Even if the Chilean mine rescue, with its spectacular global telepresence, had not so recently unfolded on our screens, the “Pike River crisis” would have been a perilous story for the press to cover. News organisations here and abroad have struck a breaking-news stance in a situation where there is very little news to break. They frequently have little option but to repeat themselves.
But Chile is in the media world’s mind – I know of one former TV reporter in the area who has filed for the ABC, the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera -- and, yes, we really do expect miracles.
Sunday in Britain dawned with both the BBC and Sky News leading with Pike River. On Saturday afternoon, The Guardian’s reporter even affected to be there:
They are a hardy type in Ataura. As might be expected of those living in a town on the remote west coast of New Zealand's South Island, the locals pride themselves on their resilience and ability to cope with adversity.
But as they waited to learn the fate of 29 men who have not been heard of since an explosion ripped through the Pike River coalmine, many in the close-knit community were fearing the worst.
Well, actually, the place where the mine is is Atarau, and while a few people live thereabouts, the main “close-knit community” is three quarters of an hour away, in Greymouth. Here’s a map. But The Guardian’s story has been copied endlessly across the internet and is now some version of the truth.
On Friday, Al-Jazeera reported thus:
Stephen Parker, a TV3 reporter in Wellington, the capital, told Al Jazeera that up to five miners had emerged safely.
"It appears two miners were led to safety and there are reports that an additional three miners have emerged as well," he said.
The reports were, of course, baseless. They may have been spread via the Pike River Facebook page, where, as of this morning, 31,000 people have gathered to express their feelings from afar. The role of social media in helping distant souls feel they are part of the story by dint of their best wishes is strongly evident here. And who would blame people?
The main TV news bulletins have done some good, difficult work and also terribly over-egged parts of their job. 3 News last night rotated the same, limited set of facts – and One News took the live cross to new heights of pointlessness as Peter Williams and two reporters conversed with each other via separate satellite uploads from different streetcorners of Greymouth’s little CBD, perhaps a couple of hundred metres apart. Quite why they could not have simply spoken to each other like human beings, I’m not sure.
The truth is, things look bleak even if a miracle is visited on the mine and everyone comes out safely. The Pike River mining company is deeply in debt, and it will not open again. All the jobs are gone.
On a personal level, the line in the news that yanked me back to living in Greymouth as a child was the one about the foreign nationals trapped in the mine. Greymouth was like that, I recall: people would wash up at this small, storied place from all over. And the mines were important. I lived there in the early 1970s, and people still talked then about the 1967 Strongman mine disaster, in which 19 men lost their lives.
My other thought was the one that strikes me every time I go back to the West Coast: that earning a living there is often a matter of taking on nature in a place where nature is particularly resilient. And, more there than most places, nature may win.