Taking water from the Basin: when does ‘theft’ constitute a ‘crime’?

Dr Katrina Clifford1, Professor Rob White2
1Deakin University, Burwood Melbourne, Australia, 2University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia

An ABC Four Corners investigation broadcast in July 2017 revealed a series of improper conducts pertaining to the Murray-Darling Basin, including allegations of water theft, questionable compliance decisions, and collusion between the water regulator and irrigation lobbyists. At the time, then-Federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce refused calls for the Commonwealth to step in and investigate – placing the responsibility back on state governments – and accused Four Corners of taking part in a campaign to take more water from irrigators. This interdisciplinary study explores these issues through the news and institutional discourses evident within state and national media reports of the controversy and its fallout, as well as the various roles of social actors in problem-definition. It does so through the lens of critical green criminology and a framing analysis of a sample of news texts from ABC News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Advertiser, spanning the catalyst of the controversy – the broadcast of the Four Corners episode – through to the announcement of prosecutions in March 2018. The study identifies the dominant media frames adopted in the news coverage of these issues. It compares these with the frames adopted by critical green criminology, which views the allegations at the heart of the Murray-Darling Basin controversy in terms of state-corporate interests, industry capture of regulators and the notion that water ‘theft’ constitutes a ‘crime’ and environmental harm generates ‘victims’. This paper presents the findings of the study, which serve to elaborate on the silences and opportunities for shaping public understandings and the role of media reporting of crimes of the powerful (involving stakeholders such as large agricultural companies and state government agencies) as they pertain to environmental matters.


Katrina Clifford is a Senior Lecturer in Communication and Course Director for the Master of Communication at Deakin University. She has published in the areas of media criminology and journalism studies. Among her recent publications are ‘Media and Crime’ (Oxford University Press, 2017, with Rob White) and Policing, Mental Illness and Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).



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