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Media Botch: who’s diluting the truth?

The Grand Prix Corporation denies its been sucking too much water out of shallow Albert Park Lake to prettify its Formula 1 track. But it looks like it’s the mainstream media that’s diluting the truth

Albert Park at Grand Prix time

Growing population density in old established suburbs increases demand for parks, but it’s very hard and very expensive to retro-fit new ones.

Existing urban parks accordingly need to be managed like the precious and vulnerable old creatures they are. So it’s distressing to read in The Age that the level of water in Albert Park Lake in inner city Melbourne is now so low sailing activities have been suspended.

The culprit evidently isn’t this year’s long dry summer. According to The Age, the finger is pointing at the Grand Prix Corporation, which traditionally runs the opening round of the F 1 season in Albert Park.

The Age splashed the story prominently across seven columns on the top of page three in Monday’s print edition. Here’re the opening five paras (of 14):

Grand Prix denies watering left Albert Park lake too low for sailing

A SAILING program for the disabled based on Albert Park Lake has been left high and dry as water levels drop to levels too dangerous to sail.

Parents of one Sailability participant say the Melbourne Grand Prix Corporation must wear some blame for drawing water from the lake to water track verges ahead of the March 14 race launch.

But the corporation has denied responsibility, pointing the finger at evaporation and regular maintenance by Parks Victoria.

Edithvale mother Crissene Fawcett said she was appalled to discover on Friday that her son Cal’s Sailability session had been cancelled after a participant had earlier become grounded in the shallow water.

“My son has got an intellectual disability and he has been sailing for about three or four years now, he absolutely loves it,” she said. “The explanation I got was that there was insufficient water for sailing because it was being used by the Grand Prix Corporation.”

The real problem here, I think, isn’t with the Grand Prix Corporation or Parks Victoria, but with The Age.  Here’re some reasons why this story plumbs new depths in Fairfax’s headlong race to the bottom of the tabloid barrel.

First, there’s the “loaded question” style headline – “Grand Prix denies…” As long as a story begins with “denies”, it can imply anything the writer wants.

That’s up there with “Obama denies he was born outside the US”, “Tony denies he’s in love with Julia” and “Queen denies she was a cold war spy”.

It frames the story in a way that strongly suggests the Grand Prix Corporation has done something of such gravity it has to deny it. We’re accustomed to associating denials with (assumed) guilt e.g.Rudd, Thompson.

Second, the entire story turns on the accusation of a single person. There’s no corroborating testimony from anyone else to support Ms Fawcett’s claim that the Grand Prix Corp is to blame.

Third, there’s nothing to suggest she has the expertise to know how much water the Corporation has taken compared to other users. In fact she’s an aggrieved party whose son’s been disadvantaged by the fall in water level.

Fourth, the story relies on hearsay evidence. Ms Fawcett is quoted as saying: “the explanation I got was that there was insufficient water for sailing because it was being used by the Grand Prix Corporation.”

There’s no indication who provided that explanation – whoever it is, we know nothing about their credibility.

Fifth, it’s not until the second half of the story that we get the hard evidence. It turns out the Grand Prix Corporation says its only responsible for 2% of the water that’s been lost. That’s just one fiftieth!

And in the very last para, a spokesperson for the manager of the lake, Parks Victoria, corroborates the Corporation’s version. He says:

Evaporation is the major cause of the lower water levels. The water used by the Grand Prix Corporation is minimal and not a contributing factor. We sympathise with all lake users during this dry spell.

And sixth, when it comes to the one thing that might’ve justified and explained the way it framed the story, it turns out The Age’s tank is empty.

It provides absolutely nothing that throws even the slightest doubt, much less contradicts, the statements made by the Grand Prix Corporation or Parks Victoria.

So the story’s the perfect beat-up. The Corporation is positioned as “denying” something The Age knew from the get-go it didn’t do.

None of this appears to bother the new tabloid mindset of The Age in the slightest. It held the 2% back so it could create a sense of controversy at the critical front end of the story.

In fact given it knew the figure and had no information to contradict it, what pressing public interest was there in even bringing the Corporation into the story?

I expect The Age made a cynical calculation that motor racing is largely a bogan interest, whereas most of its readers are opposed to the F1 race being held in Albert Park.

