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Planning

Feb 19, 2013

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

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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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