Let’s Debate The Merits Of Rape Instead Of Nuclear Energy, Said More Than One New Matilda Reader

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Editor Chris Graham responds to the latest storm to engulf Australia’s most recalcitrant media outlet. You’re welcome.

It’s been a rather challenging week. But first things first. Rape is bad. Debate over.

Why did that even come up? Because last week, I published an editorial defending New Matilda’s coverage – and columnist Geoff Russell’s writing – on the merits or otherwise of nuclear energy.

It’s sparked what you might call a fairly intense debate on social media, and in particular in my email inbox. And I use the term ‘debate’ loosely because while some of the discussion has been highly productive – and the emails of support greatly appreciated – quite a bit of it has been… well, over to just one of our “former readers”, who fought back with an email that, frankly, I really would rather not have received, because I swear I felt my IQ shedding numbers like a bingo call as I read it.

“You do support a strong debate about nuclear energy and you think is alright to do that? Let’s have another about rape, for example. Would you think [sic]healthy to have another Geoff praising rape? Get real….”

I’m not really sure which ‘other’ Geoff praised rape, but I think I speak on behalf of the known universe when I say, debating the merits of rape is not the same as debating nuclear energy. I should add, that wasn’t the only message I received expressing that sentiment. A few readers weighed in with similar thoughts.

For all its flaws – and there are a few – nuclear energy has provided safe, low carbon energy generation to nations like France, the United States, Canada, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Spain and the list quite literally goes on. Thirty one countries have built nuclear power plants – there’s around 440 of them around the globe. And yes, there have been major accidents in two of them – in Japan and Russia. And they were very bad, very expensive accidents.

Even so, that nuclear energy has helped build substantial wealth and prosperity, and like it or not, that’s a fact. I’m not sure anyone can make the case that rape has done any of those things.

So without wishing to put too fine a point on it, if you believe that a ‘rape debate’ is roughly equivalent to a ‘nuclear debate’, you might want to seek some professional help.

That’s not all, unfortunately, that arrived in my inbox, or on my Facebook page. My editorial also brought the climate change deniers out of the woodwork, some of whom thought New Matilda should focus instead on correcting all the ‘alarmist propaganda out there’, because ‘that’s what reputable publications do’.

And then the story submissions started coming in, including one from a reader who apparently spent quite a bit of time researching and then writing a piece explaining why a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in the US was abandoned. The piece contained zero links or references to enable fact checking, and, as it subsequently turned out, even less facts.

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There were the Facebook messages, the uninvited trolls, the private and public ‘unfriendings’. And I upset a few genuine friends as well, which was unsurprisingly the bit I enjoyed least of all.

So all up… I didn’t really spend the week at the top of the charts.

Having said all that, I do actually understand the ‘other perspective’. I understand why people are upset.

Sometimes, you can become so passionate about an issue – like nuclear energy – and so confident of how informed you are on it, that everything suddenly seems black and white.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. Most of the rest of us aren’t there yet, at least not on nuclear energy. Most Australians know very little about it, other than it can be very bad when it goes wrong. And it most definitely can.

But here’s some more bad news: some of us will never get there. Some of us who watch and listen to the debates around nuclear energy will go another direction, hold another view. Some of us will decide it’s a viable source of power to tackle climate change.

And then some of us just want to have the debate, wherever it may lead, without being accused of ‘selling out’, without the insults, and without being told you may as well support violence against women.

With all that in mind, here’s what I’ve come to understand – rightly or wrongly – from several decades of journalism and activism: When you attach your identity to a political cause, it’s sometimes very difficult to hear alternative views, and even more difficult to walk away from those views if it turns out you’re wrong.

And before the brains of anti-nuclear activists explode, I’m not saying you are wrong. I am saying that your views are under review… by New Matilda (now your brains can explode).

So who died and made New Matilda the ‘God of Review’? Well, no-one, although admittedly, that’s one of the benefits of owning your own publication – you can self-appoint (or in the words of one of our former readers, “you get to run your own stupid vanity project”).

But here’s the really bad news: People have a right to come to an informed position. They have a right to debate, and a right to be presented all sides. They don’t have to accept everything you say, simply because you say it.

Nowhere is this more important than in an area that relates to science, and in particular when it comes to climate change.

One of the benefits of being 44-years-of age – apart from realising that when you’re drunk, you’re not even half as attractive as you think you are – is that I probably won’t live long enough to really feel the affects of what my generation has done to the planet.

Having lived, eaten and breathed journalism since I was 15, I’ve probably only got another 20 or so years left on the planet. I’ll likely be checking out well before we see 4 degrees of global warming. And at our current rate, we will be seeing 4 degrees of warming. If I’m really lucky, I might even dodge 2 degrees. Either way, I probably won’t be alive when the nation of Bangladesh – population 156.6 million – disappears underwater.

