Complaint to Media Watch- Fairfax Media ” do-wind-turbines-harm-your-health”

Today 25 January I sent the complaint below to Media Watch.  I’ll post any reply.

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Hello Media Watch,

I wish to make a complaint about an article from Fairfax Media, shown online at The Age, The Canberra Times and other sites.  I’m unsure of its print circulation

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/environment/sunday-explainer-do-wind-turbines-harm-your-health-20150124-12ww4i.html

My Complaints are as follows:

A.  The Title

One would assume from the title that the article would go on to explain in an evidence-based fashion whether or not Wind Turbines have any effect on human health, and if so, what that effect is.

Instead, what you get is an article which summarises “controversy” around wind farms and allegations of health effects.  In fact, the science is very clear: the only health effects that wind farms are related to is a psychological anxiety based  effect that occurs in the minds of people who are anti-wind farm.  And this is only exacerbated by poorly written articles that make don’t make this clear, and that there is an absence of evidence for any objective physical health deterioration.  So in fact, someone wanting to keep healthy can be harmed by a poor article like this as it may encourage the onset of the psychological and Munchausen – type issues.   A spiral best avoided.

B. Ignoring the Politics

IF this is to be an article foccussed on manufactured controversy and false allegations rather than actual proven health effects, fine (though that makes the title misleading).  However then at least we need a basic background of how the fossil fuel industry and its related groups such as the Coaliton government, the Waubra foundation, Heritage Foundation contribute and what their role is in feeding anti-windfarm debate and pushing windfarm “health issues” into media and the political mainstream.  But the writer doesn’t go into these issues in any depth, leaving the reader witht the impression that this is primarily a “scientific debate” – completely false.

B.  Misleading Portrayal of Science

Finally, the entire article is an example of what is known as “false balance”.  That is, picking a politically controversial topic with a scientific component and giving equal or greater time to a complete outlier.  The classic example of this is with Climate Change, where Australian papers give greater weight to a handful of dubious deniers than they do to the 97%+  who support the concept of anthropological global warming.

Here, we have an outlier study that is not peer-reviewed, not controlled and has a small sample size.  It is favourable to a powerful set of political and financial interests, so it is pushed forward by them into the media spotlight.  The correct role for serious media is not to treat this as news at all.  Or if there is a story, it is in the ridiculous attempts by some interests groups to have bad science treated seriously.

It is completely normal for political groups to put forward poor, unreliable evidence to support their case.  It is not acceptable that a big organisation like Fairfax give their rubbish airtime like this.  It only creates the false impression that here is some sort of mainstream scientific debate on the issue with two equal sides, when there is not.

Overall, readers would be forgive for being more confused than they began about windfarms and what the major political issues are around them, and why “health” keeps being brought up.  And that is a very poor “Explainer”.

I raise this particularly because false balance in the areas of climate science, renewable technology are rampant in Australia.  More often found in the Murdoch papers but this article shows Fairfax aren’t immune to it.  It’s got to stop, because its leaving Australian readers confused and misled on a vital area of public policy.

Here is a related article by ANU about the same study, criticising its front page place in The Australian: http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/wind-turbine-studies-how-to-sort-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly  It would seem Fairfax are just copying their News Ltd rivals rather than offering an alternative.  The big losers are the Australian public.

I hope this can be addressed somehow on your show and I look forward to your reply.

Kind Regards
Mark Tregonning
Preston

Why Gillard Looked Weak (an extension of a Twitter conversation)

I recently had a fairly long twitter conversation with @ashghebranious about the problems causing high Australian energy prices. During that thread, it became clear that Ash knew more about the details of the problem known as “goldplating’ of the poles and wires” than I did.

He had some good information to share about the various players who have profited from this problem and the structure of the system. But, in my view, he was reluctant to look at the ‘big picture’ which is preventing Australia from solving this problem, which is basically the what I would call the “neoliberal consensus” about privitisation and deregulation.

By consensus, I mean consensus by those who lead the national debate – mostly our 2 major parties and the mainstream media, including the ABC.  I don’t include in that consensus the Australian public, who would seem to hold quite different a different view, on average.  My argument in this case was that  ALP’s entrenched commitment to neoliberalism that hamstrings the party in dealing with problems like rising energy prices.

