Thursday, February 10, 2022

Facts come second for journalists partial to ‘worry porn’

Positive news rarely mentioned

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman W. Jenkins uses the term “worry porn” to describe what this column has called “catastrophist” journalism – the sensationalising of every story.

Much political reporting of the Covid-19 pandemic by the ABC and Guardian has been catastrophist, with the media outlets seldom acknowledging Australia has done better than most of the world with 120 deaths per million of population since the start of the pandemic, compared with more than 2600 per million in the US and more than 2000 in much of western Europe.

Writing in the WSJ on January 8, Jenkins ridiculed as “worry porn” the over-hyping by the US left media of the anniversary of the storming of Washington’s Capitol building by supporters of former US president Donald Trump on January 6, 2021. Our own ABC treated the anniversary as if it really did mark history’s greatest threat to US democracy.

US Vice President Kamala Harris launched into rhetorical “hyper-drive”, claiming the Capitol march was worse than the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

In Washington last year, one law enforcement officer died of stroke the day after the protest. One protester, a female former air force veteran, was shot dead. Another died of a drug overdose and two of heart attacks. Pearl Harbour it most certainly was not.

Journalistic “worry porn” allows the media to profit from the clicks of consumers who love to read this kind of confirmation bias. In Australia, journalists, politicians and media consumers of the left seem to have a ravenous appetite for stories suggesting the federal government has bungled its pandemic response for the past two years.

According to the trade union-owned New Daily, the government’s poor performance is down to “neoliberalism”. This charge ignores the fact the Morrison government is running the largest deficits in our history, and a bit more “neoliberalism” might help differentiate the conservative side of politics.

Still, the government does give the appearance of being slow to act as circumstances change, and of repeatedly failing to learn the same lessons. For example, after more than 600 deaths in aged care in Victoria in the winter of 2020, the federally regulated sector should have been on the front foot last winter and again with booster vaccines during this summer’s Omicron wave. Yet federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck seems unable to anticipate anything about a sector in which 1124 residents have died with Covid since March 2020, almost half the national toll.

This column suggested in May last year that part of the issue was the overly cautious approach of the nation’s medical establishment, and particularly ATAGI (the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation). Here’s the problem: as the media and political left chant that governments should never ignore the science, how do political leaders deal with scientific advisers who can be slow and sometimes just plain self-interested?

The Australian Financial Review, in an editorial and in reporting by Aaron Patrick and Jill Margo, has done a good job fleshing out the issue – indeed a much better job than our politicians who seem flat-footed trying to explain the problems to voters.

Patrick, in a fascinating piece on January 12, analysed the role of the influential OzSAGE group that advocates extreme health measures and virus elimination. Its members are often at odds with national and state chief medical officers.

OzSAGE members Kerryn Phelps and Raina MacIntyre are prominent on the ABC, and the wider OzSAGE group clearly influences the opinions of ABC health reporter Norman Swan.

On January 11, Margo reported the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia had between October 2020 and December 2021 released “five media statements to caution the public about RATs”.

“In its promotion of PCR testing, the college was doing what was scientifically correct to control the virus in a country with a low prevalence of cases. Unfortunately it was talking down RATs which were playing an important role in other countries and could become important in Australia too,” Margo wrote.

How would critics in the media have reacted had Morrison and the premiers ignored such advice? Truth is medical and political leaders cannot know what they do not know until a situation changes. With Delta in the ascendancy throughout November and much of December there was little reason to foresee the swamping of PCR testing with the arrival of the just-discovered Omicron variant.

The AFR on January 12 editorialised “opposition to allowing the use of less sensitive RATs is another example of the medical establishment’s failure to appropriately weigh the trade-offs between health outcomes and wider societal benefits”.

This is the sort of analysis of a political problem that is missing from the national broadcaster as senior journalists there unleash their personal hatred of Morrison, and reporters simply give voice to every interest group with a complaint.

“Worry porn’’ certainly applied to much of the reporting about a hot day at Onslow in Western Australia. In much of the media, every hot day is used to bang the climate change drum.