Some Australians – ironically many of them climate change deniers – think we already have a problem with boat people (we don’t). We ain’t seen nothing yet… and that’s just one nation.

My point being, Kevin Rudd was right about at least (and possibly only) one thing: climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation. And so when it comes to the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’, I think all options should be on the table for discussion. And if I were to be honest, I find it more than a little bit irresponsible that some would attempt to prevent those discussions.

It also happens to be why New Matilda exists – to host debates. One of our core functions, and the thing I think we probably do best, is to challenge convention, to start discussions.

There are exceptions, of course. There are debates that are already settled. The right of women not to be raped, for one. And human rights – we don’t debate those because they’re inalienable. We don’t waver on issues like offshore processing, because it’s evil. We’re torturing people. Period.

We don’t debate the Stolen Generations. It happened. Sorry Andrew.

And of course, climate change. We don’t debate the existence of that either – it’s real, the science is settled. It’s coming.

But here’s the rub: The science on nuclear is not like the science on climate change – it is contested. And by contested, I mean credibly contested… as opposed to uncredibly contested by people like One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts. That’s precisely why there should be a debate about it.

There are many credible scientists, and environmentalists, who contest the idea that nuclear energy can be delivered safely and economically. But equally, there are many credible scientists – and environmentalists – who argue that nuclear can be delivered safely, and economically. And there are many examples where this has occurred for decades.

And so, in coming to an informed position, I, for one – and based on some of the emails I’ve received, many of our readers – want to hear from both sides.

Frankly, I think we could all do without the histrionics that comes with the debate, but I accept that in the age of social media – a megaphone for confirming pre-existing bias – that dramatic statements about rape (and other ridiculous claims) are going to, unfortunately, be a part of that debate.

The challenge for me, and for New Matilda readers, is to find a way to filter that out. The challenge is also to remember what New Matilda is all about.

We survive – and have always survived – on the sniff of an oily rag. That’s unfortunately the nature of independent media. If we had more resources, we’d do more journalism. But at the moment, we do as much as we physically can, with what we have available. On that front, publishing is an incredibly difficult job. We don’t always get it right, we’ll never always get it right. But we can never be accused of getting it wrong – and I will never accept that we got it wrong – by hosting a debate on a matter that is so crucially important.

At New Matilda, we frequently publish stories that are guaranteed to get us in legal trouble. Or ‘government trouble’. Or police trouble. Or public trouble. Or any sort of trouble. Every time we do, my heart is in my mouth, and I worry about the legal and financial cost of what I’m about to publish; about the affect on the people I’m writing about; about the affect on me and the New Matilda team; about the affect of the reputation of a publication I love.

Equally, when we publish a nuclear energy article, I worry about the inevitable letters of protest, and the occasional (and sometimes not-so-occasional) cancelled subscription.

But we do it anyway, and for one simple reason: no good journalism ever came from cowardice or populism.

A genuine media outlet can never make editorial judgments with its own financial welfare uppermost in its mind. The truth is, sometimes as a publisher, you have no choice but to act against your own financial interests for the pursuit of a greater good.

Translation: real media makes for a terrible business model. But it’s still the greatest most privileged job in the world.

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I understand that for a proportion of our readership a debate on nuclear energy is a bridge too far. I understand that they feel betrayed that New Matilda would even allow such a thing in our pages.

So to those readers, all I can offer is this: Like climate change, a debate on nuclear energy is coming. Whether you like it or not. If you’ve loved or learned from even some of our work so far, then I hope you find a way to keep the faith, engage in the debate, and maybe come out the other end a little more informed.

If you can’t, so be it. But we’re doing it anyway.

I don’t know where New Matilda will be in a year, or even 10 years. But I do know that we’ll continue to publish pieces that both confirm and challenge the views of our readers. That’s our brief, it’s why we exist.

Yes, we have ideologies. Yes we prosecute them as well as we can, and as regularly as we can. But if that’s all New Matilda does – if we only preach to the choir – then we’ve failed our readers, badly.

With that in mind, I’m currently writing the ‘New Matilda manifesto’, a document that outlines in one gigantic rant what this publication stands for, why we do what we do, and how we’ll do it into the future.

It’s loosely called, We’re All Hypocrites, It’s Just The Depth That Varies, an appropriately self-deprecating, passive-aggressive title designed to disarm you, and get you to subscribe (which you can do here!) As with all things New Matilda lately, it’ll be ready when it’s ready.

In the meantime, I’m immensely grateful to the New Matilda faithful who keep us alive. And of course, to the New Matilda crew – Ange, and everyone else – who help make it happen every day.

Of course, becoming informed is a two way process. And so with that in mind, I’m genuinely interested in what readers think our values should be – i.e. what do you want to see in the New Matilda manifesto?

Comments below, or email me. And be gentle.

Chris Graham, editor

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Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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