For the Gillard government this was a particular problem because, although Gillard did make frequent statements describing the problem of gold plating and its effect on electricity prices, she did not do very much about it. So she looked weak. Tony Abbott, on the other hand, was able to take the problem of electricity prices and offer a strong solution: axe the carbon tax.

Now granted, this solution was based on a lie: that the carbon tax was causing the electricity prices, when it fact it was a very minor factor compared to gold-plating. And yes, Gillard tried to counter this and yes, the Murdoch press were a major player in making sure that she wasn’t heard and Abbott’s lies were therefore believed by most voters. Ash and I agreed on all that.

However where we parted was that I believed Gillard could have done more, whereas Ash never conceded that. She could have instituted a major reform in the electricity market. And by electricity market, I include the infrastructure of the poles and wires which deliver the electricity to Australians. (Part of the discussion with Ash got sidelined because I didn’t make this clear enough I think).

Currently each Australian state has its electricity almost entirely ruled by private companies – those companies that Australians deal with directly like power companies, and other companies which own all the poles and wires and charge the companies for their use.

As far as I can see, all these companies and their share –holders are rorting Australians wildly. Electricity prices have risen by 40% in just a few years. And on the back of this, Abbott was able to sell his carbon tax lie by promising Australians relief from the pain.

When I asked Ash – an active ALP supporter – why all this sector has to be run by private companies rather than state governments – he mostly avoided the question. I even asked him directly whether he supports ALP’s ongoing commitment to privitisation of the energy sector. No reply.

What he did say, however, was that a reason that private companies should own the poles and wires rather than the state government was risk – in particular he mentioned bushfire risk.

By the time he wrote that, it was getting late and I felt the discussion was getting bogged down so I politely signed off. And Ash to his credit immediately did too (rather than smelling the taste of victory like some tweeps have and going in for the kill!)

However on reflection I think it deserves a reply. To my view, the bushfires provide an excellent example of why private companies are not inherently better placed than government departments to manage risk.

To start with, think of the state fire departments. They are fully government run, and the deal with fire risk all the time. In fact, its hard to think of anyone who better deals with bushfires than a state fire department! Do neoliberals think that this therefore means they should be immediately privitised, on the basis that a private company always deals with bushfire risk better?  In fact some countries have taken privatisation to this extreme- and the results aren’t good.

Secondly, having helped many victims of bushfires myself in my job as a lawyer, I know a little about how private and public organisations responded to, say, the terrible “Black Saturday” bushfires that took hundreds of Victorian lives and destroyed millions of dollars in property.

On the whole, my impression was government organisations like Centrelink responded pretty well and quickly, despite the unprecedented nature of the fire. Even my state legal organisation, which was by no means designed to deal with fires, organised itself to respond the problem within weeks.

So how did private organisations fare in relation to these fires? Certainly not well enough to justify a claim that all private organisations handle bushfire risk better than public ones, in my view.

For a start, SPL Ausnet has been accused of maintaining its wires so poorly that its negligence contributed to the starting of the worst of the fires, and therefore contributed to the deaths of 119 Victorians and destruction of over 1,000 homes. No public government department in Australia has ever been accused of this type of behaviour causing chaos of this type, to my knowledge – certainly not related to bush fires. The court action resulted in a $500 million dollar settlement for victims.

I don’t know enough about this case to know exactly why SPL Ausnet neglected wire maintenance, but its fair to speculate that it was something to do with saving money. After all, a private corporation main reason to exist is to make money for its share holders, and one of the main ways to do this is to cut costs.

That’s just one company. What about others? Well, I do know that Australia’s big Insurance companies were roundly criticised for the way they dealt with the fires. Risk is, of course, their very business and where they make their money. I talked to dozens of frustrated Victorians battling one of these rich, wealth companies to try and get compensation for their lost house. I would not be confident to say these private companies dealt with the risk of bushfires in a way that was in the public interest.

Now, I’m not claiming the reverse – that every public department would deal with bushfire – or any – risk better than a private company.   It varies. But I would say that to prefer private companies on this issue does not match with facts on the ground. Its a claim grounded in ideology, not evidence.

And one of the major problems with Australian politics as I see it, is that these sort of claims based on neoliberal ideology too seldom go challenged, due to the neoliberal consensus that pervades. The strong right wing media environment here supports this – politicians know they will get no support from News Ltd or Fairfax if they do open call out neoliberal tenets. They will be painted as “extreme” or  “marxist”. Even the Greens, in the main, stay away from open debates around privitisation & nationlisation.   While they at least refrain from openly advocating privitisation like the main parties, they so tend to sit on the fence and avoid the discussion when they can.

