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Amid fears of an escalating nuclear threat, the media is failing in its duty to the public

With the United States set to drive a dangerous new nuclear arms race (see this analysis by Richard Butler AC, a former Ambassador to the United NationsConvenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons), journalists and the media more generally are failing the public interest in their coverage of nuclear weapons policies.

That’s according to Marie McInerney, a Croakey editor and a senior journalist whose insights derive from her experience as a past board member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and her work with the Australian arm of the organisation to try and attract media interest in an historic nuclear weapons ban treaty.


Marie McInerney writes:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading public health agency in the United States, had planned this week to host one of its regular monthly webinars, known as Public Health Grand Rounds, on ‘the Public Health Response to a Nuclear Detonation’.

Its website promotion (now removed) of the scheduled event, which was scheduled for today, 16 January, said:

While a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have devastating results and there would be limited time to take critical protection steps….(P)ublic health will play a key role in responding.”

Then suddenly late last week came the news that the CDC had postponed the event and would instead focus the session on the spike in flu cases around the US.

There was no more explanation but it followed what The Washington Post described as “unusually strong” media interest in the nuclear session, fuelled by escalating tensions between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, most recently over which has the larger nuclear arsenal and bigger “nuclear button”.

The Post reported that three dozen media outlets had expressed interest in attending the CDC session – a number which no doubt would have risen after last weekend’s false alert in Hawaii of an incoming missile attack. The New York Times said (without explanation) that the big media interest had “embarrassed” the public health agency.

It’s a worry and a shame that the event was postponed, particularly if the White House exerted any pressure. As NPR reported today, the chaos created by the false Hawaiian warning “exposed a dire need for public information about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack”.

But it’s also a worry because although the threat of nuclear war has been in the news again, there are far fewer headlines over disarmament efforts to reduce/eliminate those risks and over the devastating impact that even a limited nuclear war would have.

Existential threat on the margins of news

Last June and July, Dr Sue Wareham and a small group of other Australian public health and peace activists braved the chilly Canberra dawn each morning while Parliament sat to attract political and media attention to the historic nuclear weapons ban treaty being negotiated at the United Nations – and actively opposed by the Australian Government.

The announcers on one Canberra radio station were almost bemused.

“It’s like being transported back to a bygone era,” one said. “When was the last time you heard the phrase ‘ban the bomb’?”

The comment reveals a disconnect in public debate between rising global alarm over the Trump/North Korea brinkmanship and a lack of interest in the adoption in mid-2017 at the United Nations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first multilateral legally-binding instrument for nuclear disarmament to have been negotiated in 20 years, and the first time nuclear weapons have been declared illegal under international law.

That’s despite the awarding of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global movement started in Melbourne a decade ago, for its role in shepherding the treaty.

Time here for a disclaimer. I’m a past board member of ICAN and worked with the Australian arm of the organisation to try to attract media interest in the treaty, ahead and after its adoption, and to promote the Nobel Prize win to put more pressure on governments, including Australia’s, to sign up to the treaty.

I’d thought attracting media interest in the treaty was a fait accompli on the weekend (our time) that it was adopted in New York, given its July 7 passage would coincide with the G20 summit in Hamburg and was coming immediately after the provocative test-firing of a potentially nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile by North Korea.

Yet, as George Washington University Professor Hugh Gusterson wrote at the time for the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists, coverage was hard to come by.

Even The Washington Post produced just a one-paragraph story, buried at the bottom right corner of page nine, about the ban.

Gusterson wrote:

We hear a great deal today about the damage done by “fake news.”

But, as media coverage of the nuclear weapons ban treaty shows, the fake news directed at an unsophisticated public may be less insidiously corrosive than some of the high-end news consumed by the nation’s elites.

Public opinion is more powerfully, and more discreetly, shaped and distorted by news coverage that, instead of flagrantly making things up, marginalizes certain stories or frames them in ways that neutralize and undercut them.”

And, he said, if the Washington Post “undercut the nuclear weapons ban story by shrinking it to postage stamp scale”, The New York Times did its undercutting “through turns of phrase and omissions that skew the story’s import, making it harder for American readers to understand the political context that produced the treaty”. More on that later.

Letting the powerful off the hook

Back in Australia, there were pockets of media interest, and not always where you’d expect – for example, Sydney commercial radio 2GB regularly covers ICAN news.

But often media reaction came with an overwhelming sense that, as various journalists suggested, a nuclear weapons ban is “unrealistic” if it isn’t supported by the nuclear powers, that it is at best “noble but toothless”, that “we’d be mad not to have them if North Korea have them”, or that “there’s nothing new” in efforts to secure such a treaty, despite it being, um, historic.

Others reported on the treaty, or later ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize win and its subsequent presentation. But from many it was in ‘he said, she said‘ terms – that is, ‘122 nations adopted a ban but the nuclear powers say it can’t happen, so that’s that then’.

This points in part to the demands of the 24/7 media cycle and the loss of specialist journalists, including those on defence rounds, who were more able to grapple with complex issues.

It’s also a mark of a loss of ‘history’ in newsrooms as older journalists take packages and leave – taking with them, for example, memory of the terrible injustices, particularly for local Aboriginal people, of the British nuclear tests at Maralinga and elsewhere in the 1950s.

But underlying some of the coverage too was orthodoxy: an acceptance of, if not commitment to, the theory of nuclear deterrence. This theory has been described by leading physicians as an untested belief that nuclear weapons are so terrible that they keep one nuclear-armed country from attacking any other, for fear of mutual destruction.

The Australian Government was not alone in accepting this theory – so were some media outlets and journalists.

One Opinion pages editor, declining an Op Ed from ICAN, told me: “Australia can never unilaterally ban nuclear weapons. They form an integral part of our defence and we are committed to them.”

