When he labelled a threat to contaminate infant milk formula with 1080 Tuesday as “eco-terrorism”, John Key was drawing on equal parts opportunism and ignorance.
Clearly, the revelation that Fonterra and Federated Farmers had been posted, back in November, 1080-laced milk packages was a gift to the Prime Minister, who has for months now been trying to convince us that his cavalier attitude to public surveillance and enabling laws has all been for our own protection. The opportunity to get the “t” word onto the front page was irresistible and eagerly seized, but when he prefixed it with “eco”, he knew not what he was saying or doing, because none of us has any clear idea what “eco-terrorism” is.
The two prevailing definitions almost contradict one another – one calls it an act of terrorism committed by “environmentalists” – whoever or whatever they are – while the other calls it an act of destruction against the environment, often for political ends.
The baby formula threat clearly shrugs off the first definition, because nobody concerned about the environment would do such a thing. That leaves a political motive, and now we’re getting warm. Here, Key may well be right for all the wrong reasons. He’s had his back to the environment for so long that he probably doesn’t understand that the vast bulk of opposition to 1080 in New Zealand – certainly the best-organised and funded – has a political, not environmental, motivation.
There are, broadly speaking, two wellsprings of anti-1080 sentiment in this country. One is a largely reasonable, mostly peaceful-though-passionate sector sitting out left of the green movement. These people are vehemently opposed to the broad-scale application of any toxin, for whatever end.
This is not unreasonable – it would be difficult to find anyone on either side of the 1080 imbroglio comfortable with the notion of laying poison. But many of these opponents can only hold their strident position if they ignore 60 years’ worth of inconvenient truths – intensive field research, toxicology studies, persistence tests, public health studies and monitoring – and chant instead many execrable claims about ecological collapse and endocrine disruption.
Only a month ago, a former public health worker insisted to me that what she believed was a disproportionate incidence of cancer in Southland was down entirely to the application of 1080. When I asked her just how it was supposed to get into the human food chain, when it been proven in dozens of studies and simulations not to persist in water, she said “well, they’re all hunters down there aren’t they?”
The media could have laid all this to rest years ago, simply by reporting that which has already been scientifically, empirically established, peer-reviewed and published in a whole library of academic journals. But as we know, editors – especially those struggling with falling readership – love stories with “legs” – those that run on and on. Reported straight, 1080 would in fact, have rather short legs. But mainstream media has given it stilts by faithfully quoting a now-familiar litany of risible claims, knowing that will keep the letters to the editor coming.
In January this year, a piece in The Press, '1080 Drop May Have Killed Rare Birds' penned by Helen Murdoch, led with the inflammatory line:
The Battle for our Birds campaign may have almost wiped out a population of the very species it aimed to protect in Kahurangi National Park.
This sort of intro is a gift to the hunting lobby, and, it turns out, that’s who it was faithfully parroting. The claim had been made by long-time 1080 opponent Bill Wallace, who had filed an OIA with DOC to find out about the number of rock wren re-recorded following a drop last October. Of 39 birds noted before the operation, only 14 were found again after it. Wallace – and The Press – went large with the assertion that the birds had been poisoned. Wallace then extrapolated, and claimed that the rock wren was only rare because of 1080, a position that ignores everything studied learned and recorded about stoat predation on rock wrens. That too, was dutifully reported without check.
What the piece only told readers in passing, well down the order, was that a storm had blanketed the drop area in heavy snows days after the 1080 operation. It was entirely plausible – likely, in fact – that the missing birds had simply headed down-valley to escape the worst of the weather for a while. After all – and this critical point was never made – the birds were not found dead, they were simply not re-located.
Wallace’s claims rightly belonged in the opinion section – he had presented not a jot of evidence to support them (and the journalist had asked for none) but here they were, a hidden agenda cloaked in junk ecology, being reported in a metro daily as news.
