4.10 Opinion

In all there were 909 opinion pieces. Nearly 60% of these were negative and 18% were positive. Nearly 25% were coded 'neutral'. As Figure 4.10.2 shows, when neutral pieces were removed, opinion pieces were 78% negative compared to 22% positive. However, all newspapers carried some positive and neutral commentary. For example, even the Herald Sun, which was extremely negative towards the policy, published several columns by its regular columnist Jill Singer who is in favour of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Traditionally commentary was mainly designed to provide a venue for voices outside the paper. In this sample, professional journalists or commentators wrote 75% of columns. Our analysis has focused on these pieces.

Figure 4.10.1: Percentage of negative, positive and neutral opinion articles, across 10 Australian newspapers from Feb. - Jul. 2011.
Newspaper Negative Neutral Positive
The Advertiser 53% 33% 14%
The Age 30% 28% 42%
The Australian 71% 17% 12%
The Courier Mail 63% 30% 7%
The Daily Telegraph 76% 11% 13%
Herald Sun 81% 16% 3%
The Mercury 44% 24% 32%
The Northern Territory News 85% 0% 15%
The Sydney Morning Herald 36% 34% 30%
The West Australian 49% 43% 9%
Total 59% 23% 18%

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Figure 4.10.2: Percentage of negative opinion pieces vs positive opinion pieces, across 10 Australian newspapers from Feb. - Jul. 2011.
Newspaper Negative Positive
The Advertiser 79% 21%
The Age 41% 59%
The Australian 85% 15%
The Courier Mail 89% 11%
The Daily Telegraph 85% 15%
Herald Sun 96% 4%
The Mercury 58% 42%
The Northern Territory News 85% 15%
The Sydney Morning Herald 54% 46%
The West Australian 85% 15%
Total 76% 24%%

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Styles of commentary

We identified four broad styles of commentary produced by journalists and regular newspaper columnists. Columnists often use more than one of these styles.

The first is an older style of political commentary that seeks to judge performance and canvas political and economic options in an apparently 'balanced' way. These columns often focus on the on-going political struggle between leaders and parties. Channel Nine's political editor and News Ltd columnist Laurie Oakes and The Age's Michelle Grattan are examples of such columnists. Their tone is measured and never strident. They do take positions but they usually write in a more detached and 'neutral' style.

A second style is also detached but more pointed and often ironic. These journalists often use their columns to produce empirical analysis that could also be part of a feature. The SMH's Lenore Taylor, for example, published several columns in which she critiqued claims by interests opposed to the policy.

A third type of commentator is the specialist journalist. In this study, such specialists included the SMH Green Biz columnist Padding Manning who is supportive of action on climate change but investigative in his approach and regular The Mercury columnist Peter Boyer, a rare example of a pro-climate change action News Ltd columnist.

A fourth group of columnists was those who overtly promote a set of values and political positions that they apply to a range of policy issues. Some, but not all of these columnists overlay their core arguments with highly emotive language and attributions of blame that the first and second style of columnists rarely use. These include columnists such as The Daily Telegraph's Piers Akerman. Columnists of this kind are usually conservative in political outlook. There are no equivalent examples of strident progressives found in the corporate media. (The author could also not find any in the independent or alternative media.)

Analysis of key commentators

The person with the most individual columns (some of them syndicated across the Herald Sun, The Courier Mail, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph) and highest number of words was Terry McCrann, who was extremely hostile to the policy and often questioned the scientific consensus on climate science. In all, McCrann published 60 pieces, which made significant reference to the carbon policy. Some of these were repeats, sometimes under different titles.

Four days after the policy was announced on February 24, McCrann published a column 'A pledge of suicide'. In the second paragraph of the piece he wrote that the tax is “designed to force us to cut our emissions of carbon dioxide. To stress, emissions of the life-enhancing gas, not the so-called carbon pollution of bits of grit subconscious image that Gillard and Co deliberately promote”, (author's italics).

McCrann's key argument is that there was no point in Australia reducing its emissions because China will be dramatically increasing its emissions. He ends the column with: “It is not just designed to hurt every Australian. Permanently. It is effectively a national suicide pledge. From the nation's leader. Incredible. Surreal. All-too real”. ('Carbon Tax, A Pledge of Suicide', The Australian, 28 Feb 2011).

Less than a month later, McCrann began another column 'A breath of fresh air' by referring to the “insane stupidity of Julia Gillard's carbon tax”. Much of the rest of the column reported the views of Graeme Kraehe, the Chairman of Bluescope Steel, who had argued in a speech at the National Press Club that the carbon policy would 'decimate' manufacturing in Australia. McCrann accuses Julia Gillard of “deliberately misleading the Australian people” and agrees with Kraehe's argument.

