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From InDaily's pages this year, SA's divergent realities and a resolution for the future

Media

As South Australia’s body politic fragments in ways never seen before, InDaily editor David Washington looks back on the local issues that dominated the year in news and wonders how journalism might reconcile the community’s divergent realities.

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Two moments in South Australia’s news stand out this year.

One, which gained the world’s attention, was the mysterious magic of tech billionaire Elon Musk, brought to us primarily via South Australia’s statewide blackout in 2016.

The strangely inarticulate boss of Tesla attracts global fascination: while his sentences often stumble, the content can be astounding. In his second trip to Adelaide this year, in September, he presented an Earth-bound vision for his “BFR” spacecraft (which apparently stands for “Big Fucking Rocket”) – to deliver passengers to any location on Earth in under an hour.

If you could get past his stilted delivery, it was breathtaking. But it was Musk’s earlier trip to Adelaide in July that, potentially, has changed both energy politics and energy policy in this country forever: that was when he revealed plans for his “world’s biggest battery”.

While journalists were warned not to ask him any “off topic” questions lest he simply get up and leave, his appearance caused a media frenzy which, in this polarised age, was broken into two camps: the anti-renewables cynics who scoffed at a battery that could only provide “six minutes worth of South Australian electricity“, and those who pegged it as both a game-changer for the market and a PR coup for South Australia.

[On this occasion, the boosters seem to have the early advantage. The battery was completed in time for summer and, so far, appears to be working perfectly – indeed, reaching beyond the expectations of even ardent renewables disciples. The battery is no one-trick pony and could, indeed, be a game-changer.]

Of course, there are unanswered questions. Could an Australian company have delivered an equally effective solution? What is the detail of the Government’s contract with Tesla and windfarm owner Neoen? How will it work in the event of a large-scale incident? And the big one for most South Australians: will it help to bring down our sky-high power prices?

For some people, to even ask these questions is akin to biblical heresy. When InDaily questioned the meaningfulness of Musk’s promise to build the battery within 100 days or provide it free, some readers were scathing.

As my colleague Tom Richardson has written recently, there is a hyper-partisanship infecting Australian politics, fuelled by social media and the rise of tribalism over critical thought. Journalists seeking to hold the Government or the Opposition to account, to question assumptions, test promises and assertions, are routinely accused of bias.

Elon Musk’s presence in South Australia shows the atomisation of political perception more clearly than most – between the breathless enthusiasm and poisonous cynicism there was a vacuum.

I suspect that within this vacuum live the majority of people, who watched the news agenda with some interest, but were otherwise more closely engaged in the stuff of day-to-day life, which despite its mundanities also contains richness, wonder, and a million stories never told.

In this realm, also, lie the myriad dark threads of our community, which surface, briefly, from time to time to catch the news focus and then return to the depths.

In April, the South Australian chief psychiatrist released his report into the Oakden older person’s mental health facility which shocked everyone who took the time to read it.

It revealed the interior stories of one of those places that all of us know exist, but hope to never have to visit or – God help us – be admitted to.

As we now know, the facility was a place of horror for its occupants – poorly managed, chronically underfunded, subject to grossly inadequate oversight; so hidden from political and community view, that even its bureaucratic overseers apparently averted their eyes. Only a few persistent family members would not let it go – their views brought to light thanks to the now award-winning work of ABC journalists.

The people who lived there – elderly South Australians with advanced dementia and severe mental illness – were treated with shocking disdain.

A few quotes from the report – from family members of patients – provide a small window into the horror:

“I am taking my Mum to the dentist, last time she went she had shit in her hair and on her hands and on the chair – they should be ashamed of themselves, how can they call themselves nurses.”

“Are all the staff replacing these experienced staff suitably qualified – my Mum two years ago had a male catheter tried to be inserted into her for 2 hours for a urine specimen – she was screaming for 2 hours.”

InDaily has investigated another under-reported community of vulnerable people – those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. Advocates have been pleading for Government action to make treatment more accessible.

In July, the patron of the Australian BPD Foundation, Janne McMahon OAM, told InDaily that 11 sufferers of BPD had committed suicide in South Australia over the past three years, and long waiting lists were preventing at-risk people from getting treatment.

Whenever we’ve published BPD or Oakden stories, I’ve wondered – as I often do – about the other, unseen, untold stories of everyday misery that happen in our community. How can we find more of them? How can we make these stories readable and, probably more importantly, impactful? Can our work bring about change?

Later in the year, we published another story which revealed the realities of someone who, much like the Oakden residents, is usually voiceless.

He called himself David (he didn’t want his full name used), and he wrote about his struggles to find a job.

Despite applying for hundreds of jobs, he is rarely interviewed.

Paying for food is difficult, he can’t afford to drink, he lives in fear of debt collectors and bills. He has trouble sleeping and his health is poor. He has pre-diabetes – heading towards the disease which affects South Australians at a higher rate than any other Australian state.

Despite all this, David says he has a passion for life. He appreciates his friends and family. He loves the Crows. He tries to help other people in poverty.

“Yet despite the positivity I mine, the daily poverty I experience takes its toll,” he wrote. “My mental health is a daily challenge and I don’t need to be diagnosed with an illness to realise it’s not good. While I live in this cycle I feel brittle, damaged and hurt.”

That’s a voice we don’t often hear in the news. Certainly, not often enough.

In the business of journalism, everything I’ve written about above is relevant and newsworthy: the shiny, exciting, “game-changing” things, and the hidden, disturbing stories – the stories that some organisations don’t want to be written, and that some people don’t want to read.

If I can make a New Year’s resolution for myself, and for InDaily, it is to try to find more Davids, to listen more keenly to people like the Oakden families. At the same time, we’ll keep an eye on the Elon Musks that come our way and we’ll try hard not be superficially cynical, nor mindlessly excited.

I had the pleasure this year to meet Butch Ward, a former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer – one of the great newspapers of the golden era of American journalism – who has just retired from his role with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida.

One of Ward’s goals has been to encourage journalists to report more deeply about their communities – in all their diversity.

In an obituary for Inquirer reporter Acel Moore in 2016, Ward wrote about how Moore had built his career on a relationship with his community.

“For 43 years as a reporter, columnist and editor at the Inquirer, he took their calls, investigated their complaints and told their stories — stories that others would never have found newsworthy,” he wrote.

He made a difference, Ward wrote, by earning his community’s trust. He “loved” his community – a concept that is confronting in our rough-and-tumble British-Australian journalism tradition.

However, it’s a template for journalism that is compelling and, I believe, increasingly necessary in this age of suspicion and partisanship.

“And so, may journalists seeking to engage their communities take a lesson from Moore,” Ward wrote.

“Earning trust is about a lot more than a sophisticated social media strategy. It’s about listening to everyone. And acting in good faith. And love.”

David Washington is editor of InDaily.

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