2019 media person of the year Greta Thunberg

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For a decade, I’ve had end of year fun picking my person who has made most impact in media that year. My scope is broad though initially I confined it to Australia and in that first year 2009 I gave it to ABC boss Mark Scott for plotting a bright digital future for the national broadcaster and generally sticking it up to the Murdochracy and its outsized influence on Australia. I noted Rupert’s China speech about the end of the age of the Internet free ride being over and Scott’s view that News’s “empire” no longer had the power to dictate terms over the cost of the ride. Scott – and I – were wrong about that. Ten year later Murdoch is still selling newspaper subscriptions and setting agendas while Scott has disappeared into the bureaucracy of New South Wales government.

In 2010 a remarkable Australian hit the world stage, Julian Assange. As I said then, “with the possible exception of Mark Zuckerberg, no other person has dominated and indeed changed the media landscape with such effect.” I said his Wikileaks “set the gold standard in whistleblowing journalism of international proportions.” True, but perhaps I should have given the award to Zuckerberg, whose Facebook and other products have become ubiquitous in our lives while Wikileaks remains at the margins. Unlike Zuck, Assange couldn’t keep his megalomania in check. Turfed out of the Ecuadorian embassy this year, he threatens once again to become the poster boy of media freedoms as he fights extradition to the US. I would not like to see that happen but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him given his propensity for headlines.

Assange’s impact allowed me to cast the net wider and in 2011 and 2012 I chose British recipients on a familiar theme – fighting Rupert Murdoch. In 2011 I chose Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Nick Davies for “their disciplined and determined expose of the insidious tactics of the News International empire in illegally hacking phones for dubious journalistic ends.” In 2012 I gave it to Judge Brian Leveson who followed up the Guardian investigations with his inquiry of “nine months of oral hearings involving 337 witnesses and 300 statements, (in) the most public and most concentrated look at the press Britain had ever seen.” Murdoch used his own testimony to call it the most humble day of his life but looking back again however, he appears to have got away with it.

In 2013 I returned to the whistleblower tradition giving it to Edward Snowden. Following Assange, Snowden leaked top secret National Security Agency documents to world media. The documents showed the extent the surveillance state was willing to go to achieve intelligence dominance. As with all whistleblowers, Snowden has paid a high price and remains in hiding in Russia six years on.

In 2014 I gave the award to Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed. The trio spent a year in an Egyptian prison for reporting on the overthrow of that country’s Muslim Brotherhood government. They were a reminder that speaking truth to power in some countries had dangerous consequences and were an ominous warning of growing authoritarianism across the world.

A year later I returned to Australia to correct an anomaly in my awards. Up to then no woman had won it. Clementine Ford used her writings to bring attention to that very problem of a male-dominated world. It is hard work. Her uncompromising stance in publicly outing misogynist behaviour has attracted praise and vicious abuse in almost equal measure.

I had intended to give the 2016 award to another woman, Hillary Clinton, who knew more than most what Ford was going through, but on an even bigger scale. But somehow she contrived to lose the US presidential election to Donald Trump. I could not bring myself to give the award to Trump despite his inventive and disruptive use of media so in a sentimental choice I gave to it to my favourite musician, David Bowie, whose unexpected death six days into January gave 2016 a sense of foreboding it never shook off.

In 2017, I gave it to murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Galizia died in a car bomb explosion after her investigations into official wrongdoings threatened to bring the government down. She went further than the three Al Jazeera journalists of 2014, a martyr to the cause. As Archbishop Charles Scicluna told journalists at her funeral mass, “never to grow weary in your mission to be the eyes, the ears and the mouth of the people … We need people in your profession who are unshackled, who are free, intelligent, inquisitive, honest, serene, safe and protected.” Two years on, protests continue in Valletta with calls for the prime minister to resign. Galizia was the same age as me, and I look up to her as courageous best practice in my industry.

In 2018 I could ignore Donald Trump no longer. Unlike Galizia, I do not aspire to be like Trump. My award was a warning not an honour. But I could not help admiring the way he had upended the rules of political and media engagement. Despite all his thrashing of the norms, he still has a plausible path back to the White House in 2020. Worse still, I noted, were the Trumpian copycats. “There are other authoritarians such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in Philippines, Salman in Saudi Arabia, Orban in Hungary all watching and learning Trump’s crafty anarchy at work dismantling democratic checks and balances.” The symbiotic relationship between media and politicians will never be the same again.

So to 2019 where happily I can find an award winner I do admire in young Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg. One of the moments of the year was in September when Thunberg and Trump almost crossed paths at the UN climate summit in New York. She was in the background as Trump hove into view in imperial fashion. It’s not clear if he saw Thunberg but she gave him a look that could have sent him the way of JFK.