There are legitimate issues with the race, but nothing warrants a beat-up. A major metropolitan media organisation like Fairfax has a responsibility to protect, not undermine, the conventions of civil society.

All The Age really has here is a human interest story about the suspension of sailing on the lake due to an especially dry summer.

That’s hardly page 3 material. As it happens, the water level in the lake drops every summer – that’s unsurprising because Melbourne has a Mediterranean climate. Also, the lake is vulnerable to evaporation because its shallow and has a large surface area relative to its depth.

One of the commenters at The Age’s web site points out that sailing has been suspended before because of low water levels. The most recent occasion was five years ago.

What The Age might’ve done instead of inventing ways to beat-up on the Corporation is look into why recycled water hasn’t been supplied to maintain water levels in the lake.

According to this 2003 statement by former Deputy Premier John Thwaites, funding was provided ten years ago to trial “mining” recycled water from nearby sewer mains in order “to top-up Albert Park Lake”.

P.S. Now that mainstream media standards appear to be collapsing everywhere, it’s time to create a new category in the sidepane: Media Botch (apologies to Jonathan Holmes).

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  • 1
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I’m starting to suspect you have your eyes on Jonathan’s job actually!
    I do understand some of the anti-Grand Prix sentiment, which the Age is obviously trying to tap into, but personally if I had my way, events like that would be one of the few places people would still be allowed to drive cars. Especially after watching this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=E-l4w-DIiXk

  • 2
    hk
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Alan, very well said, thanks

  • 3
    floorer
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    “Fairfax’s headlong race to the bottom of the tabloid barrel.” Thanks for this Alan, great deconstruction of the article and The Age. I’ve read whole articles looking for the point and not finding one or just struggling with a premise.

  • 4
    Sean
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Good thing The Guardian is getting underway, they would never descend to such tactics. Oh, and Crikey is always here of course.

  • 5
    Coops
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    When exactly was sailing supposed to have been suspended? I have a view of the lake form my office, there were boats sailing on it just 15mins ago!

  • 6
    observa
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    “I expect The Age made a cynical calculation that motor racing is largely a bogan interest, whereas most of its readers are opposed to the F1 race being held in Albert Park.”

    Bit of a generalisation there, it very much depends on the motorsport in question. It’s like saying all sports that involve balls have the same type of followers – so therefore the people that follow tennis, cricket, soccer and AFL are all the same. In motorsport, the average F1 fan is definitely a different person to say the followers of V8 Supercars, different again from NASCAR and so on.

    However, it is probably true to say that Age readers in general are not motorsport fans, as I suspect motorsport people in general would be to the right of centre. That doesn’t make them bogans however. I suspect that the bogan link came in from the stereotypical souped-up V8 which is actually a link, if anything, to V8 Supercars not F1. Plenty of F1 people can’t understand the attraction of the V8s and vice-versa.

    (discloure – I am an F1 fan, and a come to that, a sailor who last sailed on AP a few weeks ago).

  • 7
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    observa #6:

    I agree F1 fans are different to (say) V8 fans. I was characterising the way I think The Age sees motorsport fans – all the (bogan) same.

  • 8
    floorer
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    A petrolhead is a petrolhead is a petrolhead. I’d like some evidence on any difference between F1 and V8 followers. Maybe less F1 fans go to the V8′s but a lot of V8 fans go to F1. Bit of theoretical elitism from F1 fan/sailor? I’m talking Oz only here. I do know the difference between Monte Carlo and Bathurst. Don’t forget there is a mix of races across the 3/4? days. I think The Age chases as many clicks as they can. As you said Alan, “Fairfax’s headlong race to the bottom of the tabloid barrel”, for me this is the main point of your article.

  • 9
    observa
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Actually elitisim is a part of F1 vs V8. F1 people look down on V8s as unsophisticated, not least because the cars are all virtually identical. V8 people consider F1 boring because of the lack of overtaking and the prima donna drivers. Lots of F1 fans have contempt for NASCAR. V8 fans go to the F1 race because there’s V8 cars there and stuff they’re interested in. Which doesn’t mean to say they follow F1. And F1 is followed internationally, particuarly in Europe. V8′s international fan base is much smaller. And I’ve not even got onto the differences between car enthusiasts of different types. Like I said, it’s as good as bracketing ‘all people that enjoy watching or participating in sport’ as one group. If that works, then fine.

