The hoax we had to have


This week Australians face an emergency so catastrophic that we have not yet imagined a name for it. It is so unprecedented that the Bureau of Meteorology has had to invent a new category for it. The 50 to 52 degrees air mass over Australia is the hottest on record, and worldwide, 2013 is predicted to be the hottest recorded.

With bushfires raging and lives and property lost, you might think that people who seek to put the prevention of such environmental catastrophes on the public agenda would be applauded. Instead, they are criminalised.

On Tuesday activist Jonathan Moylan was spectacularly successful in getting the issue of prevention on our newspapers' front pages. Moylan pulled off an elegant hoax. By issuing a fake media release saying ANZ had pulled its $1.2 billion loan from Whitehaven Coal mines on ethical grounds, he disrupted markets and invited public scrutiny of an industry that is driving the climate change that has led to a new category of emergency.

If letters pages and social media are any indication, there is widespread support for Moylan's hoax. At the parliamentary level, Greens senator Christine Milne has applauded his actions as being ''part of a long and proud history of civil disobedience, potentially breaking the law, to highlight something wrong''. But officially, instead of being hailed as a hero, Moylan has been labelled an extremist. In concert with the current trend to criminalise protest of all kind, he faces the prospect of jail and crippling fines. ASIC has already seized his laptop and phone.

But to charge him with a criminal offence would be utterly immoral. For those citizens who have not given up on the conviction that taking action is ''the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation", there is little choice but to pull off hoaxes of this kind. For all the ''free market of ideas'' posturing, the media and finance marketplace that Moylan sought to disrupt is not some equal playing field operating under rules of fair play. As countless journalism academics have documented, news agendas are set by public servants, PR agents, politicians and business leaders. They are not commonly set by ordinary concerned citizens. This is why Moylan orchestrated his hoax at a time when the Australian Securities Exchange is operating at a fraction of normal levels.

In these contexts, it is difficult to sympathise with those who argue that we should condemn Moylan because of the so-called mum-and-dad investors who ''lost'' money because of the hoax. True, his action may have affected the sort of ''ordinary'' people who have blind faith that finance markets are based on trust and immutable laws. But are the people who gamble their spare funds in coal industry investments really the victims here? Moylan's hoax asks us to consider a broader category of victims: the world's citizens and environments who are facing the real consequence of big polluters such as coal companies.

To charge Moylan on the basis of fraud would also be disingenuous. As Fairfax journalist Eric Johnston reported on Tuesday, the ASX is subject to frequent hoaxes. How many rogue traders have used false takeover bids or issued statements to profit illegally from movements in the market? How many finance journalists and PR agents were complicit in deceiving finance markets in the lead-up to the global financial crisis? It is well understood that finance reporting influences the very market behaviour it professes to document. RMIT academics Cathy Greenfield and Peter Williams have found that finance journalism doesn't simply report market trends, but participates in them, ''actively shaping public attention and categories of thought''. Moylan, too, has achieved this through subversive - but no less honest - means.

Brokers and media have also been complicit in this hoax. As Johnston reported, banks don't advertise that they have pulled such a loan. They leave that to the company or to the ASX's announcement platform. ''Still,'' he reported, ''it was good enough to leave some running with it and wipe more than $300 million off Whitehaven's market capitalisation.''

As Homer Simpson said: ''Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie, and one to listen.''

As a nation, we value these acts of creative subversion not just because they are funny, but because they are necessary.

In Moylan's case, they are deadly serious. To protest against the environmental catastrophes we face would seem the only responsible course of action in the face of an indifferent political mainstream. As environmental issues such as our climate emergency continue to be sidelined in politics and backgrounded in news media, acts like Moylan's are not only important and inevitable, they are only going to increase in proportion to public despair.

Katherine Wilson was the perpetrator of the Windschuttle/Quadrant hoax in 2009. She is a PhD candidate at the Swinburne Institute.

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt Golding


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