23 Sep 2018

1080 campaign turns toxic

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 23 September 2018

Most experts insist 1080 pesticide is by far the best and safest option to save native species and that science backs them up. How can the media report responsibly on opponents’ noisy protests, social media growth and increasingly alarming threats?

Men in HAZMAT outfits pick up 1080 look-alike pallets

Men in hazmat outfits pick up 1080 look-alike pellets. Photo: RNZ/ Gia Garrick

When reports emerged this week that cows had died on a Waikato farm after a 1080 drop nearby, the news spread like wildfire on Facebook.

The likely explanation was that the stock were not where they were supposed to be and ate lethal amounts of bait. Department of Conservation said stock had been seen in the operational area and it had advised the farmer to act.

But for those opposed to using 1080, it was further evidence the stuff is not safe and should be banned.

Other animals allegedly killed by 1080 were dumped at Parliament earlier this month during the ‘Hīkoi of a poisoned nation’ on a day of noisy nationwide protests.

On TV news and news websites people saw images of men in hazmat suits picking up what turned out to be look-alike 1080 pellets that were hurled onto the steps of Parliament.

When questioned by reporters later, organiser Alan Gurden admitted the long dead deep frozen birds and mice may not have been victims of 1080 after all.

Mr Gurden said the hīkoi was "theatre" designed to get the attention of politicians, but it attracted the media’s attention too.

Protestors against the use of the poison 1080 placed dead birds on the steps of Parliament.

Protestors against the use of the poison 1080 placed dead birds on the steps of Parliament. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Tens of thousands of people from all over the country mobilising can’t be ignored by the news media - but neither can the increasing militancy of of some activists.

They chalked slogans in Parliament grounds accusing Jacinda Ardern of running deaths squads and branded her "a Nazi." 

"It fuels this awful, very abusive approach that 1080 protesters and anti-1080 people are taking towards my staff," DOC operations director David Speirs told RNZ.

Angry threats from anti-1080 people are not new.

Last year some even threatened on Facebook to bring down DOC helicopters used to drop 1080 pellets from the air.

"Be more noisy and cause more trouble"

Anti-1080 activism online has surged in recent months.

Earlier this year, activists began bombarding news media streams of news events with campaigns slogans. The Spinoff's Haydon Donnell found the comments had their roots in a single Facebook page which now has more than 60,000 followers.

Mr Donnell also reckoned some of the claims have become more extreme and irrational. Some members, for example, seem to think 1080 is a part of plot backed by banks or even an exercise in eugenics.

Mr Donnell also interviewed one of the prime movers: Sue Grey, a lawyer from Nelson who has urged activists to use social media and news media alike to “be more noisy and cause more trouble.”

Groups backing 1080 use fight back online. Forest and Bird and Federated Farmers - frequently foes in the past - have formed unlikely union for the website: 1080facts.co.nz.

And back in April, RNZ's Checkpoint revealed the Department of Conservation had used controversial private security firm Thompson and Clark to monitor anti-1080 activists for the previous two years.

Ahead of the protests earlier this month, Forest and Bird urged the media to cover the protests “with a commitment to science, evidence and truth.”

“Anti-1080 fears appear to have been stoked by an aggressive online campaign of science denial, misinformation, and trolling, said Forest and Bird.

“"Decades of work by thousands of conservationists and scientists has developed a range of tools and methods to protect our wildlife, but this work is at  risk of being undone should a vocal, anti-science minority be given uncritical exposure”

 - Forest and Bird

no caption

Photo: Supplied

So how best to report on them without giving the oxygen of publicity to extreme views - and claims not backed by science ?

On Radio Live earlier this month, Mark Sainsbury devoted his entire three-hour talk show to friends and foes of 1080.

Last weekend, Three’s weekend politics show Newshub Nation had a timely report setting out the basics about 1080 use in New Zealand.

The report dealt with fears about effects on other animals, human fertility and drinking water and gave a clear picture of where scientists stand.

The government-funded Science Media Centre released a digest of views from six expert scientists - all of whom reckoned 1080 was the best and only viable option we have right now.

"The case of 1080 use is well established and it works. Where it is used our native species are recovering, where it is not they die, it really is that simple," said Prof Neil Gemmell, who is is actually working on alternatives to 1080 for pest control

So is Dr Belinda Cridge, from Otago University's Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

Belinda Cridge, toxicology expert at the University of Otago.

Belinda Cridge, toxicology expert at the University of Otago. Photo: supplied

"1080 is amazing. The information far outweighs resources we put into other chemicals we use," she told Mediawatch.

"Time and time again the science has been challenged. Time and time again the scientists say this is a good option and safe in the way we use it. But still people are worried and not understanding and there is still cherrypicking of the data," she said.

She concedes media are entitled to report alternative viewpoints especially when they appear to be convincing to increasing numbers of people.

"But if you hear it often enough people will think they are right. We've got to keep hearing from the experts," Dr  Cridge said. 

"Social media has changed our landscape. Journalists have a responsibility to give a balanced account but there's none of that on social media," she said.

"The issue is that fewer people are engaging with high quality media."