(Bloomsbury Wildlife. 2019. Book cover of Steve Backshall’s ‘Deadly’ series, as seen on TV. The latest in a long line of programs since TV was invented presenting Nature as ‘dangerous’ and ‘deadly’)

 

Five Environment Stories: Nature as Dangerous/The Enemy

Section
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
Page
6.3

The understandable and primal fear of being out of our element, vulnerable, and exposed to danger, is fertile ground for the media. It seems that it doesn’t take much to turn caution into downright terror, and the famous film, ‘Jaws’, was a classic in this regard. Not content with conveying the disquiet of the deep, dark, ocean environment, nor the presence of a bad-tempered, multi-fanged shark, Universal Pictures built a huge animatronic shark – 25 feet long – and appointed jockeys as stunt doubles to maximise the impression of size and the feeling of fear. It was all a great box-office success.

(Universal Pictures. 1975. Jaws)

Investigating the topic in more academic fashion, zoologists Daniel Lunney and Chris Moon have written a most interesting paper1 on the portrayal of wildlife in the print media – portrayal_of_human-wildlife_interactions.pdf (murdoch.edu.au)  – and their abstract reads:

“ ‘In the end Steve Irwin got too close’ (Sydney Morning Herald 5/9/06). Steve Irwin’s untimely death generated an instantaneous and massive response by the media. The cause of his death – a stingray barb – highlights a vital part of the topic of how close we should be to wildlife for our own safety, and for the welfare of the wildlife. As working zoologists, we asked: “To what extent does the media’s portrayal of human-wildlife interaction define or obscure the contentious issues in wildlife management?” We examined 287 newspaper articles over one year (7/10/05 to 9/10/06). The journalism was, by and large, informative, readable and entertaining. The usual pattern of reporting was a catchy headline, short story and/or a sensational photo. There is a paradox in our relationship with wildlife – we want to be both close and distant. Media coverage reflects this, presenting wildlife as either dangerous or lovable, depending on the reporter’s ‘angle’. Safeguarding the future of our wildlife will need much more than a headline with a pun and an engaging photo of a charismatic creature. In its presentation of wildlife, the media plays a powerful role that will either further its conservation or leave it as a neglected element of our heritage. From our analysis, we argue that scientists and the media can be more profitably engaged, but ultimately the conservation of our fauna will depend on well-supported and diverse teams of scientists and wildlife managers that operate on sound ecological principles, not media precepts.”

We will address the ‘cute/lovable’ angle in webpage 6.5, but as to the ‘dangerous’ stance, Lunney and Moon found:

“We love marine mammals, but the headlines tell us the sea is full of things which may harm us – e.g. sharks, box jellyfish, bluebottles and flatworms, but also whales (Whale capsizes boat – two fishermen drown off Woolgoolga, 31/7/06) and marlin (Marlin snares angler, hook, line and chest – a marlin leapt into a fishing boat near Bermuda and speared a fisherman in the chest, 5/8/06). However, when spearfishers killed a popular blue groper at Clovelly (22/11/05) the headline was Beachgoers scream blue murder at fish killing. Sharks are an easy subject – readers’ comfort zones are well defined and easy to manipulate. In the 3 months prior to the headline Woman, 21, dies in shark attack (on North Stradbroke Island) (8/1/06), there were five articles about sharks, headlined: Great White shark sets transoceanic swimming record (7/10/05); Illegal [Indonesian] shark hunters use hit and run tactics (29/10/05); Shark spotted again (9/12/05); Defying death in troubled waters (24/12/05), and Sharks close beaches (28/12/05). Following the attack, there were a further 14 articles in 9 days, with headlines such as Everyone out: shark panic at [Bronte] beach (11/1/06), Shark alarm: not enough money to patrol beaches (10/1/06), What lies beneath? (14/1/06) and Unsung heroes of the shark patrol (14/1/06) indicating the tone of treatment of this subject, although Julia Baird wrote an opinion piece on alarmism headlined ‘Just when you think it is unsafe to go into the water’… (12/1/06). The media is widening our comfort distance with sharks, even though there are only 1.1 shark deaths/year in Australia, compared to 200 drownings (Blood in the water, 12/1/06).”

More generally, in regard to ‘dangerous animals’, they found that: Dangerous wildlife featured prominently in reporting (48 articles, not counting the Steve Irwin articles), with sharks (26), spiders (4), crocodiles (4), snakes (5), box jellyfish (2), bluebottles (1), marsupial lion (1), killer black bear (1), ‘creepy crawlies’ (1), dingos (1) and, of course, the ‘Whale capsizes boat’ and ‘Marlin spears fisherman’ stories.” In addition, “Seventeen articles and letters to the editor presented wildlife as some form of pest (as opposed to ‘dangerous’)”.

