Image for Forestry Tasmania goes bush ... and hides the cost

In a bid to polish its tattered public image, Forestry Tasmania has resorted to spending well in excess of a million dollars on ‘reality’ television programs for broadcast by Southern Cross Television. But Forestry Tasmania’s underwriting of three Going Bush series raises questions about the appropriateness of a government agency funding television programs as a way of shaping public debate on contentious forestry issues.

The fifteen half-hour programs produced to date, spread across three series, feature feel-good stories mixed in with segments aimed at assuaging concerns about Forestry Tasmania’s management of 1.5 million hectares of native forests. There’s soft-sell segments highlighting their community sponsorship program, Community Assist, and puff pieces aimed at boosting their floundering tourism ventures. Others are aimed at buffing the agency’s credentials when it comes to the management of threatened species, such as the wedge-tailed eagle and spruik ‘variable retention’ logging as a gentler alternative to the logging of old growth forests.

Other segments have championed Forestry Tasmania’s grandiose plan to power the towns south of Hobart with electricity from a wood-fired power station consuming timber from the contested southern forests. “Picking up the waste after harvesting to create energy will reduce smoke from regeneration burns and create renewable energy for Tasmania. Biomass is widely used in Finland, Sweden and America as part of the climate change solution,” crooned series presenters, Nick Duigan and Andrew Hart in one segment in the 2009 series.

Ken Jeffreys

The Going Bush series—which was initiated by Ken Jeffreys, Forestry Tasmania’s General Manager of Corporate Relations and Tourism —is aimed at selling the story that Forestry Tasmania is a caring corporate citizen, indispensable to the Tasmanian economy and an environmentally sensitive manager of forests.

While Going Bush is pitched at a broad Tasmanian audience, its purpose is inherently political. Conventional corporate PR strategy is to use soft-sell profile raising stories as a vehicle to ‘bank’ deposits of goodwill as an offset against more potentially critical news stories. Several years ago Kristin Austin, from the Sydney office of the PR firm Ruder Finn, explained at a PR industry conference that a rule of thumb used by her company was that “each negative story requires six or seven positive stories to negate people’s misgivings”.

For Forestry Tasmania, the program works far better than an advertising campaign in selling reassurance. Going Bush is aimed at helping marginalise dissenting points of view in forestry stories on news and current affairs programs and may also be aimed at shoring up political support for the agency within the Tasmanian government.

Forestry Tasmania itself implicitly recognises that the series is inherently political. In April last year Forestry Tasmania’s managing director, Bob Gordon, stated that the series wouldn’t be screened until after the election “to avoid any suggestion that it’s an attempt to influence the political process.” While the state election may be over, a new Bartlett ministry has yet to be appointed and the policies of the new government yet to be determined.

The are other elections in the offing too. On March 31 the writ was issued for the May 1 election for the Legislative Council of Elwick. Despite this, Forestry Tasmania has signaled their intention to have the series air right through the period of the Elwick election.

Bypassing the mainstream media

In an April 2009 media release, Forestry Tasmania’s managing director, Bob Gordon, made it clear that a prime purpose of the program was to bypass Tasmanians being reliant on the mainstream news media for their information about forestry. In particular Gordon claimed that “the community is cynical about the information it gets from the media” and that Going Bush had been successful “because it’s entertaining and it’s informative.”

Forestry Tasmania is not the only government agency the series that has decided to embrace ‘reality’ television as a vehicle to advance their PR objectives. Back in approximately 2004 Prime Minster John Howard gave the thumbs up to the Australian Customs Service, the Australian Quarantine Service and the beleaguered Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) being involved in the production of Border Security.

Central to Howard approving the government agencies involvement in the series was that they have a veto over what content was aired. Not surprisingly there were no hard luck stories of kids behind razor wire or the illegal deportation of detainees. Other agencies have attempted to emulate the success of Border Security too. The Royal Australian Navy too spent 15 months helping a Western Australian film Company, Electric Pictures, produce six episodes of Submariners.

While the ‘reality’ television programs supported by federal government agencies are dubious enough, Forestry Tasmania’s Going Bush breaks new ground by paying for the production costs of the series.

Costs? What Costs?

How much Forestry Tasmania has spent on the three series of Going Bush remains a secret. In response to a 2009 Freedom of Information request from Greens MP, Kim Booth, for records on the first two series of Going Bush, Forestry Tasmania released the contracts it had entered into with Southern Cross Television but deleted the details of the actual costs.

While Forestry Tasmania may be coy about the costs, television industry figures suggest that the cost for producing a half-hour program could range between $100,000 to $250,000 per episode, depending on the overhead costs such as presenters and the amount of effort invested in post-production editing. Conservatively, Forestry Tasmania has probably spent well in excess of $1.5 million on the episodes produced to date.

Disclosure of the costs would undoubtedly be the cause of public embarrassment for Forestry Tasmania. Aside from likely adverse media coverage, Treasury officials and government decisions makers could well wonder why it is that Forestry Tasmania has lots of money to splash around on television programs but, according to the 2009/2010 budget (see page 84), nothing to provide by way of a dividend to the government’s coffers.

Costs aside, Forestry Tasmania’s own market research suggests that the program may provide relatively little long-term benefit to the agency. In a September 2009 report for Forestry Tasmania, EMRS found that of 600 people asked about the Going Bush series, only 23% could recall seeing it “after being told that it was screened on Southern Cross Television at 5.30 pm on Sundays”.(The exact questions are not disclosed in the report. Nor is it clear whether respondents were asked whether they actually watched the programs rather than just recalling the ads promoting the series.)

While Southern Cross Network undoubtedly view Forestry Tasmania’s sponsorship as a welcome boost to the networks profitability, it creates other potential problems for the media company. Forestry Tasmania’s Bob Gordon has defended secrecy about the cost of the program on the grounds that disclosure “has the potential to compromise the commercial competitiveness of the television station involved.” While the news programs of Southern Cross have the journalistic responsibility to inform the public about the operations of the government, the corporate side of the network is being cited as justification for preventing the disclosure of just how much a government-owned agency is spending on a PR program.

Forestry Tasmania’s funding of the Going Bush series may well be a test of the new government too. With Bartlett emphasising the necessity for his new minority government to chart a new more co-operative course with the Greens, it may well be that a new minister for resources will decide that Forestry Tasmania’s days as a sponsor of greenwashing television programs are over.

Earlier on Tasmanian Times:
Forestry challenges order to disclose costs, HERE
Thank you Ken, but how much is it costing us? HERE