Yet, several experts were willing to point out that the 50.7C recorded at Onslow on January 13 had been equalled on January 2, 1960, in Oodnadatta in South Australia. Temperatures over 50C had also been recorded in Wilcannia, NSW, in 1939, Oodnadatta again on January 3, 1960, and at Mardie Station in WA in 1998.

But the actual highest recorded temperature in Australia, though no longer officially recognised by the Bureau of Meteorology, was 53.1C at Cloncurry in Queensland on January 16, 1889.

Retired meteorologist William Kininmonth, who ran the BOM’s national climate centre for 12 years, refers to a graph of maximum mean temperatures back to 1887 that clearly shows “the early 1900s were hotter than recent decades”.

“Worry porn” generates consumer interest and is easier than hard-nosed reporting. It’s also much more exciting for activist reporters who want to change the world. Who wants to bother with digging out difficult facts when you can earn “likes” on social media just for writing about your fears?


Coalition backing down on religious laws, will push for inquiry instead

The federal government will push for a Senate inquiry into key parts of its religious discrimination bills in a decision that avoids a vote in the upper house after NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg told the government he was prepared to cross the floor to protect the rights of transgender children.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is seeking a Senate inquiry rather than an immediate vote on the basis of legal advice from the Australian Government Solicitor to warn that the amendments passed in the Parliament in the early hours of Thursday morning had “unintended consequences” that could harm students.

The federal government’s contentious religious discrimination bill passed through the House of Representatives after a marathon session of Parliament on Wednesday night.

Senator Bragg has declined requests for interviews this week but has told Liberal colleagues he could not vote in the Senate to overturn the changes that passed the lower house in the early hours of Wednesday morning when his colleagues Bridget Archer, Katie Allen, Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman crossed the floor to amend the bill.

One Liberal said Senator Bragg said he had major moral issues with the treatment of transgender children and was not going to vote to wind back something that gave them more protection.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants the Parliament to reject the change to the Sex Discrimination Act so the government package can pass in its original form, arguing the changes create more problems


‘Substantial concerns’ raised by Integrity Commissioner as Premier makes dramatic about face

In a recognition the integrity crisis is damaging the government politically, on Wednesday the Premier exhibited a dramatic shift in tone and also backed giving the Integrity Commissioner Independence.

It was a dramatic about face from the previous day, when Ms Palaszczuk engaged in a highly combative press conference and challenged reporters on their integrity questions.

On Wednesday, Ms Palaszczuk issued an apology for the first time since the integrity crisis engulfed the government more than two weeks ago.

“There were some people who said that they felt that they weren’t listened to and I apologise if they feel that way,” she said.

“But we absolutely need to make sure that we have absolute confidence and Queenslanders should have confidence in the robust checks and balances that we have.”

The Premier also said “we do acknowledge there are issues, and we are endeavouring to fix them as quickly as possible”, referring to her decision to ask director-general Rachel Hunter to write to all public servants to encourage them to provide frank and fearless advice.

Ms Palaszczuk also backed making the integrity watchdog into an independent office following weeks of questioning, saying: “I don’t have any problem with Kevin Yearbury’s recommendations in relation to the office of the Integrity Commissioner.”

The Yearbury review into the Integrity Commissioner made several recommendations last year including that it be separated from inappropriate Public Service Commission governance.

After on Monday conceding that “some things could’ve been done better” with regards to the government’s handling of integrity alle­gations from former senior ­independent officials, Ms Palas­zczuk on Tuesday refused to elaborate.

Instead, during a press conference on a surprise trip to Bundaberg, Ms Palaszczuk engaged in a bizarre back-and-forth with a journalist saying “what issues are you talking about?” when asked about the government’s integrity crisis.

“I’m talking about your government’s integrity … (in relation to) the many issues that have been brought up over the past week,” the journalist replied.

Ms Palaszczuk asked: “Such as?”