To get back to Gillard and energy prices, this is part of what made Gillard look so powerless as Australians suffered with high electricity prices. Because she was powerless. Neoliberal theory says you should interfere as little as powerful in a private market, even one as essential as the electricity market. These were  private companies, and “Big Government” should let them look after things.  So she was reduced to making plaintive calls that the companies should behave better. And state governments too were nowhere to be seen on this.   No politician, it seemed, can do anything to stop rampaging electricity prices. Which leaves the stage wide open for someone like Abbott who at least offered something.  Evil is what happens when good people do nothing, after all.

Am I communist? Do I want state owned everything, and queues for bread on every corner? Well, private markets are fantastic for giving us choice, branding, even innovation. I don’t want all icecream in Australia to be sold by the “Australian Department of Ice Cream”, I’d rather choose from a number of brands, prices, styles etc.

But in matters of essential services – public transport, water, electricity, even internet service- I lean towards delivery of services by a single government body, rather than a variety of private companies in a competitive market making profit for their private (often overseas) shareholders.  A public government department, for all its faults, is not driven primarily by the profit motive, and it more answerable to our democratic political system.

Some like Ross Garnaut has made arguments that privatised electricity companies worked quite well, its only the polls and wires privatisation that screwed us -because they are natural monopolies. That’s not to say of course that a single government department wouldn’t do the whole lot better if it was properly managed.

Just think of the amount of money that is wasted through advertising, for example. All of us pay for Telstra to compete with Optus through hyper expensive internet ads, or the electricity companies to promote themselves through billboards. We pay for that, and for what good? What everyone wants is essentially the same thing – fast, reliable internet at the lowest cost possible. Reliable electricity at the lowest cost possible.  A train that runs on time, works well and is cheap (or free). It’s not rocket surgery.

As you can see, I’ve got a bit to say on this that can’t be reduced to a few tweets. Thanks for reading this.  And Ash, if you’ve got this far – thank you for your fine, informed and respectful style on twitter.   May we lock swords again soon.

My letter to David Feeney on his support for Iraq and ASIO laws

I sent the letter below to my local MP, David Feeney today by email.

I then forwarded it to Melissa Park MP with a short note thanking her for her work in challenging the Liberal government on their stance on Iraq.

Ms Park replied within 1 hour thanking me for my message.  I’ve yet to get a reply from Mr Feeney.
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30 September 2014

Hon David Feeney MP

Member for Batman

Parliamentary Secretary for Defence

159 High  St

Preston, VIC, 3072

Dear Mr Feeney

I write to express my disappointment at the actions of you and your party in recent months.  As my representative in the Australian parliament and a senior member of the Federal Opposition, I have been very displeased at the lack of accountability you have brought to bear on the Liberal Government.

As a senior member of the Opposition, it is not your role simply to help your party be a “small target” and avoid criticism of being “soft on terror”.  You have an important role in our democracy to question the Government closely on statements and decisions which will affect real people’s lives.

At several points your leader Bill Shorten has made statements that matters of National Security are “above politics” – presumably as a way of explaining why his party was failing to provide proper scrutiny and criticism of government actions. This is not good enough.

The recent ASIO legislation, to which you and your party offered its unqualified support, is a shocking incursion on civil liberties of Australians.  The ability of ASIO to monitor the internet of all Australians with 1 warrant, and the draconian punishments for lawyers or journalists who challenge National Security matters is extremely concerning to me and many others.  Yet ALP backed it all the way – and you voted for it.  I am very unhappy about that.

I also believe that you have failed to provide proper opposition to the Government’s decision to offer a blank cheque of planes and personal with which to launch aerial attacks in Iraq.  In fact, your party refused to even allow this decision to be debated in the Australian Parliament – presumably so the ALP’s lack of scrutiny would not be exposed to the Australian people.  Again, this is worrying and anti-democratic move.

As the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence [*see below] it is your role to carefully and sceptically examine any case for war.  What are the reasons for offering such unqualified support, and why have you not spelt them out clearly?  Why aren’t you examining carefully the warmongering rhetoric of the Liberal Party, picking it apart offering an alternative vision?  Why aren’t you making Australians aware of the risks of military action in Iraq to Syria – especially the risk of Australian people and equipment being involved in the deaths of innocent civilians?  Why aren’t you exposing the lack of clarity in objectives shown by the latest “Coalition of the Willing”?