Of course, some wildlife is dangerous, and some are a nuisance, but so few are actually dangerous, and there are so few of them, living in far-flung places, that the likelihood of anyone being in ‘danger’ from them is so small as to be almost unmeasurable.

Despite this, there seems no doubt that the ‘dangerous/enemy’ vein is a rich one for the media (23% of articles comprised the ‘dangerous’ and ‘pest’ categories; the largest category was regarding Steve Irwin’s death – 30%). Politicians are all too aware of this resonance with the community and this is hilariously lampooned in the very funny book ‘The Speechwriter’2, by Martin Mckenzie-Murray, where he presents the fictional Prime Minister of Australia basing a large part of his re-election campaign on “Getting those toothy goons (read sharks) out of our backyards!”. Watery ‘backyards’, indeed.   When it is recognised that these stories of danger are presented in the format, described by Lunney and Moon, of: “The usual pattern of reporting was a catchy headline, short story and/or a sensational photo”, then it is hardly surprising that more considered, meaningful responses, by the public and politician alike, are hard to find.

Steve Irwin’s death from a stingray barb occurred during the study and this was a lightning rod for the paradox and ambiguity of our relationship with wildlife. The Steve Irwin phenomenon is a curious one for me as he was largely unknown in Australia before striking it rich in America on cable TV, and I was troubled by his schtick, and this genre of wildlife documentary that played up the whole ‘dangerous animal being subdued by man’ thing. (There have been, and are, many of these programs. When I was a boy there was the dreadful ‘Wild Kingdom’ where animals would be thrown together to fight like some sort of modern-day bear-baiting. Currently we have the ‘Deadly 60’ series. With all of them I cannot help thinking of an image of a khaki-shorted man leaping onto the back of a hamster shouting: “Crikey – he’s a dangerous one, but we’ve got him under control now!”. I thought this was most unhelpful for conservation, even if sometimes followed with a tagline about ‘looking after these critters’, and created far more negativity and fear about animals than the reverse. This said, I think there has been considerable revisionism since his death, and his legacy has been far more positive for the environment – expressed through a conservation lens at his zoo, foundation, and through his family – than during his sensationalist, ‘crocodile hunter’ lifetime. On his untimely death, Germaine Greer and Clive Hamilton (see also reference to Clive Hamilton’s work in Section 2.2), expressed similar reservations about Irwin’s approach, but it seems, overwhelmingly, that people liked it and responded to him, so it seems it may not have been as damaging to our relationship with the wild as I feared.

(( Bloomsbury Wildlife. 2019. Book cover of Steve Backshall’s ‘Deadly’ series, as seen on TV. The latest in a long line of programs since T V was invented presenting Nature as ‘dangerous’ and ‘deadly’)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B. Nature as a Whole

Whereas the ‘deadly’ representation of many species is grossly inflated, sensationalist, and annoying, there is often a childish naivety to the approach, a ‘gee whiz, look at me, kids’, about the whole thing that reduces, somewhat, its negative impact. The same cannot be said for presentations of the whole natural environment as dangerous, or the enemy; these are adult, violent, and very nasty.

If there is one thing in my country, Australia, that seems sure to draw this darkness to the surface, it is fire. Every time there is fire in the Australian bush it is followed by a crescendo of fear, irrationality, and hatred of Nature and anyone associated with her. Nature and her supporters become ‘the enemy’ and war must be waged against them, be it through clearing and burning the bush, or social exclusion and the driving out of ‘greenies’. This is not an exaggeration; I have lived through many such fire events and the response is depressingly the same, as the following items will attest.

In February 2009 there was a severe (in terms of intensity and lives lost, but not size) fire event in Victoria, later dubbed ‘The Black Saturday Fires’. Following an exceptional drought – the Millenium Drought from 1996-2010 – and the hottest temperatures ever recorded for many locations, fire broke out across the State, but mostly to the north and east of Melbourne, burning 450, 000 ha and tragically taking 173 lives. (By comparison, the more-recent ‘Black Summer’ fires of 2019-20 burnt 18.6 million ha of eastern Australia and 34 people died). The response in the media was wild, but perhaps the most opportunisitic and targeted was the following piece from columnist Miranda Devine in the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’, on February 12th, 2009. (The original, I’m sure, had an accompanying picture of a sign painted ‘Kill the Greenies’, or ‘Hang the Greenies’, or similar, but I can no longer find this).