    I can’t point you to any evidence and am not bothered whether you believe it or not, but that’s the way it is.

  • 10
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    floorer #8:

    This discussion is Off Topic, but interesting nevertheless. Seems plausible to me that F1 and V8s would attract different fan bases, notwithstanding a significant area of cross-over.

    That up-market companies like Tag Heuer and Rolex associate themselves with F1 suggests it appeals in part to a distinctive demographic. F1 is glamorous, which gives it appeal beyond rev heads.

    It also has a number of distinguishing attributes relative to V8s.

    For example, F1 has a long history (since the early 50s); for most of its early years it was largely European; it boasts some of the world’s leading marques; it has an early tradition of “gentlemen racers”; it’s ultra expensive; it’s hi-tech; it’s now popular in many countries; I’m sure there’re more.

    That all suggests I think that there’s an additional audience for F1 who’s primary interest isn’t engineering, or even clever driving.

  • 11
    observa
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Alan, you’re spot on (and yes, sorry this is off topic). I think looking at the sponsors of any given sport is an excellent idea as those companies know precisely who follows it and who they wish to appeal to.

    One little point re engineering – it is true that many F1 fans aren’t interested in the engieeering, but a large proportion very much are because of the innovation, and because F1 is one of the few race series where manufacturers are relatively free to create different cars. Which drives innovation.

    V8 Supercars and NASCAR for example use all the same basic underpinnings, with only the engine and badges differenet – I forget exactly the rules, but ‘Ford’ and ‘Holden’ aren’t really different in these cases. For those fans very much interested in the technical intracies of car design that’s not something that appeals. The reason standard components are used is to control costs and promote close racing. In F1, the same top few teams win all the time with rare exceptions. In other series, it’s much closer. Whether you consider this attractive or not is a personal opinion, but it does attract different fanbases.

    In some ways, it’s like soccer which is a low-scoring game and thus devotees of high-scoring games like AFL call it boring, whereas soccer fans say each goal is to be savoured. I don’t follow either, but I can see the point being made by both sides.

    A final point on sailing on the lake. The F1 organisers actually like sailing boats on the lake during the event as it adds colour, and it gives the cameras something to cut to in order to showcase Melbourne.

  • 12
    Sabre Bleu
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Clearly The Age is starting to learn how to compete with The Hun once it becomes a true tabloid. Excellent hack story from The Age at the standard expected of a daily rag.

  • 13
    Peter Logan
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Alan,
    The Age and the Herald Sun are fully aware of the lack of credibility of the GP corporation as they were subject to adjudications from the Press Council. In 2011 and 2012 adjudications by the Press Council of specific reports in The Age and the Herald Sun showed that GP attendance and other claims are “strongly contested in detailed analyses from other sources” and the GP’s figures are of “doubtful accuracy”.
    Save Albert Park has a fact sheet on their website that demonstrates every major claim by the GP corp can be proved to be false.
    The GP corp has an annual taxpayer funded) advertising budget of $12m, so it often gets its side published alongside the advertisements. I sense the media is now taking every claim with a grain of salt. It keeps them out of the scrutiny of the Press Council.
    Save Albert Park member and sporting club member and former councillor of Port Phillip, Peter Logan

  • 14
    Dudley Horscroft
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    Alan, what did you expect from the Age? Read “The Australian” instead.

  • 15
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Dudley, yes, that is a good exercise in making the Age look relatively decent. And sure it depends on your personal political bias, but I swear…it’s very hard to read that newspaper without some sense every journalist is indoctrinated with orthodox right-wing ideology before they’re allowed to contribute articles, even that are supposed to be pure ‘news’ stories. It’s little wonder the likes of George Megalogenis felt compelled to leave…

  • 16
    Sailor
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Back to the topic – the water levels at Albert Park Lake. Why cannot the government accept the De-salination plant water and put that to good use (filling the lake) instead of discharging it out to sea?

  • 17
    Alan Davies
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Vic government taking action to address the chronic problem of low water level (Albert Park lake to get $1m top-up). No mention of the Grand Prix Corporation this time.

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