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On colourful speech, media accuracy and missing the point

Opinion

The PhD student who reported on Premier Jay Weatherill's widely publicised "F-bomb" explains the context of the comments and reflects on the media's response.

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On Tuesday evening I attended the launch of South Australian Labor MP Mark Butler’s book Climate Wars. It’s not bad but, as with any detailed set of policy proposals, it’s a bit dry in places. The same could not be said of the launch.

After a welcome to country in Kaurna and an intro from the hosts, the Dunstan Foundation, it was over to SA Premier Jay Weatherill to launch the book.

The room itself – at the Publishers Hotel, not the University of Adelaide as the Murdoch press misreported (more of that later) – was packed to the rafters, because the Dunstan Foundation boss had told all the people on the wait list they could come. About 100 people were present, the vast majority the grey side of 45, and mostly ‘True Believers’, with some of Butler’s constituents along to support him.

Weatherill was fired up, more so than the last time I saw him, at last October’s Open State festival. I’ve seen plenty of local politicians giving stump speeches about climate change, and Weatherill’s was a very effective one. He encouraged people to read the book, obviously, and also explained a bit about what his government has been doing, and why. The actual comment that is getting a certain amount of traction on the interwebs (see here, here and here) was about three seconds of a 10-minute speech, and delivered in a light-hearted manner, as Weatherill’s spokesperson has said. (The attention is on Weatherill’s reference to “right-wing f***wits”, singling out commentator Chris Kenny, who had sought to take political advantage of a power failure at the Adele concert in Adelaide – a problem that had nothing to do with the electricity grid.)

I took detailed notes, with verbatim bits, but I don’t do shorthand and I did not have a voice recorder on me. That night, I typed up an article and the following morning submitted it to RenewEconomy, which is, in my opinion, an extraordinary resource for anyone interested in the mechanics of how and when Australian energy systems (especially electricity generation) can switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Even the comments are worth reading, because people actually know what they’re talking about.

RenewEconomy’s Giles Parkinson did some very minor editing (for style and hyperlinks) and the post went up in the afternoon. It started getting shared and comments, and pretty quickly The Australian got hold of it.

For reasons best known to themselves they added the ‘fact’ that the event was held at University of Adelaide, and this must have meant there was no space to acknowledge the source of their story (the reporter presumably looked at Mark Butler’s Twitter feed, saw a picture of Butler, Weatherill and others standing in front of a University of Adelaide banner, and made some assumptions). The Advertiser later reported the launch happened on Wednesday – it was Tuesday.

It then kicked off on social media – some critiquing Weatherill, others praising him for “telling it like it is”.

The Murdoch press tried to make a scandal of it. Weatherill’s office responded, by saying the premier’s comments were light-hearted remarks (yes) at a private function (no). The efforts to force Weatherill to apologise were undercut somewhat by Chris Kenny’s statement that there was no need.

Despite what you’d believe from reading the letters page of The Advertiser, there is a lot of support for Weatherill’s battery adventure. It may be that people see it is not there to help people watch TV shows, but to stabilise the grid and provide other services.

The story got folded into Scott Morrison’s comments in Adelaide yesterday, comparing the Musk battery to a giant banana, and Weatherill could be seen on the lead story of the ABC’s 7 o’clock news bulletin ruefully describing Kenny in more polite terms as a “climate skeptic”.

I almost didn’t report Weatherill’s actual (swear) words (or more accurately, word). It was a very brief, jokey comment in a decent speech, and certainly not a ‘rant’.

His comment was not, as one Twitter user understandably worried, “a symptom of the state of Australian discourse”,

There was enough ‘meat’ in the story for RenewEconomy to run it, since Weatherill is an important figure, and he was speaking substantively. In the end, I decided to leave it in, to capture the general sense of the evening – that activist governments are needed to solve collective actor problems, that the ‘market’ on its own is not going to solve the awful dilemmas and trilemmas we find ourselves in.

There’s a journalistic tradition – there has to be a ‘hook’. The reader has to be told why they should be reading an article. Judging from the comments I’ve seen on social media (especially Twitter), the substance of Weatherill’s speech has been ignored, and the event has reinforced people in their pro- or anti- beliefs.

We complain about politicians who are identikit, measure every word and only speak in blandishments and blather. We cry out for conviction politicians. And yet as soon as one of them does speak from the heart, with passion, they get monstered for it.

This is a one-day wonder, especially with Scott ‘Bananas’ Morrison’s comments. Hopefully RenewEconomy will pick up a few more subscribers – it’s an essential resource. However, I suspect Mark Butler won’t be as friendly as he was at the launch, when I introduced myself as the author of the non-glowing review, which he had read. And my chances of a Jay Weatherill interview are looking as likely as someone building a new coal-fired power station in Australia without enormous taxpayer handouts.

Marc Hudson is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester. His thesis is about Australia’s carbon pricing battles.

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