Tuesday, January 20, 2009

COLUMN: Reporting reality

"Why are your reports so negative?" asked a voice on the other end of the phone. "A lot of us are sick of it".

I'd just reported that Victoria was losing full-time jobs at a rate approaching 150 per day.

"Things aren't as bad as you're saying," said the caller. "Your reports are making things worse."

The Bureau of Statistics employment survey is by far Australia's most comprehensive, apart from the census. Each month the Bureau's interviewers quiz the occupants of 22,800 houses and flats about their employment status (compared to just 1,200 in a typical opinion poll) and to make sure they are tracking real changes and not just changes in the sample of households, they keep quizzing each one for 8 consecutive months.

Their results have to indicate something real. Victoria's full-time employment trend has been shrinking since August.

I asked my caller to identify some positive developments he felt were missing from my reports. He said he couldn't think of any "at the moment".

On one hand he told me that I was writing bad news in order to sell newspapers. On the other he told me that people didn't want to read that sort of bad news.

Its the same sort of reaction I got in 1990 when I reported accurately that Australia was "on the edge of recession"...

A few months later the Treasurer who had complained confirmed the news, dubbing it "the recession we had to have". Or the reaction when I got when I reported from Japan that Mitsubishi was considering closing its Australian car plants. Those plants have since closed and the Australian Mitsubishi executives who complained have moved on.

In each case they weren't primarily complaining that the reports weren't accurate, but that even if they were accurate (which they were), the reports could create panic and make things worse.

It's a legitimate type of concern. There is clear evidence that reporting suicides encourages them. That's why newspapers are reluctant to mention suicides in all but the most important cases.

Access Economics director Chris Richardson acknowledged the concern - applied to economics - when he released his recession forecast on Monday. As he told his clients: "This is not just a recession. It will be the sharpest deceleration Australia's economy has ever seen. Apologies for the gloom - we do recognise that in forecasting mayhem we make it ever so slightly more likely to happen. Still, we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't tell you what we think comes next."

The problem with withholding information - which reporters do do in limited cases such as suicides and where it could put lives at risk - is that it becomes hard to work out where to stop.

Why stop at protecting Mitsubishi Australia? Why stop at playing down the awfulness of economic data?

"Suppressing relevant available facts" is forbidden by my union's code of ethics. Its view is that reporters are employed to report, although there's a guidance clause that allows exceptions in cases including "risk of substantial harm to people".

As it happens, the Prime Minister and Treasurer transformed themselves towards the end of last year, changing from behaving like automatons who wouldn't even mention the words "deficit" or "recession," to open communicators prepared to acknowledge the pressures Australia faces.

Wayne Swan volunteered Monday that China might not grow by "anything like what was expected only a few months ago". That would put at risk "employment here and budget revenues".

It was, he had said earlier, "deeply, deeply concerning".

Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd are being smart, as well as honest.

Dr Peter Sandman is perhaps the world's foremost expert on crisis communications. Among his clients have been Australia's AWB during the food-for-oil scandal (they failed to follow his advice) and the US government during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The advice is to share knowledge in order to build up the feeling that "we're in this together".

Among his commandments - "don’t over-reassure", "acknowledge uncertainty", "be willing to speculate", "err on the alarming side", "share dilemmas", "legitimise people’s fears", "ask more of people", "establish your own humanity" and acknowledge that no-one has all the answers.

Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd are behaving as if they have read Sandman's books.

The former Prime Minister Bob Hawke behaved as if he had as the Australian dollar was buffetted throughout 1987, winning re-election on the slogan "lets stick together- let's see it through".

In 2005 Sandman singled out Australia's Tony Abbott as the world's best communicator about the risk of a bird flu pandemic. The Coalition Health Minister had acknowledged that a pandemic could be a “worldwide biological version of the Indian Ocean tsunami". He had said Australia was doing everything it reasonably could but acknowledged that "if we ever do believe a pandemic outbreak is imminent, no preparation will be sufficient."

He had taken people into his confidence. He had acknowledged the worst case. Sandman described his approach as "duly" alarming". He had asked us to "see it through".

Last night Rudd said "we're all in this together: business, unions, governments, the community sector — and every nation in the world." He's doing it too.

ABC is hurting us, says car chief

The Advertiser Wednesday 22nd of November 2000

By Motoring Editor MIKE DUFFY

MITSUBISHI Motors Australia head Tom Phillips yesterday attacked the ABC for what he described as "unjustified, biased and repeated reports" that the company's Adelaide plants were under the threat of closure.
Mr Phillips lodged a formal complaint with the ABC board, claiming the reports were seriously damaging the car maker's business and causing undue hardship to workers.
For the second time in five days, Mr Phillips was forced to write to Mitsubishi's 3150 workers calling for calm and assuring them their jobs were secure.

