All through my journalism career I tried to take holidays at this time of year – the peak summer period known universally as the ‘silly season’ It’s called that, here and abroad, to describe the sudden drying up of real news stories (or even cleverly disguised fake stories). The media must continue on its 24/7 quest for yarns, but the fare becomes increasingly trivial, short on detail and (gasp) exaggerated.
In Australia, the ‘do not disturb’ sticker can safely be slapped across the calendar between December 23 and January 26. This is when all traditional news sources and their spin doctors head for the beach. Businesses close, parliaments and law courts go into recess. It’s down to emergency services to keep the media fed, and there’s a limit to the amount of mayhem holiday-makers can digest through the festive season.
Smoke but not much fire
Here’s a splendid example of a silly season story, introduced by a breathless headline: “Warwick church struck by lightning”. The fire brigade turned out in numbers to St Mary’s Catholic Church, a Warwick landmark, as did spectators. St Mary’s administrator Kathleen Cuskelly told FOMM the fire was not serious but could have been without the call to emergency services by a witness to the lightning strike. The blaze, which damaged two square metres of ceiling above the side aisle, was extinguished by a lone firefighter who found his way in through a back door.
The church-hit-by-lightning yarn certainly livened up the week for weather-watchers, braced as always for a natural disaster but more often left without a real story.
Mariah Carey’s Times Square technically-flawed performance on New Year’s Eve had the celebrity writers rolling in oily hyperbole. Carey described by maxim.com as the ‘golden-throated chart-topper’ was left on centre stage unable to cope with lip syncing which went awry. Someone played the wrong track, leaving the lesser-crested warbler nonplussed. The Daily Mail (UK) summed it up:
“Mariah Carey has stormed off stage after she lashed out during her botched New Year’s Eve performance, after the wrong lip-sync track played.”
That’s a lot of storming and lashing over a relatively tiny tinkle in a teacup. Besides, Mariah sang the hell out of Auld Lang Syne at the start and that’s what counts, right? And she appeared to know all the words.
A few days prior to this earth-trembling news, like so many other heat-stressed people, I was hanging out in the local supermarket, hovering around the deli fridges, a packet of frozen peas clamped to the back of the neck. My mobile chirped and there was a text message: “jar of pickles pls.” Thus challenged, I quickly grabbed a jar, added it to the week’s supply of groceries and headed for the check-out.
The peak summer months, when Europeans and North Americans lock up and head for the beaches, coincides with the cucumber harvest. So their ‘silly season’ is known in many northern countries as ‘cucumber time’.
The ever-useful Wikipedia reveals that in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Examples given include komkommertijd (Dutch), agurketid (Danish) and agurktid (Norwegian, where a piece of news is called agurknytt i.e., “cucumber news”).
There are other examples: the Sommerloch (“summer (news) hole”) in German-speaking countries; la morte-saison (France) and nyhetstorka or news drought, in Sweden.
Media analysts have speculated that people employed as public relations consultants or media advisors in private enterprise and government now outnumber real journalists by five to one. The highly-paid spin doctors take January off and go to the beach. So their carefully crafted “news” releases, sanitised, scrutinised and signed off on by at least 10 people slow to a trickle then stop.
Meanwhile, the skeleton squads left holding the news forts have to forage for items to fill the ironically larger news holes (in the newspaper business advertising also takes a holiday). So the only thing a reporter or a news crew can do is follow the fire engine. On arrival, take emotive video of the cat stuck up a gum tree and hope (though only deep within their craven souls) that the rescuer in the cherry-picker might take a nasty tumble from a great height. The video editor can lip-sync it later and the presenter can do the nodding I-was-really-there-honest footage later. Back to you in the studio, Brian.
Bob Hawke lobbies for nuclear waste (again)
Perhaps the most egregious silly season story thus far was the reporting of comments made at a Woodford Festival talk by former PM Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke said Australia should embrace nuclear power and become a country where the world can store its nuclear waste. Mr Hawke has said this before, many times, but most news reports lacked this kind of background.
Warming up for Woodford, perhaps, Mr Hawke trotted out the nuclear waste trope at Sydney University late last year.
In 2013 he singled out South Australia, a vast and sparsely populated state, as best suited to (underground) storage of nuclear waste.
At Woodford 2016, the 87-year-old former politician employed much the same rhetoric he used when floating the idea in September 2005:
“Australia has the geologically safest places in the world for the storage of waste,” he then told the 7.30 Report’s Mark Bannerman.
“What Australia should do, in my judgement, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world’s nuclear waste.”
Then Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley sharply responded to the comments by Hawke (who retired from politics in 1992):
“Bob is a respected father figure in the Labor Party, but that’s well outside the platform.”
In 1999, foreign company Pangea Resources tabled a specific proposal to build an underground radioactive nuclear waste storage facility in central Australia. South Australia and Western Australia swiftly responded by passing nuclear storage prohibition acts. Nick Minchin, Federal Resources minister at the time, said an emphatic ‘no’ and Pangea, a consortium of Swiss and British firms, folded up its tent.
Industry website www.nei.org estimates that the nuclear industry has generated about 76,430 tonnes of used fuel over the past 40 years. Most nuclear plants recycle used fuel, which will ‘eventually’ be permanently stored as high-level radioactive waste. US Congress made a pledge in 1982 to build such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the proposal has been ensnared in political wrangling since and was shelved by Barack Obama in 2010. Bloomberg reported in November, however, that a Trump White House would make the permanent dump site a priority.
Finland and Sweden are meanwhile working towards the first permanent radioactive waste sites in the world, the first of which could be operational by 2023.
But as then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told the 7.30 Report in 2005 (and little has changed):
“There are a lot of politics in this. Now, right at the moment, we can’t even get agreement on where to put a nuclear repository for Australia’s waste, let alone a repository for the world’s waste.”
Mark Bannerman closed his 2005 report with this apt quote from a Northern Territory woman:
“If it’s safe, take it down to the Lodge, put it under Kirribilli House. I think they’ve got a hide.”