Image for Miranda Devine and thuggery

Miranda Devine uncritically quotes former Gunns Chairman and CEO John Gay claiming that he resigned from the company, in part, because “I just wasn’t prepared to put my wife and two kids through any more [of the] thuggery in the green movement.’’ Devine provided no hard evidence to support her claim but instead relied on discredited claims such as the anonymously-sourced “smoke bomb” claims infamously beaten up by The Examiner. (Not surprisingly, Devine’s latest column was republished by The Examiner, a part of the Fairfax Media stable).

But Devine, a former police reporter for the tabloid Daily Telegraph, has been an enthusiastic defender of thuggery against environmentalists.

Devine: “Violence has its place”

In a nationally televised interview back in February 1995, the then Executive Director of the NSW Forest Products Association, Col Dorber, defended logging contractors assaulting environmentalists protesting against logging operations on the south coast of New South Wales:

“If we have to have a fight, if we have to physically confront those people who have opposed us for so long, then so be it . . . I also say to people in the industry, if you are going to do that, use your commonsense and make sure it’s not being filmed when you do it.”

In the ensuing public controversy, Dorber was widely condemned for his comments. Boral Timber resigned as a member of the industry lobby group, and Dorber subsequently apologised for his comments.

But Dorber had his defenders. The then Telegraph-Mirror opinion columnist Miranda Devine bemoaned that Dorber had apologised, and lashed out at Boral for “deserting his cause”.

Despite a lack of supporting evidence, Devine blamed environmentalists for damaging logging equipment, and cited this as justification for violence. “It may not be palatable to say so publicly but violence can sometimes be good . . . there comes a point in any disagreement when diplomacy ceases to be of any use. That is when violence has its place”, she wrote.

So is was unsurprising that, in the aftermath of the horrific 2009 Victorian bushfires which killed 173 people, Devine was pointing an accusatory finger once again. The sole culprit for the deaths, she claimed, “was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.”

“The warnings, she continued, “have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.”

Of course, any police reporter with a passing familiarity with modern policing practice would be aware that the best police forces have invested considerable effort in developing violence prevention strategies. It has long been recognised that the views of opinion leaders—politicians, media commentators and other authority figures—play a crucial role in creating or defusing a climate of violence.

Defending the freedom to incite

But neither the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald or even the Australian Press Council have taken Devine to task for her outlandish opinions. After her post-Victorian bushfires column, two citizens complained to the Australian Press Council, the self-regulatory body that handles complaints made against newspapers. The Press Council’s June 2009 decision on their complaint makes for depressing reading.

In response to the complaint, the managers of the Sydney Morning Herald were far from contrite. The extent of their concern, according to the Australian Press Council summary of events, was that they “acknowledged concerns about some of the language in Ms Devine’s column and expressed regret at any offence taken.” But bland statements like that hardly address the fact that the newspaper’s editors were entirely unapologetic for influencing the views of those who weren’t offended or even those who could interpret Devine’s comments were a green light for harassment of environmentalists.

In an unsuccessful attempt to mollify those who expressed concern about Devine’s hateful column, the newspaper offered space for letters to the editor or even an opinion column. But these offers, which were also made to some unnamed environmental groups, were—as they should have been—declined. After all, the point of the complaint was not to be granted space to defensively respond to Devine’s column, but for the publishers of her views to take responsibility for their actions. But the Sydney Morning Herald was having none of that.

Instead, the Herald’s editor’s sought to defend Devine’s comments on the grounds that her “robust, lively and sometimes provocative” words were just a part of her style. The Press Council stated that “the newspaper said Ms Devine had a long-standing interest in bushfire management issues and further stated that there were no factual errors in the piece.” But no one was disputing her right to voice her opinions on the bushfires. The specific concern was not a fact but her extraordinary vilification of environmentalists to the point where she implied that harassment was acceptable.

While the Herald’s editor’s saw little cause for offence, the Press Council at least conceded that “at a time of high emotion and a national outpouring of sorrow the laying of blame at the door of a particular group, in this case ‘greenies’, was incautious and would be offensive to many readers. It’s also possible that her claimed facts would turn out to be wrong.”

But the watchdog couldn’t be bothered barking. “In the context of The Herald’s extensive coverage of the Victorian fires in both news reports and commentary, and the newspaper’s actions in redressing concerns with the Devine article, the Council finds that the publication of the article did not breach its principles,” the Press Council concluded.

Fairfax Media, having decided to spend big on hiring Devine to cater for a conservative constituency, were ultimately unwilling to censure their ‘star’ columnist.

Coming to a newspaper near you

But Fairfax’s tolerance for her opinions, ultimately didn’t get them far. In early August, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Garry Linnell, announced that Devine was leaving the Sydney Morning Herald returning to The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. Devine, Linnell claimed, “is the latest addition to our powerful stable of opinion writers who set the local and national agenda.” The Daily Telegraph article also proudly informed readers that Devine’s bi-weekly columns “will be published around Australia throughout News Ltd metropolitan papers.” Which means that Devine will soon be appearing in The Mercury

Miranda Devine’s columns defending violence against environmentalists set a new low for the editorial standards on the opinion pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald. While media publishers such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited and Fairfax Media rightfully complain against the victimisation of journalists by vindictive governments or vigilantes, their willingness to defend or potentially incite harassment of environmentalists exposes how shallow their commitment is to ensuring debate over issues is kept within acceptable bounds.

It is, for example, hard to believe that a column defending or advocating violence against journalists would get a run in either the Daily Telegraph or the Sydney Morning Herald. Imagine the outcry if Devine had written that, after a bashing of a journalist, that “violence has its place”. Or the fury of the journalists union if she had written that “it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but journalists”.

But it seems that for the sake of creating controversy to sell newspapers, Devine’s toxic views defending and potentially inciting violence against environmentalists are tolerated.

Not surprisingly, many citizens are inclined to respond rather cynically when publishers want us all to defend the “freedom of the press”.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based freelance journalist and a member of the journalists union. He is author of Inside Spin: the dark underbelly of the public relations industry (Allen & Unwin, 2007).