dealing with.

This is a powerful example of the media at work. It’s basis is, sadly, a profound ignorance of the nature of Australia’s land and climate. And this, I am afraid, is the underlying theme of much reporting of drought.

Neil Inall is a veteran rural journalist. He was also chairman of RASAC, the Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Council, which made recommendations on drought relief to the Federal Minister for six years from 1993.

Inall says the general media’s approach to reporting on rural Australia is “totally opportunistic”.

He argues: “The media really has done a very poor job in analysing the occurrence of drought in Australia, the science behind it, the whole matter of the El Ninos, the

Southern Oscillation Index, the ocean temperatures, following up on CSIRO

research on drought, I don’t think the media has done a good job about this at all”.

Neil is also critical of the rural media, which he says has failed to analyse drought policy.

But country people serve up their own problems. Anyone who reports on rural Australia will soon run into the whinging cockie syndrome.

Mr Foott of Watchem is a splendid example of this aggrieved and misunderstood group.

Former deputy PM, Tim Fischer, was highly critical of what he described as the counter- productive negative mantras. Tim said farmers complain when they feel they can exercise leverage. That leverage has resulted in a $900 million drought aid package for the current drought.

Drought is very complex, but television and the tabloids, are not well suited to handling complex subjects. Instead they tend to fall back on what my colleague, Tim Hughes, calls the iconography of drought: the cracked dried mud of the empty dam, the ram skull, and if it is one TV, with a Ry Cooder sound track played beneath it.

Tim also says the language of battle, used in drought reporting, well suits the media, who so love stories about conflict. Again that is evident in our Age drought story: the bureaucrat versus the farmer.

The history of land use, closer settlement policies, the cost-price squeeze, and even climate research really don’t fit into this picture.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the media is not just a reporter but can be a powerful player in drought aid and drought policy.

Former member of the Queensland Drought Secretariat, Dan Daly, has written a biting analysis of Queensland’s drought policy, ‘Wet as a Shag, Dry as a Bone’. He argues, that at a time when farmers were asking for drought handouts: “Media reports of extreme situations on properties distorted perceptions about the severity of the drought and softened attitudes for an early declaration”.

I think there is a good case for arguing that was the case in both 1994/95 and to a lesser extent in 2002. But they have been in many ways, different droughts.

By the time drought hit in 1994, farmers had been through a series of crises – sky-high interest rates in the 20s, bank repossessions, a collapse in wheat and wool prices – and farmers were routinely pictured in the press, on the TV news, as victims, people beset with problems.

The joke in country circles was: “What is the definition of rural child abuse? Leaving the kids the farm.”

As the drought bit in 1994, Channel 9’s Ray Martin set up the first Farmhand. It ended up collecting $19 million. Martin himself was surprised at the way it took off. Ray told me he believe Farmhand actually influenced government policy. He said “even the NFF was saying they couldn’t quite believe the Labor government was so onside, and wanted to cooperate.”

Prime Minister Keating was, in the early stages of that drought, sticking to the National Drought Policy script, that drought is an inherent risk in Australian farming, and farmers must prepare for it.

Primary Industries Minister, Bob Collins, took Keating to the worst affected areas, accompanied, of course, by a media pack.

Collins said that trip was important for two reasons: the first was to educate the PM about the extent of the drought. He said ” I knew as a Labor minister in a Labor cabinet wanting to go in when times were tight, and ask for a huge amount of money for a constituency which had never voted Labor in its life and never would, was going to be a hard ask. I knew we would need Keating and the only way we could get Keating was to take him out and show him the drought.”

The second was the prime time press coverage.

Keating responded with his stirring woolshed statement on September 1994, when he extended his election promise not to leave the unemployed behind, to the country people of the nation.

Collins said, “it was Keating at his very best”. He gave farmers a new, generous welfare package, and a significant shift in drought policy. Under the original policy, payments were only made to farmers who were judged to have a long term productive future in farming. Under Keating’s new scheme, it was available to all farmers in an exceptional circumstances drought area.

And in all this, Collins said the media played a central role.

