Friday, July 04, 2008

The Media, Dennis Ferguson and the Garnaut Report

After finishing watching the best American news show on television this evening (the PBS NewsHour), I switched over to Channel Nine for the six o’clock news and their take on local events. First up were the good citizens of Miles who, egged on by media and politicians, did their civic duty and ran a man out of town. The man is Dennis Ferguson; a man who faces court over child sex charges but who is likely to walk free because he is incapable of receiving a fair trial in Queensland. The resultant vigilante hysteria merely makes matters worse.

We should not be surprised at this as the whole stupidity of the Bill Henson case revealed. The latest enemy of the people was forced to seek police protection as the media revealed not only his identity but his whereabouts and encouraged locals to take matters into their own hands. As a result the civil liberties lawyer Terry Gorman was placed in the invidious position of recommending the media back off and give people some privacy. If ever a case required a suppression order, then this was it. The Gold Coast Bulletin was the chief offender with a series of headlines about the case that "sent a clear message to the Bligh Government” (not particularly worrying about separation of powers).

The paper wrote a page one lead on Wednesday (interestingly, not available online) screaming at its readers to "dob in a monster". The article continued: “In the past, men like Ferguson have been placed in communities without the knowledge of the parents or children living there. If you see him, call The Bulletin and tell us where he is. Phone us on 5584 2469. Help us put pressure on authorities to have him locked away and to keep our children safe.” When I rang that number late this evening to complain that the Bulletin was the real monster here, I only got the cadet who dutifully took my message. Nevertheless the Ferguson story is rightly front page news, if only to show the shameful treatment of him by the people and media of Queensland. Of course, it wasn’t played that way. What we got instead was the deification of a lynch mob dressed up as “outraged citizens”. Shame those citizens weren’t half as concerned by the consequences of the real news of the day buried down Nine’s schedule.

That news was Ross Garnaut’s climate report. His address at the Press Club was newspaper gold but hardly unmissable television. So ratings reasons alone determined this was not the main news on Australia’s Fourth of July (for the most part still 3 July in America). So while whenever he said “carbon emissions scheme,” people used the remote control to switch him off. While this would apparently be the behaviour Garnaut wishes to encourage, people don’t switch off their TV but merely change the channel to something more amenable.

Whereas there are signs that the US is treating the problem serious, it seems people in Australua are not interested in the truth of climate change. How else to explain the rise in sales of SUVs in Australia? The two biggest price signals at the moment are the cost of oil and the cost of a mortgage. The central bank crudely controls the levers of the latter, while supposedly unpredictable “market forces” form the former. It remains a mostly unknown truth, that the higher price of petrol is actually a good thing, despite Aussie SUV sales, a price signal that will put a brake on car-induced emissions.

Nevertheless there remains considerable resistance to the understanding that climate change is actually at all. Many prefer to believe climate change will be turned into pumpkins at midnight. In his draft report (pdf) today on the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme, Ross Garnaut had a word or two for these people. He said “The outsider to climate science has no rational choice but to accept that, on a balance of probabilities, the mainstream science is right.” Garnaut reminds them about the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Prisoner's Dilemma is the classic betting problem of multi-party decision-making. The dilemma is not a zero sum game, but the idea behind it is there are deceptively simple decision problems that don’t have elegant solution. So, for instance, the simplest short-term cure for global warming is to go nuclear but that argument is treated like someone who "painted himself red, glued horns on his head, strapped on a three-headed phallus and walked naked into St. Peter’s in Rome shouting “WHO’S YOUR DADDY?”

But who your daddy is, is of little consequence to global warming. The argument is not aabout decisions of the past but of the future. And the jury remains firmly out on the efficacy of nuclear power compared to its perceived dangers. The solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma is that the best decision for an individual can depend on what he/she knows or can guess about the other’s intentions and therefore it is best to be in a position to share intentions. In other words, without global co-operation we are all pretty much screwed.

But that’s just my opinion. I’m no scientist but am happy to report their findings. Of all the official UN-sanctioned recommendations in the last few years, none of them have recommended that there is no problem and we need not do anything about it. On the contrary, official dry-as-dust summaries such as Garnaut’s and Stein’s reviews suggest that the cost of doing nothing is higher than the cost of doing something.

Try telling that to climate change sceptics. The posse led by Blair and Andrew Bolt have no time for the voice of science. As Garnaut points out, "‘sceptic’ is a misnomer for their position, because these dissenters hold strongly to the belief that the mainstream science is wrong". There is a clue to their behaviour in another thesis I read this evening: “There is active debate among political scientists and political theorists over the relationship between participation and deliberation among citizens with different political viewpoints.” Readers tend to read that accord with their political beliefs. Those who believe there is no climate change, get a constant reminder they are right.

But what about those readers who don’t have political beliefs – what do they read? The politic agnostics are the vast majority and they will probably not read blogs at all. They will be wrapped up in Channel Nine and the like. Their rage will be misdirected. Instead of doing something about the elephant in the room, they will be ringing up the Bulletin and dobbing in a monster.

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