Academics and The Australian go up in smoke

Alan Austin 22 June 2014, 5:30pm
(Image screenshot abc.net.au/mediawatch)

Prominent Australian professors have been caught out making false statements in the tobacco wars started by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Alan Austin reports.

SEVERAL ACADEMICS used by the Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian have been seriously singed in the last week. They include Professor Judith Sloan from Melbourne University, Wollongong University’s Professor Henry Ergas and Professor Sinclair Davidson from RMIT.

This saga shows, intriguingly, how The Australian is following the malicious Murdoch modus operandum in Britain.

The current saga began with The Australian’s front page ‘exclusive’ on June 6 by Christian Kerr announcing that cigarette plain packaging has caused an increase in sales.

That story quoted discredited industry sources, made several false claims and omitted significant vital information.

This went largely unremarked in Australia, presumably because The Australian is notorious for these failures. Only economist Stephen Koukoulas in his blog The Kouk publicly challenged the story. His blog provides an excellent blow by blow dismantling of The Australian’s mendacious campaign.

In Britain, however, where debate on plain packaging is raging, Murdoch’s newspapers and others gleefully regurgitated the story. This was a huge boost for the tobacco industry, which bitterly opposes the reform.

Then last Monday, two things happened.

The Australian fired back at Koukoulas with the heavy artillery of Judith Sloan, a professorial fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at Melbourne University:

'There are at least four problems with the Kouk’s analysis. The first is that expenditure figures do not allow us to know precisely what has happened to quantity, a point made above. And here’s the second problem — through most of 2013, total spending on cigarettes rose.'

As The Kouk showed convincingly on his blog almost immediately, all four points of rebuttal were actually untrue.

Reader comments following Sloan’s article in The Australian were suddenly closed and she has not been heard from on the matter since.

Then on Monday night the ABC’s Media Watch exposed the many falsehoods in Kerr’s story. It also highlighted Kerr’s association with the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and its history of advocacy for big tobacco.

It quoted professor of health policy at Curtin University, Mike Daube:

'Every bit of the report is dodgy, from the way it was set up, to what’s in it, to the lack of analysis.'

In response to being exposed as truth deniers yet again, The Australian did what News Corp often does — it called in its storm troopers to ferociously attack Media Watch and Koukoulas.

It did this when Andrew Bolt was caught lying about Aboriginal people by the Federal Court. It did this when former Greens leader Bob Brown called them on their distortions. Not to mention its attacks on Stephen Conroy over media reform.

This is consistent with the findings of the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, which found

'... a cultural tendency within parts of the [Murdoch] press vigorously to resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course.'

Leveson found that even when an apology was agreed, Murdoch continued with

'... high-volume, extremely personal attacks on those who challenge them.'

On Wednesday, The Australian came out with all guns blazing.

Reporter Adam Creighton teamed up with Christian Kerr for another attack. Anthony Klan wrote about illegal tobacco. Legal affairs editor Chris Merritt penned a snarly piece accusing both Koukoulas and Daube of bias.

And there were two more professors — Henry Ergas and Sinclair Davidson.

Their ammunition included impressive charts and graphs, authoritative pronouncements from tobacco executives, snide asides, vicious frontal personal attacks and several bright crimson red herrings.

Thursday and Saturday continued the barrage with an arrogant editorial, plus Creighton and Ergas again.

Ergas made the extraordinary claim:

'In fact, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows tobacco consumption increased by 2.5 per cent in volume terms in the year immediately after the introduction of plain packaging.'

That is blatantly false.

Plain packaging began in December 2012.

These are the quarterly figures on household expenditure on tobacco consumption for 2012 [from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) file 5206008, column AM]:

March 2012: 3593 
June 2012: 3579 
September 2012: 3595 
December 2012: 3483

Quarterly figures for 2013:

March 2013: 3467 
June 2013: 3521 
September 2013: 3567 
December 2013: 3571

The 2014 first quarter:

March 2014: 3298 

Any way those numbers are examined, there has been a fall in consumption.

The last quarter is the lowest on record, 8.2% lower than the equivalent quarter before plain packaging was introduced.

The last full year – June 2013 to March 2014 – shows consumption 1.2% below the previous year.

Calendar year 2013 consumption is 0.87% below 2012.

So where does Ergas get

'...consumption increased by 2.5 per cent in volume terms in the year...'

Only by cherry picking one aberrant quarter – December 2013 – and comparing that with December 2012.

Shame.

Since the 6 June story, Professor Sinclair Davidson has maintained a commentary at his blog, applauding The Australian’s tawdry campaign.

Davidson is a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, which receives funding from British American Tobacco Australia and has long campaigned for the tobacco industry.

Delighted at another academic at hand, The Australian re-ran Davidson’s Tuesday blog on Wednesday.

It included this comment on the ABS consumption figures:

'Then we need to understand expenditure is a measure of price times quantity. Now, with some sophisticated mathematics, I’m going to change the subject of the formula and we also know that quantity is expenditure divided by price. So now if expenditure is down and price is a constant, then quantity is down too.'

This is not true. It repeats one of Judith Sloan’s errors in her earlier attack.

In fact, the ABS chain volume measures reflect quantity only. The effect of price has been removed. This is clear from the ABS notes to the national accounts.

Just to be sure, Independent Australia wrote to the ABS and received this reply [IA emphasis]:

'Chain volume measures provide a time series of expenditure that are free of the direct effects of price change. They do not represent quantities, such as kilograms or tonnes. They are calculated by deflating current price expenditure data with an appropriate price index. This forms a volume index.'

Hilariously, in all this, Kerr actually conceded on Wednesday that his first story was wrong, admitting amid the bluster, distractions, hypocrisy, insults and statistical trickery that

'... total consumption of cigarettes was slightly lower over the whole of last year than in 2012.'

So what was this all about? To distract from the woes of the failing Abbott Government? To boost big tobacco’s campaign in Britain? To sink the slipper into the former Labor Government again? Or all three?

In an amusing aside, the online version of Henry Ergas’ second foray has a photo of one Murdoch target, captioned 'Health Minister Nicola Roxon'.

Memo to The Australian: Roxon retired as health minister in 2011. Get used to it.

We know Rupert Murdoch was a Phillip Morris board member for many years. We know several big tobacco executives have been on News Corp’s board. And we know many News Corp ‘journalists’ lie and distort routinely.

But why would academics join this offensive campaign and risk their reputations becoming smoking ruins?

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing. Read also The Institute of Public Smokescreens by deputy editor Sandi Keane.

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