Media: Plumbing the depths in the search for sleaze
Press coverage of John Prescott's visit to the Maldives to inspect dying coral was a travesty, argues Roger Harrabin
Tuesday 23 March 1999
Here are the facts: the world has experienced the most pervasive and destructive death of coral reefs that scientists have ever registered. On some reefs in the Maldives, 95 per cent of corals are dead. In Vietnam, some ancient corals thought to be more than 1,000 years old have been killed. Some sober scientists are referring to the episode as a global catastrophe. And this month the US State Department asserted that climate change fuelled by the air pollution we create was probably partly to blame.
This massive and worrying upheaval in nature has scarcely been reported in the British media. Mr Prescott travelled to the Maldives at the end of an official visit to India to discuss the issue with the President and to gather ammunition for future global negotiations by witnessing the coral destruction for himself.
Here is the story as it was spun by most of the media: After years of condemning Tory sleaze, Labour are now up to their necks in it. John Prescott has taken an extravagant holiday at the taxpayers' expense. He is staying in luxury hotels, sipping pina coladas, getting a suntan, and having fun scuba diving on the coral reef. And by the way, he is fat ... so he is fair game for ridicule if he wears a wetsuit.
Of course, any ministerial visit to a paradise such as the Maldives was always rich in "junket story" potential and the Fleet Street die was cast when The Sun concocted a fictitious postcard from Mr Prescott to Tony Blair, apologising for missing the Budget while farting his way through a plateful of samosas. The news editors put political correspondents or "colour" reporters on the case and kept at a distance the environment correspondents who were best able to judge the value of the mission.
The result for Mr Prescott was a very mixed blessing. He will go to forthcoming UN environment negotiations with increased personal clout, and may capture the imagination of his fellow ministers as he describes his dive in a "graveyard" of coral, and pleads for more action to cut pollution. He has also helped tell the coral story to millions of BBC listeners and viewers at home and abroad. But his integrity has been called into question.
This is a high price to pay, and Mr Prescott felt it sharply. Mr Prescott was indeed thrilled by the fish life he saw on his dives, but the dive itself was disrupted by potentially dangerous problems with his scuba equipment because he had not had time to try on the gear beforehand. And for the rest of the two-and-a-half day visit, Mr Prescott sweltered through visits and meetings in a full suit and tie in an attempt to deny a short- sleeved photo opportunity to a member of the British paparazzi.
With hindsight the Government's spin doctors could have avoided the easiest media hit by moving the story location from the honeymoon destination of the Maldives to the lesser-known Indian coral islands of the Laccadives. Presentationally this would have been safer, but the impact of the coral story would have suffered. The richer fish life in the Maldives made more powerful TV, and the "Paradise Lost" story of the Maldives had much more listener appeal.
I have returned from the trip with a burning anger at media trivialisation of a major environmental issue. Do the people who make news decisions really believe that the public do not care about such things as the future of the planet? And who in their right mind will want to lead the nation if we continue to hound all politicians as if they are all rascals and cheats?
Roger Harrabin travelled to the Maldives with the Deputy Prime Minister to report on the recent global swathe of coral death. He is Environment Specialist on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme.
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