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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Advocacy Radio Cranks Up

Thirty-six hours after the Japanese earthquake-tsunami disaster, CBC One (a.k.a. Radio FemIntern) had already attacked the nuclear industry. The program was Sunday Morning, normally hosted by Michael Enright, a credentialed voice of the Canadian left. Initial reference was to the ongoing drama in Japan, with two or three reactors shut down. Radioactive vapor had escaped into the atmosphere and the potential for core meltdown was not yet excluded.
   The program dealt with the industry in Japan, focusing on alleged lax safety and poor design. But the show-host quickly glid and slid: from particularities of Japan to a blanket questioning of the world-wide nuclear industry, including Canada.
   It was clear that the host was against nuclear energy. Not only that, he thought the crisis was a great opportunity to re-examine the licencing of, and support for, nuclear power. I listened carefully, and was confused: this did not sound like Michael Enright. I had turned on the radio late; so, when the broadcast was over, I checked, and discovered the show's host was a man named Robert Harris.
   So it isn't Michael's performance we're appalled by today, it's Robert Harris's.
   Let's first note the cynicism of this report, which seized upon a natural disaster to attack an energy policy...virtually one day from the ongoing event. Yes, there are all sorts of issues we need to examine; however, rushing these issues onto the front page is both hasty and suspect. The timing is not innocent and timing of media coverage is not inconsequential. The entire nuclear sector in the US, for example, was shut down for a decade after the Pennsylvania incident. This was not due to safety concerns; it was a  result of bad press and public nervousness, period.
   This sort of political mash-up is predictable on the CBC, and no, we're not talking about the smashing of houses in Japan, but of the use of Japan to batter the nuclear option.  Here's the quote from Sunday Morning's promotional website:
"The thing that a lot of people cannot comprehend is that Mother Nature doesn't have a bullet with your name on it, she has millions of bullets inscribed with 'to whom it may concern'"...

...which says a lot about panic radio, but little about the substance of this story.
   This jump to influence public opinion might be questioned by listeners. After all,  the CBC is not a private concern; it is OWNED by the taxpayers, and, in terms of its radio outlets, entirely financed by us, with zero revenue from advertising.
   So we can question this instant amalgam between Japan and Canadian policy, and worry about media timing. However, this was only a part of the story. The most curious thing was the reporting style of the show host.
    Mr. Harris had two expert witnesses to interview. One was a legitimate expert, a man from the nuclear policy intelligentsia. The other was a man from an environmental lobby, traditional foe of industries such as nuclear. Mr. Harris fired questions at both men.
   The questions were sharp-edged and dealt with the consequences of employing nuclear energy in the first place. They did not ask the one question that a serious reporter should ask: What are the real risks and real benefits of using this technology? What are the risks in Japan, as opposed to those in other countries? Rather than examine that, the discussion focused on whether this event shouldn't instantly harden our minds against the nuclear.
    Now and then, the nuclear expert sensed this lack of probity. He was the only speaker who had dealt with true risk and reasonable benefit. However, sniffing the desires of CBC Radio, he quickly slid to Mr. Harris's bias; after proper, scientific caution, he appended a disavowal of the nuclear option -- onto the same sentence.
    Perhaps the most assertive part of Mr. Harris's performance was his questioning technique. It was suggestive, aggressive, and adversarial. This was especially true of his approach to the nuclear expert, who, it must be said, was neither politician nor lobbyist.
   Questioning this putative "adversary," Harris pressed his own bias relentlessly. Getting the expert to admit "possibilities" of risk led Harris to demand more than that, certainties. And so, he sounded like a prosecuting attorney: Didn't this [assertion] mean that....? Yes, but, why couldn't we say that.....? Sure, but, wasn't it true that...?
    CBC militates on, while Japan burns.
    There are some questions surrounding nuclear power and safety. However, in the mind of  this observer, they are complex, not straightforward, as Mr. Harris was suggesting. Yes, placing reactor plants on the Japanese islands is dubious, perhaps reckless. But what about Canada? The country is the most unshakable mass of rock on the entire planet. Furthermore, the damaged reactors beautifully survived this magnitude 9.0 quake! It  was the tsunami that caused the power outages.
   So: how many Canadian reactors are vulnerable to a tsunami? I can't think of one.

   In France, power is delivered largely from nuclear plants. In that country, the earthquake risk is low outside the Mediterranean provinces. Yet France is attached to Italy, where earthquakes are a common risk. Should the French dismantle their power plants? The French have made a reasonable reply: No.
    The Pennsylvania incident resulted in Bad Press. Bad Press became a driver of policy. But bad press can also be poor science and terrible politics. How unfortunate it is, to see the CBC contribute to this narcissistic exercise.

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