This is the classic story of how fires are the perfect fodder for a media that love real life drama and conflict. The opportunity to do a bit of enviro-bashing on the side is just too good to miss as truth and verification of claims fly out the window.This was started by The Age and picked up across all sectors of the media.
Illegal land clearing established
Back in August 2002, Liam Sheahan, a landowner from Reedy Creek, decided to clear over one hectare of mature stringy bark trees from his property without a permit. In November, several neighbours complained to the local Council, and these complaints started an acrimonious dispute that has dragged on for several years and resulted in the Sheahans being fined $30,000.
Trees claimed to be the enemy
In the wake of the recent fires, the dispute again flared up. Unlike his neighbours, Sheahan’s house survived and he went to the media with the story that its survival was as a result of his illegal clearing and he now felt vindicated. He said that he wanted his convictions overturned and fines repaid.
This story was featured prominently in an Age article on 12/3/09, which triggered another wave of hysterical greenie and council bashing stories and calls on talk-back radio. The anti-environmental VexNews web site ran a story praising Sheahan for his defiance but curiously, many of the comments posted pointed to problems with the line being flogged in the media.
Spotlight on the lies
Somebody had posted a link to Mitchell Shire Council’s minutes from September 2005 which had a detailed summary of the Sheahan dispute. These minutes made it quite clear that the media was only providing a part of the story.
Tree clearing caused a fire risk
It turned out that although stories in the media had claimed that the trees had been “cleared”, in fact the felled trees were still on the ground on the Sheahan’s property. The logging had been very poorly timed – this was done at the start of the 2002/3 bushfire season and all the trees were not removed until later in 2003. The local CFA raised the fire hazard posed by the dead trees and a Fire Prevention expert engaged by the Council found that because of the number of dead trees left on the ground, the fire hazard faced by the Sheahans had probably increased. It was just luck that the fires that affected the State in 2002/3 did not include Reedy Creek.
Sheahans lost their case
The Council was reluctant to take this case to Court and spent several months negotiating a settlement with the Sheahans. In April 2003, the Sheahans signed an agreement with the Council to do some rehabilitation planting and pay Council costs of $2,500. They were given 6 months to complete their work. Unfortunately, the Sheahans failed to honour this agreement – they dumped their local legal team and engaged Clem Newton-Brown, a Melbourne barrister, to defend their case.
The Sheahans lost their case, and ended up with a large legal bill and costs from the Council. The magistrate did not accept their claim that they were doing the clearing for fire prevention and found that they had only sought to consider exemptions under the Mitchell Planning Scheme after the event.
Lack of trees wasn’t the saviour
Rather than end the dispute, it has been simmering away for several years. When the fires raced through Reedy Creek earlier this year, the Sheahans were on their property prepared to fight the fires . According to the local council, other properties had been evacuated. Despite their illegal clearing, the Sheahans house caught alight eight times so if they had not been on the property, their house would have burnt down. There is also some evidence that the fire could have approached the house from the opposite direction of the illegal clearing. Despite this, the Sheahans have been given permission to be heard at the Royal Commission in August were they will again be using their story to undermine native vegetation clearance regulations.
Lateline joins the gutter press
Sadly, large sections of the media have swallowed the land clearing codswallop hook line and sinker. Shortly after the Age article appeared, the ABC’s Lateline ran an appalling biased version of the Sheahan story which ended with the reporter, Raphael Epstein, endorsing Sheahan’s illegal clearing. The segment ends with Epstein going to one of Sheahans neighbours burnt houses and says “you can see here at the neighbours that it’s very different [from the Sheahan house]. On all sides there are trees. They didn’t do the clearing that cost the Sheahans hundreds of thousands of dollars “. This attack on victims of the fires was appalling but shows the new lows of journalistic standards that were plumbed during the fires. Epstein’s claim that the Sheahans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars clearing around 1 Ha is clearly absurd and one of a number of factual errors that riddle this story. A complaint about this biased segment is currently with the Independent Complaints Review Panel.