Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Australian normalises abuse

Non-paying customers visiting The Australian’s website today may read:

Death threats just par for the course
Chris Merritt, Legal affairs editor
June 02, 2012 12:00AM

Death threats and vile abuse are real. They infect the daily lives of key players in the debate over climate change. But it's not what you think: the main recipients of this torrent of abuse are not climate scientists.

Paying customers may read the full article, which is essentially a pious reformulation of Tim Blair’s throwaway line that the odd murder of scientists in Europe “rather puts local claims into perspective.”

In Merritt’s version, those who out-man wimpy Aussie climate boffins are not the dead nuclear scientists in Europe, but intrepid Aussie journos who “are the inheritors of that great tradition in which Western civilisation has encouraged criticism of the orthodoxy in order to expose its flaws.”

These are mostly people who happen to be Merritt’s fellow employees of News £td such as Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair, not to forget his boss Chris Mitchell.

These and others have all been on the receiving end of abusive and threatening approaches from unhinged critics. In a couple of cases, going back a decade or more, there have been assaults and even gunplay.

The key contention in Merritt’s piece is that climate scientists are in fact “players” in the “public policy debate.”

Thus, “The abuse directed at climate scientists, bad as it was, needs to be kept in perspective.”

Well, this is just appalling. Taken to its logical conclusion, Merritt’s reasoning makes those murdered nuclear scientists in Europe “players” in a “public policy debate,” therefore fair game for abusive treatment at the very least.

Rather than quelling the flames of intolerance, Merritt’s piece tends towards normalising abusive and threatening behaviour in public debate.

But what’s at least as bad is that Merritt has equated the role of climate scientists with that of the journalists he’s lionised.

Climate scientists work at producing and interpreting data that informs what is, after all, an orthodoxy — that is, a widely accepted consensus.

By contrast, journalists such as Bolt and Blair work at pushing the envelope, often railing against perceived orthodoxies and sometimes inflaming their readerships to, for instance, promulgate conspiracy theories that demonise and dehumanise the targets of their ire.

In terms of their status as “players” in public policy debate, such ‘journalists’ are several orders of magnitude above scientific workers.

Noting James Delingpole’s complaint about a “run-in with a prickly ABC talk radio host,” ABC managing director Mark Scott observed:

I am sorry that he did not feel that the robust questioning he got on the ABC was the kind of questioning he wanted. But he does present himself as contrary and running against conventional wisdom, and that is what you get.

To extrapolate from that: News £td and its employees need to be much more careful about what they wish for, and what indeed they help enable.

P.S. Astute readers will note that Merritt in this article has finally conceded for his newspaper that for which it has long been in apparent denial.

Yes folks, there has been “abuse directed at climate scientists,” and it “was bad.”

If only they’d said something like that a couple of weeks ago and maybe even elucidated just a little, it might have saved a lot of tiresome to-and-fro.

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