Vandalism of John Gay's house

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On Monday October 11 2009, The Examiner reported that the home of John Gay, the Chairman of the logging company Gunns, had been the subject of vandalism. As noted below, the story was hyped in the news as involving an "explosive device" planted by activists when, in fact, it was a drunken prank involving a fireworks sparkler. On sentencing, in March 2010, the magistrate fined the vandal and specifically found that he "did not act with political or activist motivations.[1]

The Examiner 'Breaks' the Story

The full front-page article, which had no journalist's byline on it, stated that Launceston police were investigating "two vandalism attacks and an explosive device planted at the home of Gunns chairman John Gay in the early hours of yesterday morning."[1]

The "explosive device" was also described as "a smoke bomb" which was reportedly "ignited on Mr Gay's front doorstep just after midnight but he didn't contact police, seeking to avoid publicity." The Examiner also reported that it was "the second weekend in a row that Mr Gay has had graffiti painted on his front fence." However, what was painted on the fence was not reported. Citing anonymous "family sources", the Examiner story reported that Gay and his wife were "extremely nervous about a radical anti-pulp mill element in the community".[1]

The Examiner story went on to state that Gay confirmed the incident but "declined to comment further because he did not want to encourage such attacks" and that "police found out about the smoke-bomb attack third-hand". The story reported that police were at Gay's home on Sunday morning at 8.30am taking "fingerprint samples" and "were also seen inspecting the letterbox."[1]

The final paragraph of the story stated that "the attacks coincide with a fiery community cabinet meeting at Beaconsfield last Sunday where 21 anti- pulp mill protesters were arrested." No comment from the group that organised the protest was included nor was there any indication that one had been sought.[1]

The media follow-up

Following The Examiner's story frame

An AAP story, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, relied almost exclusively on the Examiner article. However, what the Examiner had described as an "explosive device" was in fact a "smoke flare" and the vandalism included slogans in "green paint" being painted on the property. The AAP story sought no comment from any group opposing the pulp mill.[2]

A reporter with The Mercury, Nick Clark, reported that "vandals also entered the property and burnt holes in a front door mat". Gay said of the vandalism that "it's too intense and I've had enough." Clark wrote "the attacks reveal the personal cost to Mr Gay and his family of the long and bitter debate over the proposed $2.2 billion Tamar Valley pulp mill."[3]

The Examiner sallies forth once more

For the second day in a row, the entire front page of The Examiner was dedicated to the story. The story -- headlined "Fed Up!: Gunns boss set to quit Tasmania" -- once more cited anonymous sources which claimed that "the Gays were on the brink of leaving Tasmania." The Examiner's Deputy Editor, Barry Prismall and Loretta Johnston reported that "the family believed the devise was professionally built for the occasion and cleverly placed under the front door so that smoke would be dragged into the house". Unlike the initial story, the article notes that both the chairman of TAP, Rod Hutchins and a spokeswoman for Pulp the Mill, Lucy Landon-Lane, rejected any harassment of individuals.[4]

"John Gay and his family may quit Tasmania to escape a campaign of terror against them - involving death threats, obscene graffiti, hate mail, endless bell-ringing in the early hours and now smoke bombs." Prismall and Johnston cited an anonymous friend of Gay that the the family "are frightened and feel like hostages in their own home." "This type of harassment happens every weekend. It's been going on for two years and making the family nervous and afraid to go out in public," friends said.[5]

The Examiner also devoted the bulk of page two to the story as well, with an article featuring the views from a range of environmental groups and state and federal representatives of the Greens. "We absolutely would not condone any personal attack or attacks on private property," Tap into a Better Tasmania chairman Rod Hutchins."We have never resorted to violence, we would never resort to violence," he said. Australian Greens Senator, Christine Milne, said "This is random violence and it could have been conducted by anyone ... there's no suggestion that conservationists are involved. Violence is unacceptable in any shape or form in any circumstance."[6]

