The Department of Sustainability and Environment manipulated media coverage of last summer’s bushfires in the state’s north-east into a “save a town a day” campaign that would portray it as heroic and improve its chances of greater funding, a federal parliamentary inquiry heard yesterday.
In an unscheduled verbal submission, Channel Nine reporter Charles Slade said state government departments, particularly the Department of Sustainability and Environment, tightly controlled the media and manipulated information to an extent that “I thought were clearly at odds with what was actually happening”.
He said the department decided to let the initial bushfire outbreaks act as a natural backburn to reduce fuel loads in national parks after years of neglect, and the “spin doctors” covered up the truth by “dressing it up as a bushfire crisis and a heroic effort to save townships and people”.
“Each day the DSE was nominating a community that was under enormous threat, and lo and behold, by evening that community had been saved, which was another triumph for the DSE,” Slade said.
Meanwhile, farmers and mountain cattlemen claimed the department’s slowness in attacking the fires cost the community more than $1 million in damage.
Several committee members noted that slow response to the fires by government departments was a common criticism in the 450 submissions received.
Committee chairman Gary Nairn called on the Victorian, NSW and ACT governments, which have refused to participate in the inquiry, to answer the claims.
Slade said he was sent to cover a bushfire near Bairnsdale in early January and found the situation to be less severe than a department press release depicted. He said he formed the impression from that day and from follow-up reporting, including from the Ovens incident control centre, that the media were being sold a line.
He claimed he was told by a department spokesperson that the information was being manipulated to look worse than what it was because the department, Parks Victoria and the Country Fire Authority were embroiled in a battle for extra funding.
He said he spoke out yesterday at the inquiry, which has the protection of parliamentary privilege, because he was so angered at the amount of false information, which he claimed extended to releasing false weather reports. “I have never ever been involved in a story that involved so many spin doctors… it was astonishing they seemed to be coming out of the woodwork,” he said.
However, he said Melbourne-based newsrooms, including Channel Nine, were eager to get “graphic pictures of this giant, terrifying bushfire ravaging north-east Victoria”.
Slade said he made comments at work that angered his superiors that “we were being sucked into” portraying the fires in a way “that wasn’t necessarily accurate”. Channel Nine news editor Bob Kearsley said the station reported news from the inquiry but would not comment on Slade’s comments. The department said yesterday that the comments were nonsense.
Originally Published at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/07/28/1059244558632.html