"I believe the ABC is guilty of unjustified and biased reporting which is doing great harm to our business as well as destroying the morale of our staff," he said.

Mr Phillips found an ally in Toyota Australia's chief, John Conomos, who strongly attacked the ABC.

Mr Phillips will meet shop stewards and section leaders at the Clovelly Park and Lonsdale factories this morning to again tell them workers' jobs were safe.

"It is very sad to see a fine company like Mitsubishi dragged into this level of media attention," Mr Conomos said. There were reports on the ABC last week claiming Mitsubishi's Japanese parents were considering closing its Australian plants.

Last night that same reporter had gone on ABC radio and repeated the claims. "This is having a debilitating effect on Mitsubishi.

"Why the ABC will not leave Mitsubishi alone defies logic."

Mr Conomos said if Mitsubishi were to close it would have "a very significant" impact on the remainder of the car industry. "We would lose expertise. We'd lose economies of scale from the supplier base and we'd lose job opportunities," he said.

"South Australia would suffer - it would be most profound."

Last night Mitsubishi Motors released the transcript of an interview Mitsubishi Motors Corporation president, Mr Sonobe, gave foreign journalists on Monday.

Mr Phillips said nothing Mr Sonobe had said warranted the ABC's Tokyo correspondent to go to air with reports MMC had issued another warning it was considering closing its Australian plants. "Just the opposite.

Mr Sonobe talked about assessing Mitsubishi Motors Australia on the basis of profitability and productivity and manufacturing quality," he said.

"Based on the criteria Mr Sonobe clearly indicated to foreign journalists, Mitsubishi Motors Australia is as safe as houses.

"But the ABC reporter chose to interpret this as a further warning of plant closures."

"This is biased reporting and I have lodged a complaint to the ABC board to that effect."

"We just want to be left alone to make a success of a very good business, and make and sell very good cars in Australia and overseas."

The transcript of the press conference, issued by Mitsubishi claims Mr Sonobe said, in response to a question by the ABC: "Unfortunately, all the focus of the media seems to be surrounded on whether or not we are going to close down this operation.

"And it is quite unfortunate that any quotes that have been made so fcar have been taken in this context.

"So let me clarity my position. We are studying all avenues . . . to enable the very survival of the Australian Mitsubishi activities."

Mitsubishi speculation `damaging'

The Advertiser Friday 24th of November 2000

By Political Reporter SAMANTHA MAIDEN in Canberra

FEDERAL Industry Minister Nick Minchin has criticised ongoing speculation about Mitsubishi's future in Adelaide, accusing the ABC and Labor of indulging in damaging speculation.

In a Senate committee hearing yesterday, he reacted angrily when NSW Labor Senator George Campbell repeatedly asked whether the Howard Government had a strategy to deal with the impact of a closure.

"What ifs, what ifs, what ifs - that is utterly futile, damaging and dangerous and I would respectfully ask you to not to persist in this line of questioning," Senator Minchin said to Senator Campbell.

"I think it's extremely dangerous and ill-advised to be publicly speculating about the closure of that company. If anything, it's likely to be self-fulfilling, that sort of wild, indulgent speculation based on reckless reports from the ABC."

Earlier this week, Mitsubishi Motors Australia chief executive officer Tom Phillips lodged a formal complaint over the ABC's reporting of a press conference by Takashi Sonobe, president of the parent company in Japan, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

The national broadcaster has rejected the criticism, defending the reporter involved, Adelaide-born Tokyo correspondent Peter Martin.

"It seems Senator Minchin, like Mitsubishi, wants to shoot the messenger," ABC's head of international operations John Tulloh said.

"ABC's reporting is based on facts, not emotion."

Premier John Olsen echoed Senator Minchin's concerns, labelling the Senate inquiry's line of questioning "outrageous and damaging". "If Opposition Leader Mike Rann is genuinely serious about the long-term future of the company he will call on Kim Beazley to pull federal Labor MPs into line," he said.

A spokesman for Mr Rann said his offer of participating in a bi-partisan mission to Tokyo still stood. "I will not be drawn into any political spat over Mitsubishi," Mr Rann said.

The row follows Mitsubishi's Tokyo executives blaming the diving Australian dollar for a drop in profitability.

Following talks on Wednesday night between trade representatives and the company, Senator Minchin said Mitsubishi had acknowledged a significant turnaround in profitability over the course of the year.

"However, exchange rates had had a significant negative impact on that profitability," he said.

"Mitsubishi indicated it wished to explore assistance to help offset this exchange rate impact."

The Federal Government has agreed to consider the company's concerns but stressed the generosity of existing industry assistance.

"Our job is to ensure this business remains in Australia and that's what we're doing," he said.