Jamie Walker’s response to Media Watch

Editorial writer, AKA “journalist” for The Australian Jamie Walker has responded to reports (e.g., see the coverage by Media Watch here) of inaccuracies in his piece last week on the GBR and climate change.  We noted many of these problems and the broader media is now taking a second look at Jamie’s work and the editorial policies of The Australian.  (For those of you living outside Oz, The Australian is a local Murdoch/NewsCorp-owned right-leaning paper.)

Reporters, particularly working for Murdoch/NewsCorp vehicles such as Fox News, regularly lie about the science of climate change.  (see the roundup on this over at Media Matters here).  There are countless newspaper “reporters” whose writing is driven largely by their political ideology, e.g., see George Will.  Such denial of fact and science is harmful to society.  But it is usually restricted to the editorial pages where ideologues of all varieties are free to spout off and help sell newspapers. What is so surprising about Jamie’s GBR story is that it was clearly a barely disguised editorial published on the front page as a regular news story.   Jamie has now admitted as much in a letter to the paper’s editor (see below), saying that the main point of the article was based merely on his opinion.  What disciplinary action the paper will take or what internal editorial policy changes will occur are unclear.  As is typically the case, the repsonsibility lies as much with the editor  Paul Whittaker himself for deciding to put the piece on the front page as a “news item” rather than on the editorial page where opinion-based articles belong.  Yet Whittaker is also the one responsible for disciplining Walker and to do so would be an admission of fault and an acceptance of responsibility.

This same issue has flared up again and again in the MSM, e.g., see the well-covered examples in the Washington Post, where editorial page editor Fred Hiatt has gotten hammered (also see here) over allowing George Will to publish nonsense about climate change.  Yet an important difference is that even the WaPost restricts such foolishness to the editorial section.  The papers serious reporters regularly contradict and correct Will’s false claims.  Due to their ideological alignment and the conflict of interest, Hiatt has never corrected any of Will’s mistakes.  Will Paul Whittaker follow suit or stand for the standards and ethics of honest and professional journalism at The Australian?

Jamie’s letter is addressed to Paul Whittaker, Editor of The Australian and starts out by citing Ove’s post about the article:

February 7, 2010

Mr Paul Whittaker Editor The Australian

Dear Paul,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond to the issues raised by Media Watch. I note that the language used by the Media Watch representative is uncannily similar to that of Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who blogged on my piece last week. https://climateshifts.org/?p=4329

Then quickly gets into trouble:

A few points:

We contrasted comments by the Prime Minister against latest research findings on coral bleaching.

Scientist often wonder whether the science is really that confusing or whether biased “journalists” are purposefully confusing things.  Media Watch got this story exactly right. Jamie Walker took the AIMS report totally out of context and the inferences he made are not supported by the science or the scientists nor by logic. AIMS found that a handful of reefs on the southern GBR did not bleach as expected last summer. They explained why (storms cooled the water down).  Simple, right? Somehow Jamie took this as evidence that FUTURE global warming/increases in ocean temperature would not harm the GBR. Huh???  Do I need to explain the fallacy in that logic?  Well here is it anyway;

1) The reef didn’t warm, due to storm activity, as expected, so not much can be learned about future warming (obvious right?)

2) Even if it did warm and corals didn’t bleach, so what?  This would not have nullified the large body of science that the report Rudd was citing is based on.  It is an easy, child-like experiment.  Warm corals up in a tank by 1C and they bleach, by 3C and they die.  Questioning that this happens or would happen more frequenty if the ocean warmed by 4-6C is idiotic; it isn’t a sign of skepticism, it is instead demonstrating a striking degree of truculence and denial of establish fact.  Sometimes warmed corals in nature don’t bleach due to a variety of other factors that influence bleaching severity, e.g., the species and genotypic composition of the coral assemblage, current velocity, light, cloudiness, the recent thermal history, etc.  Scientists know this and we have considered all that in our projections of future bleaching under AGW.

3) Not a single scientist or anyone at all backed up Jamie’s faulty interpretation of the AIMS report.  In fact AIMS wrote the Australian to complain (here) that Jamie misrepresented their science and to explain why Jamie’s broader argument was flawed;  “AIMS has found that the science is pointing to potentially severe consequences for the Great Barrier Reef from climate change. Current observations of the state of the Reef this year do not contradict this.”  Neither Jamie nor The Australian have responded in print.  Since the argument is based merely on Jamie’s non-expert judgement, is it not obvious that this is editorialism rather than journalism?