The editor of the Examiner, Fiona Reynolds, made the incident the subject of a editorial. In her editorial -- title "Smoke bomb attack act of cowardice" -- Reynolds argued that the "planting of a smoke bomb borders on terrorism" and that the police needed to do everything they could to catch the "perpetrators in the interests of the Gay's personal safety and the state's reputation." While dismissing the idea that groups such as the Wilderness Society of the Greens would be "complicit in these sorts of tactics", she was less unequivocal when it came to local groups such as Pulp The Mill and "TAP Into a Better Future. These groups, seh wrote, were "fundamentally peaceful, with no evidence they've been involved in anything worse than acts of civil disobedience. Yet their reputations are in danger of being tarnished by the attacks on the Gay family".[7]

As with the initial story on the vandalism, Reynolds linked the damage to a protest against the proposed pulp mill. "The timing for them was terrible, the first graffiti attack coinciding with their protest outside a state cabinet meeting at Beaconsfield, with the smoke bomb delivered less than a week later," she wrote. While implying the two events could have been connected, she hastened to qualify her statements. "It is possible that a radical fringe element with no formal affiliation could be responsible. Then again, the attacks may have nothing to do with the pulp mill, or have even been committed by the same person."[7]

As for John Gay and his family, Reyonlds offered support, writing that "they shouldn't leave the state. The people who think these tactics are fair and reasonable are the one we would tell to leave the state."[7]

Luke-warm follow-up beyond The Examiner

Other media outlets, however, were more muted in their follow-up on the story. The Advocate, which is also published by Fairfax Media, ignored it altogether. ABC News reported that Bob McMahon, from anti-mill group TAP Into A Better Tasmania, rejected the suggestion that the vandalism was caused by a supporter. "It's a ridiculous notion, and that's why we put this out, because we don't want commentators or politicians jumping to any sort of self serving conclusions over this alleged attack, pointing the finger at a group such as TAP into a better Tasmania," he said.[8]

Liberal member for Bass, Peter Gutwein, warned against anti-pulp mill groups supporting civil disobedience and objected to a statement at a recent meeting convened by the state government that "righteous anger" was justified. "Those sorts of statements only need to be picked up by one idiot who wants to go outside the law and you end up with situations like this one occurring," he said. "I just think that people who're in responsible positions in this community, they should be responsible in the language that they use."[8]

The Examiner keeps on going

In its fourth story on the incident, in another article without a byline, The Examiner reported that "an obscene drawing was spray- painted on Mr Gay's fence and an item emitting a large amount of smoke was allegedly placed on his front doorstep." However, Detective Acting Inspector John Parker, of Tasmania Police, "said 'at this stage' there was nothing to indicate the incident was necessarily politically motivated. "In any community, there are always going to be incidences of property damage,' he said."[9]

But if Parker's comment was meant to signal caution against attributing a political motive being attributed to the incident, the Examiner reporter cut to former Tasmanian Premier and Gunns director, Robin Gray. "John's doing his absolute best for Tasmania - I think it's the right thing - and nobody should be subject to that sort of behaviour," he said.

Labor Premier David Bartlett got in on the act as well, seeking to conflate support for civil disobedience with the harassment of Gay. "Every Tasmanian has a right to feel safe and secure in their own home .... Freedom of speech is part of our democracy. There are people out there who have been calling for `civil unrest' and if this is the sort of behaviour they are referring to, Tasmanians should stand united and condemn it," he said.[10]

The most pertinent comment though was not in the article but a comment posted to the newspaper's website by "Simon". 'Well, I live about five doors away from John Gay. I don't think a lot of this damage caused to his property is via his association with Gunns. I have had my car bonnet jumped on, my fences ripped off seven times in three years, eggs thrown at my cars, hoses stolen from my yard and the same image Mr Gay has on his fence drawn on the side of my work van! This area needs more police patrols - there are too many drunken people on their way home doing damage!".[11]

Lennon resurfaces

Bartlett's unpopular predecessor, Paul Lennon, got in on the anti-environmentalist action as well. In a column in The Examiner, Lennon cautioned "the public not to be conned by the statements from anti-pulp mill campaigners, which have been cleverly crafted to distance themselves from the disgraceful vandalism at the Gays' family home. Anybody who seriously believes this latest attack against John and his family was not orchestrated by the anti-pulp mill campaigners is kidding themselves."