Trump didn’t speak at that summit and preferred to talk about religious freedom than listen to Thunberg. In flawless, articulate English the young Swede did not mince her words when she spoke to the world leaders that were there. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she told them. She accused them of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis, saying: ‘We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth”. The next three words were most memorable, “how dare you!”

Climate denialists went into overdrive in an argument summed up as “how dare you say how dare you.”  They made fun of her anger, her mannerisms and her callow youth but had little to say about the truth of her central argument. Plenty of others did, mostly her own age with extinction rebellions and school climate strikes spreading across the globe. They remind us of the biggest contrast between Thunberg and Trump. Trump is 73 while Thunberg will celebrate her 17th birthday on January 3. Trump represents the gerontocracy (and in the next US election his main rivals are equally old: Joe Biden is 77, Bernie Sanders, 78 and Elizabeth Warren, 70).

But it’s not okay, Boomer. Trump will unlikely be alive in 2050, when the UN says all emissions must cease if we are to have a fighting chance of keeping warming below three or four degrees by the end of the century. But Thunberg will be there and could likely still be alive aged 98 when 2100 comes around. Given the policies put in place by Trump and others the earth in 2100 is likely to be a grim place without ice sheets, coral reefs, and low lying islands and cities but with deeply unpredictable and violent weather. The dystopian future painted by 2019 UK TV series Years and Years could if anything be optimistic. Thunberg and her generation are right to be angry.

There is hope in Thunberg’s back story. Her mother Malena Ernman is an opera singer who represented Sweden at the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. Ernman and husband Svante Thunberg toured Europe with their daughters, Greta and Beata. Greta suddenly stopped eating in the fifth grade and was later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. One day at school Greta heard about climate change and was deeply shocked. Consumed by the issue she set out to raise awareness beginning with her family. She slowly convinced them to stop eating meat and dairy and to stop flying, which impacted her mother’s career. Greta attributes her persistence to Asperger’s. Without it “I would simply have continued to live and think like everyone else,” she said.

When US children refused to go to school after the Parkland school shootings she wondered “what if children did that for the climate?” After Sweden’s hottest summer on record, she refused to go to school and picketed the Swedish parliament ahead of a September election. The first day she was alone, the second day people joined her. She handed out leaflets reading: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” When people told her she should be at school, she said she had her books. “But also I am thinking: what am I missing? What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter any more, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”

When Thunberg posted her original strike photo on social media, it went viral. After Ingmar Rentzhog, founder of climate change PR group We Don’t Have Time, gave her additional publicity with a video in English and Finnish bank Nordea quoted one of her tweets local reporters began to tell her story. After the election she continued to strike every Friday and by end 2018 had inspired copycat actions in 270 towns and cities in countries across the world, including Australia, the UK, Belgium, the US and Japan.

Greta went global in 2019 with a stroke of genius. Her intention was to go to the Americas for the climate conventions in New York and Santiago however because of her ban on flying she needed a lift across the Atlantic. A flight to New York would have added close to 1000 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while cruise ships often leave an even larger carbon footprint. In July the crew of the Malizia II, a monohull 18m round-the-world sailing yacht, offered her passage. It was quick but basic – the boat had no kitchen, toilet, or shower.

The 15-day journey attracted enormous media attention. She was just getting started. Though “how dare you” captured the headlines, there was more to her summit speech. It was the judgement of the young on the old.  “Young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this.”

Many older people were angry at the temerity of this young upstart telling them what to do. She was accused of crimes and misdemeanours: she was a stooge, a Communist, a hypocrite, she was mentally ill, she was manipulated by her parents, she was even a refugee from Children of the Corn. Criticism of Thunberg’s strong argument is valid but most of it was sneering ad hominem attack. Even Donald Trump joined in on the trolling: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” There was no sense of irony from Trump that it was his actions that were helping directly lead to the opposite outcome for Thunberg.

When the Santiago COP conference was moved to Spain due to unrest in Chile, Thunberg had to sail again back to Europe. In Madrid she said the voices of climate strikers were being heard but not enough “concrete action” was taking place. “There is no victory, because the only thing we want to see is real action,” she said. “So we have achieved a lot, but if you look at it from a certain point of view we have achieved nothing.” She was right to be pessimistic. Countries like the US, Australia and Brazil stymied meaningful change in COP25.

The science remains on Thunberg’s side. The backsliding of Madrid will only add to the horror people like her will face if they live to 2100. Her message is urgent and potent. She is Cassandra and few like listening to Cassandra. But listen to her we must because our future demands it. For once Time Magazine and I agree. She is a deserving person for the year 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

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