Monday, February 9, 2009

Victorian bushfire spin distracts a traumatised state

I wonder if anyone noticed a trend in evening television advertising in Victoria as the state was first gripped by the disastrous widespread bushfires. With the fires already raging, there came the sudden appearance of the 'fireready' website ad, which I'd never seen before the fires started. Last night, I noticed, on Victoria's channel 9, an increased screening of the government ad urging personal action on climate change (the black balloon ad), but also the ad for the terrorism hotline ('Have you seen anything unusual?' etc.).

In light of Penny Wong's recent comments that record summer temperatures are consistent with climate change, the question is whether this pattern of advertising is genuinely for the purpose of public information, or to manage the potential public perception that part of the blame for the devastation of the fires lies with the Australian and state and territory governments for their inaction on climate (approval of new coal mines, coal-fired power stations, inadequate targets etc.), and their failure to adequately prepare for bushfires given their knowledge of the likelihood of extreme fire conditions.

In this regard, it would be very interesting to examine when the ads in question were booked, and how the pattern of government advertising in this disaster period compares with the normal schedule for such advertising across the major metropolitan and regional television stations.

Though it is indeed expected that our leaders involve themselves in the efforts to address such disasters, the personal involvements of Premier Brumby and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have been very much in the forefront of the media coverage, with Kevin Rudd quoted this morning as likening the deliberate lighting of fires to mass murder (which is, of course, tragically accurate).

Nevertheless, are the Federal and Victorian State governments using spin in the mass media to distract the public from their own culpability in this tragedy, rather than informing us about what needs to happen to minimise further harm from the fires? This question is all the more urgent given the foreshadowed review of the 'leave early, or stay and defend' strategy following the escalating death toll from the fires. When government communication is overloaded with spin, maybe the real and potentially life-saving messages suffer - with fatal consequences.

Blame personal inaction on climate change, highlight the role of arsonists, and even insinuate terrorism, but turn scrutiny away from government complicity in bringing about the conditions that led to these fires, and may well lead to future ones. That just might be the hidden rationale of the current television advertising campaign, and, if so, it's wrong.

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