 

“Green ideas Must Take Blame for Deaths

It wasn’t climate change which killed as many as 300 people in Victoria last weekend. It wasn’t arsonists. It was the unstoppable intensity of a bushfire, turbo-charged by huge quantities of ground fuel which had been allowed to accumulate over years of drought. It was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.

(Sydney Morning Herald. Columnist Miranda Devine)

So many people need not have died so horribly. The warnings have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

Governments appeasing the green beast have ignored numerous state and federal bushfire inquiries over the past decade, almost all of which have recommended increasing the practice of “prescribed burning”. Also known as “hazard reduction”, it is a methodical regime of burning off flammable ground cover in cooler months, in a controlled fashion, so it does not fuel the inevitable summer bushfires.

In July 2007 Scott Gentle, the Victorian manager of Timber Communities Australia, who lives in Healesville where two fires were still burning yesterday, gave testimony to a Victorian parliamentary bushfire inquiry so prescient it sends a chill down your spine.

“Living in an area like Healesville, whether because of dumb luck or whatever, we have not experienced a fire … since … about 1963. God help us if we ever do, because it will make Ash Wednesday look like a picnic.” God help him, he was right.

Gentle complained of obstruction from green local government authorities of any type of fire mitigation strategies. He told of green interference at Kinglake – at the epicentre of Saturday’s disaster, where at least 147 people died – during a smaller fire there in 2007.

“The contractors were out working on the fire lines. They put in containment lines and cleared off some of the fire trails. Two weeks later that fire broke out, but unfortunately those trails had been blocked up again [by greens] to turn it back to its natural state … Instances like that are just too numerous to mention. Governments … have been in too much of a rush to appease green idealism … This thing about locking up forests is just not working.”

The Kinglake area was a nature-loving community of tree-changers, organic farmers and artists to the north of Melbourne. A council committed to reducing carbon emissions dominates the Nillumbik shire, a so-called “green wedge” area, where restrictions on removing vegetation around houses reportedly added to the dangers. In nearby St Andrews, where more than 20 people are believed to have died, surviving residents have spoken angrily of “greenies” who prevented them from cutting back trees near their property, including in one case, a tea tree that went “whoomp”. Dr Phil Cheney, the former head of the CSIRO’s bushfire research unit and one of the pioneers of prescribed burning, said yesterday if the fire-ravaged Victorian areas had been hazard-reduced, the flames would not have been as intense.

Kinglake and Maryville, now crime scenes, are built among tall forests of messmate stringy bark trees which pose a special fire hazard, with peeling bark creating firebrands that carry fire five kilometres out. “The only way to reduce the flammability of the bark is by prescribed burning” every five to seven years, Cheney said. He estimates between 35 and 50 tonnes a hectare of dry fuel were waiting to be gobbled up by Saturday’s inferno.

Fuel loads above about eight tonnes a hectare are considered a fire hazard. A federal parliamentary inquiry into bushfires in 2003 heard that a fourfold increase in ground fuel leads to a 13-fold increase in the heat generated by a fire.

Things are no better in NSW, although we don’t quite have Victoria’s perfect storm of winds and forest types. Near Dubbo two years ago, as a bushfire raged through the Goonoo Community Conservation Area, volunteer firefighters bulldozing a control line were obstructed by National Parks and Wildlife Service employees who had driven from Sydney to stop vegetation being damaged.

The poor management of national parks and state forests in Victoria is highlighted by the interactive fire map on the website of the Department of Sustainability and Environment. Yesterday it showed that, of 148 fires started since mid-January, 120 started in state forests, national parks, or other public land, and just 21 on private property.

Only seven months ago, the Victorian Parliament’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee tabled its report into the impact of public land management on bushfires, with five recommendations to enhance prescribed burning. This included tripling the amount of land to be hazard-reduced from 130,000 to 385,000 hectares a year. There has been little but lip service from the Government in response. Teary politicians might pepper their talking points with opportunistic intimations of “climate change” and “unprecedented” weather, but they are only diverting the blame. With yes-minister fudging and craven inclusion of green lobbyists in decision-making, they have greatly exacerbated this tragedy.

There is an opening now in Victoria for a predatory legal firm with a taste for David v Goliath class actions.”