Perhaps Media Watch should ask the PM’s office his sourcing: I certainly referred to the IPCC in my report, and also detailed the basis of the concern about long-term bleaching of the reef.

The story said Mr Rudd’s assertions “grate with’’ the findings that the reef was likely to escape bleaching, again, this year; it did not say it undermined the “view’’ that global warming could destroy the Great Barrier Reef.

The point here is unclear (the writing is tortured), but I think Jamie is suggesting that the main point of his article was not to cast doubt on whether AGW is a threat to the GBR and coral reef in general.  Really?

Rudd’s “assertion”, i.e., communication of published findings by scientists, does not “grate” / contradict the finding that last year, a handful of reefs didn’t bleach as expected. Magic Johnson has lived with HIV for 19 years, but that doesn’t “grate” against the fact that HIV is a human travesty or predictions that it will kill millions of people in the future.  [Although given the lack of warming on the reefs in question, the more appropriate analogy would be to argue that a guy who didn’t contract HIV and didn’t die from AIDS was proof that HIV-AIDS is not a threat]

I “could’’ get hit by a bus tomorrow; that does not mean this will happen.

True, but I doubt Jamie walks into the street without looking both ways, i.e., he applies the precautionary principle to avoid a bad outcome.

Furthermore, Jamie seems to be portraying the science here as mere speculation; imagine evil-left-wing scientists sitting in pub, dreaming up bad stuff that could happen (OK, we actually do do that).

There is concern, modelling and various projections as to how the reef could be destroyed as early as 2030 under worst case scenarios for climate change.

We are actually exceeding the “worst case scenarios” Jamie speaks of in terms of the rate of CO2 output and concentration increase, which is what the IPCC emissions scenarios are based on.  So these aren’t somehow outlandish predictions from a Hollywood movie.  They are merely the worst case, in relative terms.  I think the more conservative (and comforting to governments) emissions scenarios like the A1 are unlikely – at best – to occur.  Here are some of the assumptions underlying the A1:

The A1 scenarios are of a more integrated world. The A1 family of scenarios is characterized by:

  • Rapid economic growth.
  • A global population that reaches 9 billion in 2050 and then gradually declines.
  • The quick spread of new and efficient technologies.
  • A convergent world – income and way of life converge between regions. Extensive social and cultural interactions worldwide.

Exactly how realistic does that sound, even to an optimist?

I think, however, it is a long bow to present this outcome as a certainty.

Jamie has a right to think that or anything else.  But what he or anyone “thinks” in no way influences or questions the science at hand.  And basing a newspaper article, not clearly labeled as an editorial, on his opinions is journalistically unethical and fraudulent.

A number of senior scientists working on the reef argue this – and we quoted some of them last December.

A point on the semantics here:  if you really asked reef scientists whether “this outcome is a certainty” I suspect a large majority including me would say no.  But not because we don’t think it is highly likely.  Nearly all do.  Science never provides certainty about anything.  It only deals with probability.  Future projections are all probabilistic by nature, thus their outcome cannot by definition be “a certainty”.  Point being, if Jamie cleverly phrased the question this way, he might get honest scientists to agree “yes we are not 100% certain of this outcome”.

Also note, none of the scientists Jamie mentions were asked about the AIMS study at hand or about the inferences he took from it, as he seems to imply.   The issue now under investigation is whether Jamie misled his audience in his Feb 3 article, which took things a lot further than his article in December.  His is trying to sidestep the issue and questions about his Feb story by focusing on his earlier piece.

At that time, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the Great Barrier Reef had never been healthier (as per my feature article of Dec 19, 2009).

GBRMPA did not in fact state this and I have published science showing this clearly is not the case as have many other more esteemed and locally-knowledgable scientists.

This is a free country, and maintaining a healthy scepticism about doom and gloom projections about anything, including climate change, is entirely in order with engendering informed and full debate.

I fully agree.  Fair point.  But that is Jamie’s right and duty as a citizen.   As a reporter, his duty and ethical responsibility is to report the truth and not lie about or otherwise misconstrue the facts and scientific issues.

I have invited Dr Hoegh-Guldberg to be interviewed; he was to phone me at 10.30am last Friday, but didn’t. I had a response from him by email yesterday, in which he suggested it would be easier for him if I email him questions to which he will respond. I will continue to seek to interview him.

Good.  I am sure Ove and hundreds of other reef experts (and probably most of his readers) could explain why the main point of Jamie’s story was mistaken.  I mentioned to Ove last week that it would be fun to have Jamie over to UQ for lunch and beers.  Maybe we could talk some sense into him.  (But I may have killed that opportunity with this sarcastic and somewhat mean-spirited post.)

