5. Discussion and conclusions

The Independent Media Inquiry into print and online media issues paper that was released in September 2011, sets out a list of matters the Inquiry will address. The first matter refers to the famous dissenting Justice Holmes judgment in the case of Abrams v United States in 1919:

“(The) ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the test of truth is the power of thought to get accepted in the competition of the market.”

While they may not have directly addressed the question, the response of Australia’s media companies was clear. The market, if left to itself can be trusted to deliver a quality media outcome for Australia.

The critical issue of climate change is an excellent case study through which we might examine whether this claim to trust is justified.

There are two unusual features of Australian society that are relevant to the discussion of the significance of the findings of this study.

The first is that since the middle of the twentieth century, Australia has experienced an increasing concentration of media ownership that ranks very highly among liberal democracies. News Ltd dominates the newspaper market and in four state capital cities owns the only metropolitan newspaper. Fairfax controls one national business paper and three metropolitan newspapers, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. The news websites of these media companies, along with the ABC and MSN, are among Australia’s top news websites. Both News Ltd and Fairfax have interests in the broadcast and other online media. The only other metropolitan newspaper – The West Australian – is owned by Seven West Media, which also owns Channel 7 and the Australian Yahoo Internet site.

The second feature is that Australia’s high dependency on fossil fuels has resulted in us having among the highest per capita greenhouse emissions in the world. Climate change has been a hot topic in the Australian media for several years, not so much because it threatens the planet but because of the tense political struggle over how the Australian government should respond. Amongst participants in this struggle are Australian media companies.

This year the focus has been on the Gillard Labor government’s carbon policy that was announced in February and passed by the Australian parliament this month. This study reveals that the coverage of climate change by ten Australian newspapers from February to July 2011 tended to be negative towards the policy.

In itself, these finding are not particularly remarkable or surprising. What is more significant are the differences between the media outlets and the extent of the negative bias.

Overall, News Ltd papers have been far more negative towards the policy than the Fairfax papers. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald were balanced in their coverage. The Age was the only paper to be more positive than negative.

There is variation across the News Ltd stable with The Mercury and The Advertiser being more balanced than other papers. The two biggest News Ltd tabloids – Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph – have been so biased in their coverage that it is fair to say they ‘campaigned’ against the policy rather than covered it. The influence of these two publications extends far outside Sydney and Melbourne. The Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph columnists are syndicated across News Ltd mastheads including some regional ones. They also publish blogs, which carry a large amount of material in similar vein to print material and regularly appear on television and radio, supported by corporate marketing techniques designed to amplify their impact.

While the impact of columnists is considerable, negative coverage cannot be attributed merely to several well-published conservative personalities. Bias is an editorial accomplishment achieved through a variety of journalistic techniques included headlining, the selection and prominence of topics and sources, structuring and editing of articles, selection and promotion of commentators, editorials and cartoons or other visuals.

The issue is not one of free speech or the right of a few individuals to push their ideas but the market power of a dominant company to build support for particular policies and ideas.

The media are sensitive about accusations of bias because their own claim to legitimacy rests on codes and ethics that urge them to seek the truth through fairness, accuracy and impartiality. In a media market where two companies control a large slice of the media, accusations of bias are particularly discomforting and suggest that some sources and points of view may not be getting a ‘fair go’.

Media companies prefer not to acknowledge their own power in framing public debate. They argue that readers are free to go elsewhere, although often the outlets they point to are not in the same market or covering the same topics. Particularly important is the media’s role in determining the visibility or invisibility of groups and sources and the ways in which different audiences are told (or not) what interests are at stake. The results of the source analysis show that business sources were afforded far more access than those of civil society, including NGOs who have played an active role in promoting action on climate change. Little space was given to sources, including business sources, which argued that the carbon policy would bring economic and environmental benefits. The fossil fuel business lobby were featured prominently, often with little scrutiny of their claims.

While some will justify a negative approach by appealing to the important role of journalists to scrutinise government, 31% of news and feature articles with no more than one source indicates that many sources are in fact not held to account. This may in part be due to the lack of resources in newsrooms under stress from a loss of advertising. However, as other media research has shown, this opens up possibilities for well-resourced interests to gain high visibility for their views through press releases including commissioned research and consultants reports tailored to the news cycle. Private power as well as government power needs to consistently scrutinised by journalists.

Failure to get coverage cannot be put down to failure of communication strategies although the success of big business sources is certainly aided by their interconnected advertising, public relations and lobbying activities.

The Australian, the only general national newspaper, pitches itself as a leader of national political debate, was also strongly negative toward the Gillard Government’s carbon policy. This may reflect its overall opposition to the Gillard government, the Greens and support for big business. It often states its broad support for a carbon price and published neutral and occasional positive commentary. It can be contrasted with The Age, which carried a similar amount of neutral material but was the only paper to have more positive articles than negative.

In June, The Age published an article about a letter in which a number of prominent Australians including News Ltd.’s Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s mother Dame Elizabeth Murdoch’s had supported the carbon price. The Age story took a dig at The Australian, which had on the same day “… splashed with a report saying a carbon tax would force eight coal mines to close and cost thousands of jobs, The Herald Sun ‘revealed’ that the carbon tax would push up the prices of Mars Bars and McDonald’s.” (‘The Age: Climate Crusader Dame Elizabeth Murdoch joins public campaign for a price on carbon’, June 15, 2011).