In 2009, hunters and 1080 opponents Clyde and Steve Graf released an anti-1080 DVD, Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand – funded in part by the Deerstalkers’ Association – which claimed, among other things, that an aerial 1080 operation in Nelson Lakes National Park had killed 12,000 native birds. The Press duly ran a story, entitled Our Poisoned Land?'
There was a photograph of the two hunters with nine tiny, feathered corpses lying in the snow. And therein lay the first clue that all might not have been as it seemed; old birds, or males that cannot secure optimal territory with adequate food supplies, routinely die in winter, when the operation took place.
Furthermore, the nine birds were all the pair recovered; their tally of 12,000 deaths was, they told me in a subsequent interview; a “tongue-in-cheek” figure they claim to have extrapolated by “turning DOC’s science on itself.” DOC duly performed post-mortems on four of the birds (five were blackbirds, introduced species which DOC has no mandate to protect) and found 1080 in none of them.
But the damage had been done. This is how such nonsense gains currency in the minds of an unknowing public, and the hunting lobby knows it. When it reports unqualified conjecture – or outright propaganda – this way, the media repeatedly fails its own tests of accuracy, fairness and balance. No wonder we cannot have a rational, informed conversation about it.
The media, more than any other institution, is responsible for the dismal quality of "debate" around 1080. It is a scientific issue that can only sensibly be discussed within scientific terms of reference, guided by scientific rigour. But like climate change, it’s been politicised for private self-interest. Instead, lobby groups keep rolling Trojan horses up to the doors of the newspapers, ramshackle constructions of tin foil and tape dressed to look like science, but packed tight inside with self-interest and agendas.
Just who are these plotters? Well, like editors, there are others with self-interested motives, who believe they have still more to lose. Many – though not all – recreational hunters detest 1080 because, in its standard formula, it kills deer, as well as rats, mice, stoats and possums. This is insufferable to a lobby group motivated – characterised – in large part by a florid sense of entitlement. They believe that the only way a deer should die is by the spreading, soft-nosed, organ-shredding smackdowns of one of their own bullets.
But lobby leaders are careful ever to publicly distance themselves from 1080 protests. They well know that the public would have little sympathy for their claim to entitlement over a "resource" accessed by a minority. They know too, that they cannot oppose 1080 on animal welfare grounds, given their habit of felling creatures with expanding, high impact rounds. That only leaves them recourse to the standard strategy – profess instead a concern for the environment and keep repeating the same untruths about the toxin, safe from any challenge by reporters, until the public no longer know what to believe. Manufacture doubt.
At the other, far-right, end of the lobby lurks a paramilitary element that has routinely resorted to “eco-terrorism” to try to force conservation and policy backdowns to protect “their resource”. In 2004, memos orbited the fraternity urging hunters to release stoats onto Stewart Island in reprisal for 1080 pest control operations. A leaked circular, purportedly issued by a fringe then known as Hunters’ Heritage, enjoined:
Let Animal Health and Forrest (sic) and Bird have their little victory over the Blue Mountains and while they are poncing about patting themselves on the back we should just quietly go ahead and establish new herds.
This blatant deceit caused more than one suggestion that a few takahi (sic) and kakapo should be popped just to teach the lying pricks a lesson. We couldn’t possibly comment on such a suggestion. But if a few of the boys drop off stoats on Breaksea or Maud Islands who could blame them?
There is nothing yet to suggest or disprove that the infant formula threat has come from some delirious hunting/survivalist fringe, but it’s important to note a certain M.O. here. We all understand that toxins – like fracking, like alien activity, like contrails, like bar codes – can and do attract a certain type of personality – witness the hysteria around fluoridation. The fact that this person has threatened public health when presumably they oppose 1080 on the same grounds is confusing, and hints that it is not the considered action of anybody in good mental health. People on all sides of the argument will be rightly appalled by it; conservationists, hunters, scientists, whoever.
As for John Key, he’s simply managed to squeeze off a cheap shot of his own – whether it lands in the ranks of the greenies or the terrorists, who cares? He landed his hit. The media has done it again...