"These people believe they are above the law, that they are protected from the law and that therefore they can break the law with impunity in order to draw attention to themselves ... It is clear that not all protesters condone violence as a weapon, but by their silence they are providing safe refuge to expertly trained operatives whose role it is to use whatever means available, including violent methods, to stop the pulp mill. It is also time for the leadership of the anti-pulp mill movement to remove from within their number those persons who think violence is a legitimate weapon before they cause serious injury to someone. The attack on the Gays' family home and the unruly behaviour of protesters at the recent cabinet forum in Beaconsfield was evidence that the anti-pulp mill leadership had decided tactically to ramp up the confrontationist nature of their campaign to stop the mill," he wrote.[12]

Lennon's accusatory column was read out by Tim Cox, the presenter of the ABC's "Statewide Mornings" radio program as fodder to stimulate talk-back callers. "After the news I'll share with you what Paul Lennon had to say in The Examiner newspaper today about the attack on John Gay's home at the weekend and if you'd like to comment on that...," he said.[13]

A reporter for The Mercury, Nick Clark, reported that "the front wall of Mr Gay's property had green paint daubed in the shape of a penis. A hole was also burnt in the front-door mat by a device comprising a small carbon dioxide canister and two sparklers wrapped in foil. It is understood the sparklers had burned but the canister did not explode."[14] A spokesman for the TAP into a Better Tasmania group, Bob McMahon, that "it was entirely predictable from past performances that fingers would be pointed at TAP for the alleged attack on John Gay's house. And how self-serving for pulp-mill supporters to do so."[14]

ABC News report on the issue was more measured, with its story leading with Bob McMahon, from anti-mill group TAP Into A Better Tasmania cautioning against people jumping to conclusions. However, McMahon's comments were 'balanced' by a comment from the Liberal Party's Peter Gutwein who argued that pulp mill opponents needed, the ABC reported, "to be careful not to incite civil disobedience." The Advocate did not cover the issue.

Forestry Tasmania's spin doctor joins the melee

While most of the media were tiring of the story, the government-owned logging company, Forestry Tasmania, also joined the forestry industry finger-pointers. The agency's General Manager Corporate Relations and Tourism, Ken Jeffreys, claimed that "condemnation of the attack on the private residence of the Gunns Ltd chairman" John Gay was one of "a series of embarrassing setbacks for the anti-forestry movement."[15]

The anti-environmentalist hysteria implodes

Late on Tuesday October 13, Acting Detective Inspector John Parker of Tasmania Police stated that "investigations have established that the damage caused was in relation to a prank involving several males, and involved a level of intoxication."[16]

"The man has been charged with injury to property and trespass. He is to appear in the Launceston Magistrates Court at a later date," he said.[16]

(Just under two weeks later, Tasmanian Police announced that they had also charged a second man with injuring property and trespass over the October 10 incident.)[17][18]

The day after the first man had been charged, Cox opened his program with the issue, once more with the focus on soliciting talk back calls on the issue. "A message via SMS 'I listen with eager interest to your show today in anticipation of an apology from those who publicly accused environmentalists of the vandalism of John Gay's house. Will I wait in vain do you think?' Well what do you think 1300 22 926 is the number you can call," he said.[19]

Later in the program, Cox told listeners, "through the SMS Jan says "Egg on the faces of the many hysterical pro-mill callers yesterday. Will there be an apology forthcoming to the anti-mill groups now that a pranskter, an alleged prankster, has been charged?'" Later still he read out another. "'I wonder', says another listener, Alan in Lewisham, ... 'with the young man being charged with the John Gay thing will Paul Lennon write an apology in The Examiner for all the anti-pulp millers.'"[19]