The ABC, alone among Australian media outlets to be in Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize presentation, reported that:

 As activists took part in the annual Nobel torch march through the streets of Oslo they claim they reached a turning point in the journey to disarmament but others think history will remember this as little more than a few Nordic niceties (my emphasis).”

Those ‘others’ weren’t specified nor quoted in the report.

Across the media, the hard questions were put to ICAN – “what’s the point of the ban if the nuclear states aren’t on board?” – rather than to the Australian Government.

I didn’t see or hear Foreign Minister Julie Bishop having to justify her position at any point, nor did she issue any public statements on the treaty as its adoption neared. One came finally in September, eliciting little debate, pledging herself to “practical and effective steps required for real progress on nuclear disarmament”. There’s no need to read between the lines about what she viewed was impractical and ineffective, but it’s worth reading a different view here from former US Defence Secretary William Perry on the steps that need to be taken.

There was little interrogation by the media of the impasse between the nuclear nations and pretty much the rest of the world, in particular some of the geopolitical issues involved, nor the implications of a treaty that could put many nations, including Australia, on the wrong side of international law.

And there was almost no effort to hold the nuclear powers to account on their stand, on their disarmament failures, no recognition that they were not independent arbiters or holders of some sacred power, but stakeholders of an existential threat.

Here though is one piece that explores some of those issues: The UN nuclear ban treaty is historic on five counts

Why aren’t we meeting our obligations?

At the very least there are some important questions to be put to the Australian Government as the treaty moves towards implementation, once it has been ratified by 50 states. These questions include:

  • what will be the legal implications for Australia and its defence strategy if/when the treaty is ratified?
  • what will it mean for Australia in legal/financial/other terms in relation to assistance for nuclear test victims and remediation of the environment following the British nuclear tests in the 1950s?
  • what might it mean for Australia’s uranium exports?
  • why has Australia taken such a different position from New Zealand and so many other regional partners on this?
  • if this is merely symbolic as many critics claim, why is Australia refusing to sign, and what does this imply about the successes of the landmines treaty, biological and chemical weapons conventions and treaty banning cluster munitions?

But perhaps the most important questions for the Australian Government are:

  • what is Australia doing to meet its own obligations under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which all countries have a legal obligation not only to negotiate in good faith towards but to achieve nuclear disarmament?
  • what is Australia doing to make the nuclear powers accountable for their obligations, when they are actually currently investing trillions of dollars in modernising their nuclear arsenal rather than reducing it?

As IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand and Matt Bivens, chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, wrote last year, the nuclear weapons ban treaty is in some ways “a cry of frustration” from the rest of the world at the failure of the nuclear states to meet their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“We pledged to get rid of our nuclear weapons, in return for others pledging not to seek them,” they wrote of the US.

In his article about the media coverage, Professor Hugh Gusterson says The New York Times article “gestures vaguely at this grievance” by saying the treaty is “partly rooted in the disappointment among non-nuclear-armed nations that the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s disarmament aspirations have not worked.”

But he says this wording misleads:

It misrepresents binding legal obligations as “aspirations” and implies that they failed all by themselves, rather than having been blocked by powerful countries unwilling to give up the ultimate weapon.

And “disappointment” is surely an inappropriately mild word to describe the feelings of leaders who fear that their people will be killed by the fallout from other countries’ nuclear war.

The article also misrepresents the treaty’s commitment to achieve nuclear disarmament as a commitment to merely advance it, saying that “Under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by nearly all nations, parties are required to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith’ aimed at advancing nuclear disarmament.”

These issues raise big global questions – but they are not being put to the Australian Government, which has found it easy to just sit quietly on the issue.

It didn’t help either that Labor, while having signalled support for a nuclear weapons ban treaty, barely popped its head up during the negotiations, nor was asked to declare its hand during the negotiations or since.

Tasmanian Senator Lisa Singh is a big ban supporter and spoke at ICAN’s Melbourne celebrations on the night the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo.

Senator Lisa Singh
Senator Singh

She talked about nuclear disarmament initiatives under Labor governments in the past, particularly the Canberra Commission, which she said pushed back at the “common assumption that because nuclear weapons exist and cannot be un-invented, the world continues to need them to deter their use”.

She said the 1995 report of the Commission, established by former Prime Minister Paul Keating and which called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, worked under three basic propositions: “So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any state retains nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used; and any such use would be catastrophic for life on the planet.”

But in the week leading up to the treaty being adopted, Labor’s Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong delivered a speech to the Lowy Institute on ‘Australia’s national interests in a time of disruption’ that was described by The Australian as “the most remarkable, and substantial, from an opposition foreign affairs spokesperson in a long time”.

Despite the growing brinkmanship between Trump and North Korea, the looming UN vote, Australia’s defence position, and indeed our geography, her speech didn’t mention the word ‘nuclear’.

Later this month, the US Department of Defense – on Trump’s order – is expected to release its sweeping review of the US nuclear policy.

The already leaked text shows that the Trump administration will loosen constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop more “usable” nuclear warheads.

In such a scenario, and in the absence now of political leadership at home, we are critically reliant on media that can question orthodoxy and power, and that knows these are issues of existential importance.

At the very least, I would urge them to read the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who described:

Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing. Flesh and skin hung from their bones. Some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out. The foul stench of burnt human flesh filled the air.”


Further reading

Nobel Peace Prize Presentation Speech by Berit Reiss-Andersen, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Nobel Lecture by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2017, ICAN.

Ican making waves

Caption: Image from the upcoming ICAN and Peace Boat event, touring Australia from 24 January to 6 February, featuring the tales of nuclear survivors from Japan and Australia.


Costs of War

Meanwhile, Croakey readers may be interested in this project by the Watson Institute at Brown University in the US: Costs of War.

CostofWar

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