What led me to say the findings will entrench scepticism about the effects of climate change is, in part, that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority issued a publicly warning last summer that a mass coral bleaching episode on the reef was imminent, but this never happened.

I do see Jamie’s point here and I think he is correct.  The public wrongly takes short-term weather events as evidence refuting that the earth is even warming and to question forecasts of future impacts of AGW.  We have covered this phenomena recently extensively (e.g., see here and here).  But a trained, educated science reporter should know the difference between science and weather.  Here is an anecdote to hopefully illustrate the logical flaw in Jamie’s argument:  Scientists say that tobacco and alcohol  are likely to shorten your life.  My maternal grandfather “Gap” was a life-long heavy smoker and drinker, but lived well into his 80s.  Does this observation “grate” against the predictions of epidemiologists?

Perhaps Media Watch would care to explore why GBRMPA has been more circumspect this year, when conditions were broadly similar to those early in the summer of 2008-09.

Well for one, the name of the series is Media Watch not Scientist Watch.

A bit of legwork by Media Watch would have pulled up a piece The Courier-Mail published on December 19, 2009, warning that coral bleaching was likely this summer.

Right, and given the warm El Nino conditions, that is a reasonable expectation.

You can’t have it both ways, especially in the context of the issues that have emerged with the IPCC’s 2007 report on the Himalayas and Amazon rainforest.

Oh boy.  Here we go.  Emailgate, the IPCC is corrupt, the earth is really cooling, the glaciers aren’t meling… Is any more evidence needed that Jamie is a committed ideological climate change denier?

And I don’t understand what “You can’t have it both ways” refers to.

Professor Peter Ridd, who we quoted in my December articles on the reef, and who has conducted research on issues involving the reef for 25 years,

Right.  Peter Ridd.  Reef expert. See our posts here, here and here on Peter Ridd’s view of the GBR.

has said that he was concerned about scientists “crying wolf’’ over threats to the reef. This, he said, had happened in relationto the crown of thorns starfish, and projections about the impact on the reef of sedimentation and pesticide runoff.

Peter Ridd’s “concerns” and what Jamie Walker “thinks” are totally irrelevant to the issue and debate.  This is a scientific debate.  It is supposed to be based on science, i.e., facts, scientific findings, published and peer-reviewed scientific studies, etc.  NOT on what Crocodile Dundee thinks.

Hopefully, the representative of Media Watch had bothered to read my lengthy coverage on December 19.

Well we read it.  See Jez’s coverage of it here.

If so, she would know that in addition to quoting Professor Ridd,

Don’t know what “she” he is referring to here…

the coverage in news and the Inquirer section set out at considerable length how water temperature increases do pose an acknowledged threat to the reef. The piece, however, detailed how the Keppel reefs had bounced back in a much more robust way than was generally expected after bleaching in 2006.

Somewhat fair point, but again, see Jez’s point about that study, on which he was a coauthor here.

Further, we took the time to go out on to those reefs off central Queensland with Dr Ray Berkelmans of AIMS, who is highly regarded for the work he has done on these systems, dating back to the 1980s.

True.  Ray Berkelmans is a great scientist.

He had absolutely no problem with what I reported – I know that, because I checked back with him.

In summary, No one is suggesting that the potential threat to the reef should be underestimated.

Really?  Because, that is precisely the message I got from Jamie’s two stories on the GBR and climate change.

However, it is quite in order to question some of the more breathless forecasts about its imminent demise.

If Media Watch wants to review my work – that is fine and entirely appropriate; the Climate Change debate will be all the better for it. To premise its questioning on one self-interested view, however, is quite unreasoanble. I stand by my reporting.

Of course you do.

Best wishes,

Jamie Walker Queensland Bureau Chief The Australian

4 thoughts on “Jamie Walker’s response to Media Watch

  1. Sorry, my bad. I wasn’t sure how far right they were on non-climate matters. I am not exactly a regular reader. And I read on Wikipedia that:

    Mitchell has said that the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspaper are centre-right,[2] “comfortable with a mainstream Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, just as it was quite comfortable with John Howard.”[1] According to other commentators, however, the newspaper “is generally conservative in tone and heavily oriented toward business; it has a range of columnists of varying political persuasions but mostly to the right.”[3] Along with other newspapers in Australia, during the 1990s “much and perhaps most of [the] commentary became aggressively right-wing”, with most of the regular commentators in The Australian pushing “a conservative, pro-Coalition government line in almost everything they write,” reacting against what they regard as a “left-liberal elite”.[4]

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