Instead, you have left this role to a backbencher in your party – Melissa Park MP – who has copped death threats for being brave enough to ask the questions that desperately need to be asked, while you remained silent.  She has shown you up Mr Feeney, and shown up the whole of ALP with her courage.

I do hope your performance and those of your party colleagues in Parliament will improve in these matters, I will be watching closely.

Yours Sincerely

Mark Tregonning

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Note-

 Of course he is no longer a parliamentary secretary – I mistakenly got that from an old website.

Here are his current responsibilities: 

Shadow Minister for Justice
Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Shadow Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence

The fact he has the Shad Min for Justice responsibility means it was his role to hold Brandis to account for the ASIO Terror Laws.

*I have made a few spelling & grammar corrections since I sent it to Mr Feeney.

Tamil Refugees, S. C. Chandrahasan and OfERR

 I’ve noticed recently that Australian media have been quoting a man called S. C (Samuel Chelvanayagam)  Chandrahasan a lot recently.

ABC News on Sunday sought him out for an article on Sunday on Eric Abetz defending his government, for example:

Tamil refugee and advocate S C Chandrahasan says if Australia was to send the Tamils to Sri Lanka, it would act as a deterrent to others considering making the journey.

“We are having a map which says it is easier to go from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka than to go to Australia. [The map suggests asylum seekers who] get close to Christmas Island [will] then be deported, [go through a] mid-sea transfer and take the risk of going back,” he said.

Earlier last week, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted him in an article about the Australian Governments PR Campaign to stop Tamils leaving by boat from the subcontinent for Australia :

”This has been a brilliantly organised campaign,” said S.C. Chandrahasan, a leading Tamil refugee advocate who has worked closely with the Australian government over the past 12 months.

”The Australian government began in Delhi and has worked down, slowly and diligently, through every level of Indian government and refugee organisations to get the message through that if you get on a boat without a visa, you will be sent back to Sri Lanka.”

Mr Chandrahasan said one of his major concerns for Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu is that by leaving India through illegal means, they are giving up everything they have built up in India over the past 30 years.

”We have land here, we have homes, we have electricity, we have education, and every time someone gets on a boat to go to Australia without a visa, we are losing that, and that is what I am trying to prevent.”

The first thing I’d note is the uncritical use of “illegal” by SMH in the quote above. Of course, it is not illegal under the Refugee Convention to seek refuge by boat in another country. In fact, the Convention states that refugees will not be discriminated against by the mode by which they arrive.

But more broadly, the appearance of this mysterious figure has peaked my interest. Clearly he provides a useful voice to argue that the current government’s hardline attitude to Tamil refugees is working to provide an effective deterrent to help “stop the boats”.  Furthermore, he has the added appeal of being a Tamil advocate, and therefore not subject to claims of an uncaring or even cruel attitude towards them. All in all, a boon to the Coalition and their supporters.

So who is S. C. Chandrahasan?  

A little bit of google research reveals the following key facts:

1.  Mr Chandrahasan works for an organisation called OfERR, whose stated mission is to improve and develop the life and well being of refugees in Indiaand to prepare them for their eventual return to the Island” [my italilics].  “The Island” in this context means Sri Lanka.

2.  OefERR’s website reveals it is funded by a collection of international organisations.  Those organisations are predominantly Christian.  They include the National Council of Churches of  Australia and the Australian Government (including, interesting, the Arts Council?)

3.  If this article is anything to go by (published in a webzine by a man with some political interest in this issue – he says he’s a victim of LTTE (Tamil Tiger) violence) he’s runs a pretty good line in self-promotion and/or has some high up contacts in Indian government.

I’m not questioning Mr Ch’s integrity or suggesting he’s a fraud, I simply don’t know much about him, and nor do the readers of the ABC and the SMH.    

And that’s my point, I am left with several questions.  How reliable is he as a source?  Is he influenced by his Australian Government funding in the commentary he gives about Australian Government activity on asylum seekers? Should Australian media be using him as one of the primary sources of Tamil refugee advocacy with regards to Australian issues, considering his NGO is aimed towards returning Tamils from India to Sri Lanka?

I’d love to hear from any readers who could share light on this.