In Indonesia earlier this year, a live export industry employee asked me to explain how, from a journalist’s perspective, the ABC Four Corners program “A Bloody Business” had managed to win a Walkley Award.
From his point of view – one drawn from more than a decade of direct experience in the trade – the program failed the basic test of balance and accuracy because it portrayed small, traditional abattoirs as representative of the entire trade when they were the exception and not the rule.
In his words, the program had been “captured” by animal rights groups with a strong-vested interest in the debate and had not tried hard enough to tell the other side of the story.
He said the program had knocked back invitations to film at some modern abattoirs in Indonesia, and provided only fleeting footage of the one professional abattoir it did visit near Jakarta.
I mentioned that the journalism community tends to get very excited when a story or program achieves something big. And it doesn’t get much bigger than what happened on May 31 last year, when a single program convinced the Federal Government to shut down an entire $1 billion a year trade without warning for more than two months.
Whether people agreed with its handling of the story or not, the sheer enormity of its impact meant “A Bloody Business” was a virtual shoe-in for a Walkley the moment Julia Gillard and Joe Ludwig agreed to ban the trade.
Four Corners now appears to be sniffing blood once again and may well believe it can just about bag the live export industry as a trophy for its wall this time around.
The program hasn’t revisited the live export trade since last year’s uproar to update its viewers on the significant welfare-assurance improvements that have been introduced since, or to report on the close to one million sheep and hundreds of thousands of cattle successfully exported under the new standards.
However a bizarre, unusual and disturbing sequence of events involving 21,000 Australian sheep in Bahrain and Pakistan has suddenly reignited the program's interest in the trade.
The disastrous incident involved unfounded claims of disease, diversions to an emergency market, further unsubstantiated claims of disease, the forced removal of exporting and importing company staff from a holding facility at gunpoint, and then the brutal and callous killing of Australian sheep at the hands of untrained slaughtermen.
Wellard Rural Exports managing director Steve Meerwald spent six weeks in Pakistan trying to avert the cull and to ensure the sheep were slaughtered humanely at a nearby accredited facility, but ultimately failed.
“Everyone at Wellard is devastated at what happened,” he said in a video released on You Tube yesterday. “The incident occurred despite one of the biggest efforts Wellard and the industry has ever mustered to defend animal welfare.” Wellard says it will no longer export to Pakistan.
What happened in Pakistan is now the subject of a Federal Government investigation. A loss of control is considered a breach under ESCAS, and Wellard now faces potentially severe sanctions as a result of the crisis.
While the exporter and the industry at large await the result of that inquiry, Four Corners has conducted its own investigation, the results of which will be revealed on its program “Another Bloody Business” tonight.
While industry members are hoping for a fair and balanced hearing, the program’s use of loaded statements such as "this is a story the live export industry doesn't want told” to promote its program isn’t inspiring confidence that will be the case.
The statement paints a picture of an industry trying to hide from the issue or refusing to discuss it.
From a media perspective, this has not been the case.
Wellard Rural Exports and live export industry leaders proactively provided regular updates to media as the issue progressed since early September.
They have publicly acknowledged that control of the sheep was lost when armed Pakistani officials ordered the exporter and importer to leave the facility, and that the sheep were culled in a manner well below acceptable Australian standards.
In advance of tonight’s program members of the live export industry have mobilised in an attempt to ensure their side of the story is available to those interested in hearing it.
Industry representative organisations have released the following fact sheet about the trade, NT producers Jo and Rob Bloomfield have publicised an open letter written to Four Corners, and Wellard has released the below video on You Tube and a written tatement here.
“This is the story the live export industry wants told fairly and accurately” might be a more precise promotion for tonight’s program, from a live export viewpoint at least. Many will be tuning in to the national broadcaster tonight to judge that for themselves.