Arsonists Read Newspapers

The Bush Arsonist

© Photo by William Haun, whaun.com, http://www.whaun.com/

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Once again in the lead up to Christmas in Australia, State governments and their media PR cohorts remind us of “extreme temperatures”, “low humidity”, “forecast high winds”, “declared total fire bans” and even “catastrophic bushfire conditions”.

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So what’s new? – hot Australian Summers are not really newsworthy.

Perhaps to create news, readers were again stirred with the fear and dread of bushfire risk and reminded of previous Summer bushfire catastrophes – “State Warned of heatwave and black Christmas” (Sydney’s Daily Telegraph page 1 headline, 23-12-05].

But media talking up bushfire risk must surely stir dormant bush arsonists, as if overtly tempting drugs to addicts?

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Take the following newspaper quotes of recent days (SMH, AAP, Telegraph):

  • “It will be a bad fire day with the wind hitting late afternoon in Sydney and moving up to Port Macquarie with a bang on Saturday night.”
  • “The worst is yet to come”
  • “Essentially, now any fires that might start would be very very hard to bring under control.”
  • “Authorities fear scorching temperatures.. will fuel further fires.”
  • “The weather is providing perfect firestorm conditions.”

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…like a red rag to a bull.

Then sure enough, starting from Christmas Eve (with no reported lightning) we hear of the spate of bush fires started across NSW, of multiple ignitions forming into a fire front near Woy Woy, a suspicious grass fire next to the old Canberra brickworks, and of many other bushfires across NSW and interstate.

Long respected is the media code of ethics not to report suicide deaths because experience has sadly shown that such publicity encourages copy-cats.

Yet invariably each year preceding Christmas, some media stir up this supposedly ‘inevitable’ bushfire threat.  Such emotive language risks fuelling serial arsonists, drawing recidivists out of hibernation to prove media forecasts correct.

Arsonists read newspapers. The media are part of the solution – headline the convictions not their crimes.

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[This letter by the editor was first published in the Blue Mountains Gazette 20060118.]

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