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Overloading Australia author, Mark O'Connor, complains Media Watch bias, attack on Dick Smith

Tonight (11 September 2017) the ABC’s Media Watch program contained a section in which presenter (Paul Barry) attacked Dick Smith’s views on population and specifically Dick Smith’s complaints about the ABC’s refusal to cover the issue of Australia’s rampant population growth. Yet for much of the time he did not defend the ABC. He did not answer points Dick Smith makes at that William Lines and I have made at about ABC bias. Instead, Paul Barry seemed more interested in attacking Dick Smith. [Mark O'Connor is a well known Australian poet and co-author with Bill Lines of Overloading Australia.]

Abandoning the standards Barry and Media Watch normally hold other journalists to, Barry made no attempt to deal with the relevant issues. He did not, for instance, attempt to argue that the amount of space that ABC TV news programs devote to Australia’s extraordinary rate of population growth (we are growing at a rate that would be high even in the Third World) is in proportion with this issue’s importance. Much less did Barry offer evidence or statistics to show that the ABC gives fair or equal space to critics of these very high population growth rates or of the very high immigration rates that drive this growth.

He made no attempt to compare the space and time given to population with that given to other major drivers of contemporary history’s problems, such as “the economy”, or climate change. Nor did he answer the points so powerfully made by Ross Gittins and others about the need to stop pretending that high immigration is any clear benefit to Australia. See for instance

Instead Barry launched an ad hominem attack on Dick Smith, presenting him as an attention seeker. Perhaps Barry thought attack was the ABC’s best method of defence.

He claimed Dick was unreasonably aggrieved at not having his point of view represented on ABC’s program The Drum (where a group of population growth advocates was recently lined up to belittle Dick’s case, with some making misleading statements about him supporting Pauline Hanson). See Yet if they did not want Dick on their panel, why did they not ask Ross Gittins or Bob Carr or Tim Flannery or Ian Lowe etc etc ? Why only pro-growth panellists?

Barry cannot plead ignorance on this subject. The failure of ABC TV news programs to give appropriate space to the case against our government’s policies of pursuing high population growth has been repeatedly brought to his attention at Media Watch, and he has always refused to cover the issue.

If this refusal to deal with an issue that goes to the heart of Media Watch’s charter (as indeed of the ABC’s) was not based on a careful examination of the case, then it was irresponsible. But if it was based on a careful examination which showed that the ABC’s coverage had not in fact been too small and was not unbalanced, then Barry would tonight have been able to produce hard evidence and statistics to disprove Dick Smith’s criticisms. He would not have needed ad hominem attacks, or puns on Dick’s name.

The nearest Barry came to a defence of the ABC was in pointing out that back in 2010 (that’s 7 whole years ago, Paul, and for an issue that its crucial to a dozen news items every week!) the ABC did run a documentary on population called (indeed) Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle followed by a debate on Q&A.

But Barry failed to mention that at the last minute Q&A insisted that their panel would not contain any clear critics of Australia’s rapid-population-growth policies, thus once again disenfranchising the majority of Australians from the debate. Instead there would be a “sub-panel” (which did contain Tim Flannery) who would be allowed to make a brief statement each but not take place in the subsequent debate. (I think I have remembered this correctly. I do remember that it all seemed bizarre at the time. Media Watch did not, of course, comment back then upon this oddity.)

So instead of a normal Q&A debate, we were treated to an interchange of views between types like Tony Shepherd and John Elliott, whose line was that population growth is needed for business: end of story. For “contrast” these were put in discussion with an utterly pro-growth mayor who wanted us to know about the heart-pangs that he and (he claimed) the fellow citizens of his town suffered daily at being only the second biggest town in their state! (At least that’s what I can remember from 7 years ago. It was certainly not a fair or balanced debate, if a debate at all).

Barry might have found a better example if he had mentioned that back in January 2010, as described on p. 162 of my and William Lines’s book Overloading Australia, the ABC’s 7.30 Report allowed Matt Peacock to make a series of 4 segments on the deep disquiet felt by many scientists and social commentators at Australia’s rate of population growth. But to use this example Barry would have had to explain why the ABC has never since allowed Peacock or others to revisit that issue in similar depth. In fact since then many of those whom Peacock found willing to speak out in 2010 have fallen silent, realising that there is little chance of getting a fair hearing.

I think we have the right to be angry about this. ABC TV news has never provided adequate or balanced coverage of Australia’s population debate; and now that Dick Smith has had the courage to put it on the spot, it is flailing around and trying to defend itself with ad hominem attacks.

Mark O’Connor

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The survey of 1005 adults was carried out this month and reported 83 per cent of respondents ­believed major parties should have a population policy and 82 per cent agreed population growth was an issue on which politicians needed to act.

Most respondents believed insufficient infrastructure, crowded cities, housing affordability and rising unemployment were the main consequences of Australia’s growing population.