The Premier’s comments on Wednesday came as Integrity Commissioner Nikola Stepanov said she didn’t know why a separate recommendation from the Premier’s 2019 Bridgeman Review, which deemed the oversight of her office by the PSC as inappropriate, was never implemented.

“The concerns raised by Bridgeman are substantial,” she told The Courier-Mail. “I have sought on a number of occasions, including prior to the 2019 Bridgeman review, to have appropriate governance arrangements put in place. “I am unclear why the Bridgeman recommendation was not implemented in 2019, including who made or influenced that decision, and on what basis.”

The Premier’s Department didn’t answer questions concerning the Bridgeman Review and the PSC didn’t respond by deadline.

It comes as John McKenna QC will conduct the review into allegations raised by former State Archivist Mike Summerell including that he was pressured to remove any content that could be perceived negatively in the drafts of two annual reports.

Meanwhile the Premier’s office was unable to explain why the government sought advice from the Crime and Corruption Commission about the release of Mr Summerell’s report into his 2017 Mark Bailey Mangocube investigation.

Mr Summerell has previously said the report, which was handed to a director-general and was not his report to the CCC, detailed recommendations to improve governance and close “loopholes”.

Asked why the watchdog needed to give advice about its release, and when this was expected to be received, a government spokesman said, “We have asked the CCC if we can release the report.” “The request is with the CCC,” he said.

Mr Bailey was cleared by the corruption watchdog of any wrongdoing in 2017.


Editorial: Please don’t destroy the economy again

The Queensland tourism industry is once again holding its breath – and, sadly, it’s because of more unfortunate and really unnecessary dillydallying from Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

The mood in the tourism industry was better than it had been in two years early yesterday, with hopes high that the February 21 national reopening would see an influx of tourists from overseas.

But that was before the Premier refused to answer directly if she would be allowing into Queensland any international tourists who had not had their booster shot – saying she would wait for the health advice from Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).

On one hand that is fair enough. Following the advice of the experts regardless of the economic and emotional toll that has taken is the playbook that has led to Ms Palaszczuk being able to boast that she has “kept Queenslanders safe” during the pandemic.

But Australia’s Chief Medical Officer says two jabs are enough – and it is only Victorian Premier Dan Andrews who has so far called for a mandatory three-jab rule.

When the ATAGI health advice is given is anyone’s guess. Some say it could be as early as today.

Let’s hope so for tourism’s sake – because the industry has taken so many body blows, the last thing it needs is more ongoing uncertainty to add to two years of constant border closures, jab mandates for interstate arrivals, and confusion around what constituted a close contact that crippled staffing and supplies. Billions have been wiped from the bottom line of tourism operators, traditionally one of Queensland’s biggest industries.

But a triple-jab mandate – if that is the outcome – could actually end up being the biggest blow of all, with Queensland set to miss out on up to 99 per cent of some if its biggest tourism markets because of low third-jab rates around the world.

For instance, just one-third of New Zealanders have so far had a third dose of a Covid vaccine. In the UK that figure is just over half. In the US it’s so far just over one in four. Those three countries alone were responsible for 760,000 arrivals who landed directly in Queensland in the calendar year before the pandemic.

Or how about Japan, from where 213,550 visitors came from in 2019. There, third-jab rates are so far at just 6 per cent. In India, they are at 1 per cent – and 50,000 Indians came to Queensland direct in 2019.

Let us all hope, then, that the expert the Premier ends up listening to is the state’s Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard, and that he continues to give the calm and commonsense advice that has become his trademark.

And we hope that not just for the tourism industry. The flow-on effect to the hospitality sector could also be huge. Despite mandatory check-ins being lifted at supermarkets and retail outlets this week, you still have to have prove you are double-vaxxed to get into restaurants, cafes and bars in Queensland. And so if international visitors are to require three jabs to be considered fully vaccinated, could the same be imposed on the hospitality sector?

Let us hope not – or that could spell the end for hundreds of hardworking small businesses that have held on for dear life trying to ride out the pandemic. Keeping Queenslanders safe from the virus is one thing. Keeping them secure in their jobs is now just as important, and so we urge the Premier to do the right thing here.




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