 

As the point of this section of T10 is the role and operations of the media, I will not reply to the content of this vile hate-piece, but will comment on fire at length elsewhere. This said, I doubt I would have dignified this bile with a response in any circumstances. To clarify for non-Australian or New South Wales readers, the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ is not a tabloid, is one of Australia’s oldest papers, and is considered a ‘serious’ media player (one of Australia’s biggest-selling newspapers). To add insult to injury, it was owned at the time by Fairfax Media which was considered more moderate/centrist/leftist in its leanings. A country that allows the printing, in its mass media, of statements the like of: “it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies”, no longer deserves to be considered civilised, and it is perhaps at this point in time when Australia opened the door to a world of ranting barbarism.

Once open, this door is almost impossible to close, and I noted with pain the similar singling out as enemies, and abuse of ‘treehuggers’, surrogates for the environment in general, by Donald Trump during the fires in California and western USA, during his term of office. Worse still, the Federal Member for New England in northern NSW, Australia, Barnaby Joyce, used the conservative, News Corp owned Sky News, later picked up by the general media, including SBS News here (November 12th, 2019), to say that two people killed by fires that year: “most likely voted for the Greens”. Barnaby Joyce says NSW bushfire dead ‘most likely’ voted for the Greens (sbs.com.au), (duration: 1 minute, 50 secs). I don’t need to spell this out. You cannot sink much lower than this. And, he has the audacity to accuse his political opponents of ‘politicising the issue’! (I cannot locate a copy of the Sky News original which was more explicit and had already done its job of identifying the enemy and laying blame, and by the time of the SBS interview Joyce was already moving on to tactic ‘b’, ‘Shut down talk of climate change and take the moral high ground’).

Again, as per the Sydney Morning Herald, if you are thinking, ‘oh well, this is just the low pitching of a hate message and identification of enemies to his base, by an obscure outback politician’, think again; Joyce at the time was leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.

(SBS News. 2019. Barnaby Joyce)

 

To make it even clearer that Chomsky’s ‘Filter 5 – The common enemy’ is well and truly in operation in the Australian media as regards Nature and fire, the opposite – identification of the heroes – is equally as energetic and serves to highlight and polarise the difference between ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’, in juxtaposition. In 2010, after the fires at the end of the Millenium Drought, the following, full-page advertisements appeared in Victoria’s newspapers, as well as on TV:

Note the echo of the famous Iwo Jima WW2 photograph and war memorial in the silhouette of the firefighters in the foreground, and the less-than-subtle ‘Tour of Duty’, Australian flag, and – bizarrely – the American flag? This is war, with clearly defined heroes and enemies, and Nature and her sympathisers better watch out.

This is seductive territory indeed for the media, and even the ABC has, at times, felt its pull. Currently, on a major freeway on my way to and from Melbourne, there is a giant billboard of fire, billowing smoke towering into the sky, and the ‘advertisement’ that the ABC is the one you can rely on for information and help to deal with this terror. ‘What’s wrong with providing such an essential service?’, I hear you say, and on face value – nothing. It is important, but the problem is that all too easily this ‘service’ tips over into a need, a justification, an identity that needs to be fed by the portrayal of Nature as alien, dangerous, and at war with humans. Over the last several years the ABC has been running self-promotion advertisements centred on its role as ‘emergency services broadcaster’, with voice-overs of grateful landowners saying how wonderful the ABC is, and tagging their little speeches with ‘thank you’. Hmmnnn. Similarly, for a number of years, each Spring, the ABC ran radio announcements heralding Spring with tinkly music and birds singing, and then…dun dun dah! ‘fire season!’, the music thundered, followed by various warnings; Nature and Spring no longer a source of wonder and delight, but threatening and dangerous, and even re-named. This tipping over into the role of fire performer, saviour and even promoter, reached a crescendo several years back when I thought the ABC was using fire on its radio bands as a sort of summer wallpaper, a constant filler, like cricket, for the endless hours of the holiday season. Most unhelpful indeed.

(Filmways VTC/ABC Adelaide. 2010. ABC logo and promotion using fire)

ABC TV Australia Ident – Bush Fire Hose – YouTube

 

1 Lunney, D., Moon, C. 2008. The Portrayal of Human-Wildlife Encounters in the Print Media. In Lunney, D., Munn, A., Meikle, W. Too Close for Comfort: Contentious Issues in Human-Wildlife Encounters. Royal Zool. Soc. NSW, Mosman, Aus.

2 McKenzie-Murray, M. 2021. The Speechwriter. Scribe, Brunswick, Australia.

Explore Other Media Environmental Context

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