The Australian went on the attack with an editorial accusing The Age of censorship.

“For a newspaper to censor or deliberately avoid points of view, such as these, because they conflict with or undermine its own position would be a fundamental breach of trust. Fairfax editors must hold their readers in such low esteem that they will only share with them information that will help shape pre-determined opinions. What a deceptive manipulation of public discourse and an insult to the readers. What disregard for the essence of news and journalism.”

The accusation that Fairfax has a ‘dark heart’ in which complex debates are distilled to simple viewpoints, peddled to a deliberately misinformed readership is a heavy one. It conflicts with the results of this study which showed that both the SMH and The Age were both more likely to be neutral and were more evenly balanced between positive and negative than The Australian.

The Australian’s ‘exclusive’ June 14 report referred to in The Age had reported on what it claimed to be ‘economic modelling’ by consultants ACIL Tasman. To be fair the Minister for Climate Change Greg Combet was quoted briefly by The Australian contesting the its claims of mine closures and job losses, unlike reports on the Channel Nine and ABC websites which closely mirror The Australian Coal Association (ACA) ’s media release. The Age meanwhile did cover the report on June 15 but also reported in two paragraphs on a Climate Institute response asserting that despite a slowing in jobs growth, 3575 news jobs would be created by 2020.

This report also quoted the ACA and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott who referred to the ‘toxic tax’. We could identify no other media investigated or reported on the Climate Institute’s response.

The Age also ran an opinion piece by Coalition shadow minister Julie Bishop on July 13, 2011.

Political values and support for political policies are embedded in journalists’ reporting either implicitly or explicitly. It is clear that The Age is a more progressive than The Australian but there is no evidence in this study that The Age engages in censorship. Indeed it appears to be considerably more balanced than any News Ltd paper. All papers in this study strongly represented business sources and if any sources were shut out of the debate, it was civil society sources and scientists who supported the policy.

To be positive or negative towards a policy does not imply that a journalist loses impartiality, fairness or a critical approach. Columnists such as the News Ltd.’s Mike Steketee, Fairfax’s Ian Verrender and Peter Hartcher wrote a range of incisive pieces making critical points about both sides of the carbon policy debate. The SMH’s Lenore Taylor held Abbott’s policy and the claims of industry up to scrutiny more consistently than nearly all other journalists.

This study only provides a snapshot of the coverage. Despite low public support, the policy has passed parliament but the coverage continues.

On the day the Clean Energy bills passed parliament, The Daily Telegraph ran a full-page story: ‘Carbon Casualties –three million families will suffer under a new carbon tax regime.’ (November 10, 2011). The story that was featured on news.com.au, The Daily Telegraph, Perthnow websites is about Teddy Samuelson. “The stay-at-home mum said her husband worked “bloody hard for his money” with the family battling existing expenses and the cost of raising three boys in Sydney on Mr. Samuelson’s wage of more than $150,000 a year.”

The article explained that “A lot of the debate is based on inconclusive scientific evidence … we don’t really get a say in anything any more.” While the available evidence showed that most Australians will be better off under the carbon price compensation measures, the story was headlined and constructed to emphasise the cost of the scheme to Australian taxpayers. The reference to inconclusive scientific evidence merged scientific claims with a feeling of democratic exclusion, reinforcing the doubts or readers who are not yet convinced by the scientific consensus on human induced climate change.

Just twenty years ago, a Parliamentary Select Inquiry investigated the Australian print media and found that while the media was highly concentrated and this had an impact on diversity, the Inquiry could find no evidence that the media, in particular News Ltd was biased.

Ten years earlier, the Norris inquiry into Victorian print media had also found dangerous levels of concentration but no definite evidence of bias. Now another government appointed Independent Media Inquiry is asking how well do current standards and codes of practice fulfill their goals and whether there are issues that affect the media’s ability to act in the public interest? Surely there could be few articles that are more clearly in the ‘public interest’ than the critical issue of global climate change.

Yes, this report has established that the reporting of climate change in sections of the Australian media has been far from impartial, fair or balanced. Is it in the public interest for a media organisation that dominates the market to ‘campaign’ as The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun have done, on an issue which a huge majority of the world’s scientists have found threatens the lives of millions? In what circumstances does a lack of diversity and balance, represent a threat to democracy?

Our research has also found evidence of strong reporting, both in these ten publications, the ABC and the fledgling independent media. At the same time however, News Ltd amplifies the power of some of its most biased reporting through blogs, video, links with talk back radio and broadcast media.

Our second report which deals with the reporting of climate science will provide more evidence that while the carbon policy was the focus of intense attention, climate science reporting slipped right down the news agenda. Meanwhile Australian readers received their usual dose of climate scepticism.

Evidence in this report suggests that many Australians did not receive fair, accurate and impartial reporting in the public interest in relation to the carbon policy in 2011. This suggests that rather an open and competitive market that can be trusted to deliver quality media, we may have a case of market failure.