Was Farmhand a totally feel-good exercise? Neil Inall thinks it helped some people who were in real need, in many cases people who had done no preparation whatsoever to help themselves. Neil says “Ray highlighted the problem, but, again I think it was about that culture of ‘come on help me, I am a farmer, and because I am a farmer having a dry time I need to be helped’.

I was the rural writer for The Sydney Morning Herald during the 1994/95 drought, I would regularly be rung by good farmers who were angry that their improvident neighbours were receiving government aid, while they managed on unassisted. But when I asked the caller if I could write them up, to tell the story of a farmer managing capably through the drought, the answer was almost invariably no. They did not want to be seen to be critical of their neighbours.

Then I got a call from George Gundry, of Willaroo, near Goulburn. Gundry rang not to criticise his neighbours, but because he wanted to publicise his new management system, of time control grazing.

The article, resplendent with a photograph of George and his wife Erica, enjoying a picnic on a well-grassed paddock, ran on December 9, 1994. It reported that the Gundrys had actually been making hay, while their neighbours were drought declared:

Now the response to the story defied conventional wisdom: it was not only widely read, it even received coverage on radio 2BL in the morning conversation between the late Andrew Olle and Paul Lyneham. It showed there was an interest in the experience of drought beyond the suffering farmer.

In 1994 we were beginning to hear about El Nino. It reared its head in 1997, but no big drought ensued.

By the middle of last year, there were strong signs another El Nino drought was looming. But 2002 was very different from 1994/5.

In March 2002, the executive director of ABARE, Brian Fisher, got up at the annual Outlook Conference, and announced the year was the best for farm incomes for over 20 years.

Farming had changed in the intervening seven years: many had taken advantage of good commodity prices, and sold up. According to last week’s ABS figures, between 1991 and 2001, 7,700 farmers exited farming. At the same time those remaining earnt more off farm income so that in 2000-01 the average off-farm income for broadacre farmers was $29,300, and $35,700 for dairy farms.

These figures, you might note, are enough to exclude the recipient farmers from EC drought relief.

In addition, by the end of last financial year, over $2 billion had been invested in Farm Management Deposits.

Nonetheless, in October 2002 a group of wealthy businessmen launched Farmhand. The News Limited papers, including The Australian, ran hard on the issue.

There was some reader cynicism: The day after the Farmhand launch the Australian published the following letter: from a Maryborough reader: One must sympathise with Australia’s farmers who face the drought of a century every second year.

But the dry worsened as the year progressed, as Australia did indeed go into if not the worst drought of the century, at least one of the worst in 100 years. And people responded yet again. At last count, Farmhand had raised $24 million.

The federal government also responded to farmer pressure, offering $900 million in drought support, a figure that has since been cut back due to a smaller than expected demand.

It is still too early to make an assessment of the media’s coverage of the current drought. If rains fall tomorrow, and end the drought clearly there will be a very different outcome to drought continuing in this spring.

But I think farmers have faced this drought differently from that of 1994/95. They entered the drought in a much stronger financial position, but I also think there was a shakeout, not just of unviable or struggling farmers, after 1995, but of attitudes.

I think reporting has reflected this: there have been more stories about good farmers, farmers who are managing through drought.

Tim Fischer says that, as long as the hand of government can be extended towards them, there will political incentives for farmers to complain, and pressure on those who are managing to remain silent. But he says; “some of the generational change farmers are much more media savvy, and much more angry if their colleagues cannot handle a period of 12 months drought and haven’t calculated that into their farm budgets and reserves. Beyond 12 months it is another area and you get into the legitimate area of exceptional circumstance and assistance”.

Fischer says : ‘This is Australia. This is the second driest continent in the world, and this cowboy farm management approach of push the limits at all times and scream the moment there is a period of dry, or even a drought of a one year cycle, ought to be exposed for what it is: very damaging to the environment and a less than smart business approach.”

It is a terrible irony that in this country, with the most variable rainfall in the world, the language of war and disaster, and the imagery of suffering dominates drought coverage in the media. This portrayal has clearly had a powerful influence on governments and policy. Drought is an inherent part of life in Australia. Until the media understands that fact, and begins to celebrate the survivors, those who have learnt to manage drought, rather than those locked in a failing battle with it, it will be difficult to conduct a fully informed, rational debate about drought policy in this country.

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