“extraordinarily powerful and indeed brave speech from Kraehe, as this is a vindictive government that seeks to punish those who don't toe the line. It also shames his fellow leading business colleagues who have variously been cowed by the government or have sought access and favours by toadying up to it. Or like many in the financial services sector that can see money to be made in trading carbon in the new world. While being either indifferent to the industry corpses on which their profits would be made or simply too stupid to understand that. Or both.” ('A breath of fresh air', Herald Sun, March 23, 2011)

The person with the second highest number of columns was Andrew Bolt, with 41 pieces. Bolt is a well-known climate sceptic and was extremely hostile to the policy. Some of his columns were syndicated in the Herald Sun, The Advertiser, the NT News and The Daily Telegraph.

Together, opinion writers who are sceptical of anthropogenic climate change including Terry McCrann, Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair, Miranda Devine, Piers Akerman and Christopher Pearson accounted for at least 21% of all words of commentary published by journalists and regular commentators across the ten newspapers. Their columns are prominently featured online, often accompanied by highly negative cartoons and illustrations.

Non-government organisations campaigning in support of a carbon price adopted the fairly conventional non-government organisation communication strategy of including a celebrity in their work seeking support for change. The Director of the Sydney Theatre Company and well-known Australian actor Cate Blanchett agreed to be part of an advertisement.

On June 1, Bolt described the Blanchett ad as 'unscientific' and full of 'falsehoods', declaring Blanchett to be a 'hypocrite' who was part of an advertisement that “should shame all green groups and unions that made the wretched thing and that this should warn the rest of us there is much less to this scare that such shameless people claim.” ('Alarmist Ad truly a disgrace', Herald Sun, 1 June 2011).

On July 13, Andrew Bolt commented, “not a word Gillard says in favour of her dangerous tax can be trusted.” Towards its end the column stated: “what's she selling is a giant fraud that mere spin cannot hide. The world isn't warming as she thought” And: “The Nation being led to a gigantic folly, lured to a cliff.”

News Ltd claim that Bolt is its best-read blogger. The company heavily promotes his appearances on radio and television. His political arguments are heavily laced with climate skepticism and accusations of fraud and dishonesty. (There is more discussion of Bolt's constitutions in the second report on the reporting of climate science.)

Figure 4.10.3: Number of articles and word count of top ten commentators and percentage of total articles and word count of total by journalists and regular commentators, from Feb. - Jul. 2011.
Commentator / Journalist Total no. of articles % of total no. of comment articles Word count % of words in all comment articles
Terry McCrann 60 9% 36887 7%
Andrew Bolt 41 6% 33906 6%
Dennis Shanahan 32 5% 17393 3%
Laurie Oakes 30 4% 28092 5%
Paddy Manning 26 4% 19898 4%
Miranda Devine 26 4% 21482 4%
Michelle Grattan 18 3% 12834 2%
Piers Akerman 18 3% 17632 3%
Paul Kelly 17 2% 23798 4%
David Penberthy 17 2% 14964 3%
Total 285 42% 226886 40%

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We ranked the columnists according to the number of articles they published. Following McCrann and Bolt, the top ten included: News Ltd columnist Laurie Oakes who was usually neutral, The Australian's Denis Shanahan who was usually negative, The Daily Telegraph's Miranda Devine who was negative, The Daily Telegraph's Piers Akerman who was negative and The Daily Telegraph's David Penberthy who was usually negative. The Australian's Paul Kelly tended to be neutral.

Frequently published Fairfax commentators included The Age's senior political reporter Michelle Grattan, whose columns were coded neutral or positive, the SMH business reporter Paddy Manning, whose weekly Green Biz column, regularly covered the issue from the perspective of investigating vested interests opposing the policy and SMH political reporter Lenore Taylor who was one of the few journalists to presented a solid critique of Abbott's policy and claims about the impact of the carbon policy on power prices.

Some opinion pieces used feature style methods and sources to make their points. On June 4, David Penberthy, in a slightly humorous piece, 'Plumbers pan the carbon tax' syndicated across several News Ltd sites, began “In a telling intervention which will change the dynamics of the debate, 13 of the nation's leading plumbers have spoken out about the carbon tax.” He summarized their position as follows:

“ None of them has the fainted bloody idea how the carbon tax will work and generally they think the government is doing what one described as “shit job” of explaining it. They all agreed that costs would be past onto consumers and with two exceptions, they queried the timing and purpose of the tax.”

Two plumbers who supported action were quoted briefly at the end. Penberthy concluded that by comparison with his interviews, 'communiqués' from eminent Australians such as ex- Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser are “a useless bit of middle-class posturing.” Penberthy's columns are syndicated in The Daily Telegraph, The Advertiser, The Courier Mail, the NT News and the Herald Sun.

Some columnists noted the hysterical, strident tone of some of media commentary about the carbon policy. For example on July 13, The Age associate editor Shaun Carney in exploring why the public enthusiasm for a carbon tax had done an about face in four years, wrote that analysis should not be based on assumptions that the media “feel obliged to trade in facts and information rather than emotion and drama”. ('The Death of the Reform Era', The Age, July 13, 2011).

Other publications not included in this study, ABC's Media Watch, Crikey and The Canberra Times also played a role in trying to draw attention to what they see as scare tactics and misinformation serving vested interests.