Reporting of environmental issues is as old as the Australian press itself. In November 1804, a correspondent to the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser proposed establishing a subscription fund that would assist in ridding the country of ‘noxious vermin’—dingoes, in this case—while a detailed description of the natural dispersal of seeds appeared under the heading ‘Striking and Curious Phenomena in Botany’. Readers of the Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, published from 1816, were told that, ‘A great number of Whales have already made their appearance in Frederic Henry Bay; some have even been seen as high as Sullivan’s Cove’, and that ‘some evil disposed Person or Persons have to the injury of the Crown cut down and drawn away many of the most beautiful Trees on the Water-side of the Government Domain at New Town’. These early reports reflect the breadth of issues and concerns, as well as the physical, legal, political and social events and activities that now fall under the environmental umbrella.
The mid-19th century Australian press often took sides on environmental issues, deploying a rich and sharp vocabulary to argue a case— whether based on instrumental or aesthetic reasons. The Colonial Times, among other newspa- pers, lambasted one of Hobart’s most prominent citizens, Peter Degraves, for his ‘establishment’ upstream of the town water supply (which he also controlled), and its ‘accumulation of such fetid and obnoxious filth as to be loathsome and sickening to those who witnessed it and were engaged in clearing it out’. These attacks and campaigns were conducted to varying degrees of political influence. Charles Meredith’s doomed legislation to protect the black swan was not supported by the Launceston Examiner, which wrote: ‘Of what special use are black swans to the colonists of Tasmania that the legislature should be asked to throw over them the shield of its protection?’, while the Argus’s campaign to protect giant eucalypts went largely unheeded by the Victorian government. The newspaper did not give up on such campaigns, however. Tim Bonyhady identifies the Argus between the 1860s and 1930s as probably providing ‘more extensive and sharper reportage and analysis of environmental issues than any Australian newspaper before or since’.
From the 1870s, newspapers tended towards a less opinionated stance on environmental issues. In 1880, the Sydney Morning Herald reported without comment on the formation of the NSW Anti-Air and Water Pollution League, whose object was the ‘opposition of the proposed system of sewerage, and the adoption of some improved means of getting rid of drainage matter’. This period also saw the genesis of media coverage of the activities of environmental lobby groups, a relationship that would not fully emerge until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Herald’s extensive 1887 report of a public meeting debating the proposal to move abattoirs from Glebe to Homebush reveals emerging collective anxiety about urban conditions. The ‘noxious trades’ along the banks of the Yarra River were the subject of several Royal Commissions, which were reported by the Age as a complex debate on public health, urban growth and risk to workers.
Concerns related to urban expansion, such as air and water quality and loss of open space, continued to dominate environmental coverage in the first half of the 20th century, alongside the reporting of natural and human-made disasters and events—floods, fires, blankets of smog. At the same time, Australia’s natural environment was increasingly celebrated rather than—as it had often been in the first century of the Australian press—condemned as ‘barren’, ‘dull’ or ‘horrid’ wilderness, or seen as being vastly ‘improved’ by ridding it of native dogs and poisonous reptiles. Newspaper columnists, including ‘Oriolus’ in the Age, wrote with a hint of nostalgia and romance for the Australian bush and its vulnerable species. This journalism and accompanying photography reflected the growing ‘new world’ interest in nature and wilderness.
By the late 1960s, the contemporary environment movement had fully emerged in Australia. Politically active across a range of issues from wilderness and urban conservation to uranium exports and public health risks, the movement brought together the ‘environment’ as a clearly identifiable category. A symbiotic relationship between the movement and news media quickly formed on the back of the national campaign to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania’s south-west. Over the following decade, movement leaders would direct much of their attention to gaining media coverage in order to influence political outcomes, rather than direct lobbying of decision-makers, impacting on the style and content of environmental reporting. A focus on protests and celebrities was a feature of the new type of coverage, which peaked during the Franklin Dam campaign (1978–83), alongside numerous accusations that the relationship between journalists and activists was too close.
Meanwhile in 1969—just as photographs of the earth from space were entering the popular imagination—Graham Perkin, editor of the Age, resigned his membership of the newly formed Australian Conservation Foundation to avoid accusations of a conflict of interest as he directed his and his paper’s attention towards a campaign to save the Little Desert from subdivision into farming lots. The campaign was led by reporter John Messer, who was appointed to Australia’s first formal environment round by Perkin and by-lined as ‘Our Environment Writer’. (Many major US newspapers had appointed reporters to the ‘environment beat’ by 1967, with envi- ronment stories winning Pulitzer Prizes in 1966 and 1967.)
The commitment of most newsrooms to a designated environmental round did not survive the decade. As public interest in matters environmental waned in the 1970s, so too did that of editors. Even the Age’s commitment to the round lapsed at times. The next wave of interest occurred in the mid- to late 1980s, when the concept of ‘sustainability’ first entered common usage, but again declined soon after, in the wake of major world events including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. The strong connection between public and political concern about the environment and the existence of formal newsroom rounds has been a notable element in the history of environmental reporting in Australia. The latest rise in editorial interest began in the mid- to late 2000s, following growing international and scientific alarm about climate change. At the turn of the decade, many major newsrooms maintained designated environment reporters. The sheer magnitude of the issue, and the range of political, economic, social and other concerns it piggy-backs into the media arena, appear to have given the round a longer shelf-life, despite dips in public concern.
Environment reporting in Australia is now mainstream. The 2011 Gold Walkley was awarded to Sarah Ferguson, Michael Doyle and Anne Worthington for a Four Corners report on animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs. However, the fact that the broadcast was based around footage shot by activists represents a notable shift in Australian environmental journalism. The same trend is evident in reporting of environmental protest; the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s activity against the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean is regularly reported in the Australian media using information and images produced by the activists and circulated via new communication technologies and networks. Meanwhile, the stakes remain high, with coverage of climate change and a carbon tax, irrigation and water use, natural area protection and Indigenous land rights, and population growth, immigration and urban development remaining among the most scrutinised, controversial and politically charged issues debated in Australia in recent years.
REFs: T. Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth (2000); L. Lester, Giving Ground (2007).