06 February 2012

Score One for Old School Journalism and The Australian

With the admission by public officials today that the Wivenhoe dam was indeed mismanaged,  The Australian newspaper is right to trumpet the importance of old school investigative journalism. Without their work, it is likely that the mismanagement would not have been uncovered:
Whatever its findings, the [Queensland flood investigation] report will be more informative and comprehensive as a result of the inquiry being reconvened and extended for 13 days after The Australian exposed glaring inconsistencies in the original evidence given by SEQWater and flood engineers about serious breaches of the dam's operating manual over two days leading up to the disaster. . .

For the public, an alarming aspect of the issue is that the mismanagement was uncovered not by their elected representatives or through the initial inquiry hearings, but by senior journalist Hedley Thomas's painstaking reading of official records. These suggested that SEQWater remained locked into the wrong strategy over the weekend of January 8 and 9 and into early Monday before the Brisbane River first broke its banks on January 11.

Scepticism, scrutiny of records and refusing to accept official spin are the hallmarks of fine journalism. Four days after the river peaked, contrary to SEQWater's insistence that the operating manual had been followed, Thomas questioned why the operation of the dam failed. He also reported independent engineer Michael O'Brien's view that catastrophe would have been avoided if releases had been adequate. Such probing, alas, did not suit more gullible media outlets, including Crikey, which brushed the public interest aside in claiming our coverage was "distorted" by "out-of-control" ego. A year on, the operations manager and chief executive of Queensland's WaterGrid admit that, based on what they were told at the time, the dam was mismanaged for two crucial days before the floods. In a land of climate extremes, hard lessons have been learned about managing the ravages of floods as well as drought, and the evacuation of St George shows authorities are being proactive. The emergence of the truth about Wivenhoe is also a lesson about public-interest journalism.
Whatever one might think about the political views found on the pages of The Australian or feelings about its ownership, Australians have been well served by its dogged reporting in the case of Wivenhoe. For everyone, the case provides a good example why independent oversight of experts and government makes good sense.