The Examiner's editor defends its reporting

The Sunday after police had announced that the first man had been charged, the editor of The Examiner, Fiona Reynolds, used her weekly Statewatch on Sunday column to defend the paper's reporting and criticise some of the anti-pulp mill campaign groups. In her column -- titled "Some pulp protesters shredding credibility" -- Reynolds wrote that "The Examiner pointed out that the timing of the alleged incident was terrible, coming so close to the protest, but "the attacks may have nothing to do with the pulp mill". It was a statement of fact, interpreted by TAP supporters as The Examiner linking them. I'd ask who was jumping to the "self- serving conclusions" they warned against?"[20]

"Further comment," she wrote, "on the alleged incident is not possible because it is now before the courts."[20]

As for Lennon's accusatory column, Reynolds wrote that "TAP was invited to write an opposing column on the same day and chose not to. Pulp The Mill submitted a piece. There were blogs and emails calling on Mr Lennon to apologise for "pointing the finger". But apparently it was OK for anti-mill campaigners to be reported the day before - and write letters - saying that a disgruntled former Gunns employee could have been responsible, as a result of job losses."[20]

"The Examiner was accused of printing "defamation" against anti-pulp mill people. A couple of old cliches spring to mind: don't throw stones in glass houses, and practise what you preach. Many letters to the editor and online comments from TAP members and supporters can't be run because they're defamatory, inaccurate or personal attacks," she wrote.[20]

Then she criticised Tasmanian Times, a website which had published both The Examiner's original articles and a number of articles responding to them. "We operate under the law and adhere to Press Council guidelines and the journalist code of ethics, striving for accuracy, balance and fairness ... So please don't lecture me on the law, ethics and accuracy. Our reporters put their names to stories and are continuously attacked by people too gutless to identify themselves. We choose not to read the rantings of conspiracy theorists who spread rumours and are rapidly alienating sections of the media and community who were prepared to listen to their concerns," she wrote.[20]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Gay's home smoke-bombed", The Examiner, October 11, 2009. (The story was tagged as being published online at 1am).
  2. "Gunns boss' home attacked: reports", Sydney Morning Herald, October 11, 2009. (This is an AAP story).
  3. "Vandals attack Gunns' boss", The Mercury, October 11, 2009.
  4. Barry Prismall and Loretta Johnston, "Fed Up!: Gunns boss set to quit Tasmania", The Examiner, October 12, 2009, page 1.
  5. Barry Prismall and Loretta Johnston, "Gunns boss John Gay set to quit Tasmania", The Examiner, October 12, 2009.
  6. Loretta Johnston, "Anti-mill groups hit at vandalism spree", The Examiner, October 12, 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Fiona Reynolds, "Smoke bomb attack act of cowardice", The Examiner, October 12, 2009, page 14.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Police investigating vandalism at home of Gunns' chairman", ABC News, October 12, 2009.
  9. "The Gay attack: a state of reaction Police inquiries continue", The Examiner, October 13, 2009.
  10. "The Gay attack: a state of reaction Police inquiries continue", The Examiner, October 13, 2009.
  11. Simon, "What you said on the web", The Examiner, October 13, 2009, page 5. (Not available online).
  12. Paul Lennon, "Pulp mill protesters' tactics are despicable", The Examiner, October 13, 2009. (The online version of this story was timestamped 2:54 PM.)
  13. Tim Cox, "Statewide Mornings", ABC, October 13, 2009.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Nick Clark, "Forestry makes vandal mileage", The Mercury, October 13, 2009. (Not available online).
  15. Forestry Tasmania, "What they won't tell you today!", Media Release, October 13, 2009.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "Man charged over John Gay house attack", The Examiner, October 13, 2009.
  17. "Second man charged over attack on John Gay's house", The Examiner, October 26, 2009.
  18. "Police charge second man with attack on Gunns chief's house", ABC News, October 26, 2009.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Tim Cox, "Statewide Mornings", ABC, October 14, 2009.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 Fiona Reynolds, "Some pulp protesters shredding credibility", The Examiner, October 18, 2009.

External resources

External articles