Sceptical Climate: Lies, Debates, and Silences How News Corp produces climate scepticism in Australia

This report presents the results of an investigation into how four publications, owned by Australia’s most powerful media company, News Corp Australia, covered anthropogenic climate change and its impacts from April 2019 to March 2020. These publications are The Australian, Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph and The Courier Mail.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction by report authors Wendy Bacon and Arunn Jegan

The issues that this report investigates go to the heart of Australia’s politics and system of government. For years, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other powerful scientific communities around the world have warned that if the world does not act urgently to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, there will be massive impacts on all forms of life. Five years ago more than 200 nations agreed to measures to lessen greenhouse gas emissions at the behest of the United Nations (the Paris Agreement). The warnings from scientists have become ever more cogent and urgent. As a country dependent on fossil fuels, this poses a huge political challenge for Australia. As with all political challenges, the media is an active player in determining how we meet that challenge.

It happens that Australia also has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. News Corp is a powerful global company. In Australia it is the dominant force controlling more than 50% of the national newspaper market and holding a near monopoly of printbased publications in some states. It also controls Sky News, which it cross-promotes across all its publications. For more than 30 years News Corp Australia’s dominance of the media market has been seen by many commentators as a threat to our democracy. In 2012, barrister and retired judge Raymond Finkelstein conducted an independent inquiry into the media and found that the power that News Corp exercises is potentially a threat to democracy. News Corp repudiated his findings, describing them as a threat to its ‘free speech’.

This research builds on two other reports produced for the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) at the University of Technology, Sydney (The ACIJ has since closed). Those reports found that News Corp had vigorously campaigned against ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s carbon price policy and had actively produced large amounts of content that undermined the work of the world’s climate scientists. News Corp’s campaigns were justified by appeals to its right to free speech and the importance of journalists sticking up for dissenters. (Bacon, 2011 & Bacon, 2013).

When that report appeared, the then Director of the ACIJ, climate-change researcher and journalist Associate Professor Tom Morton was quoted in The Conversation as saying, ‘If you believe that the main obligation of journalists is to the public right to know, the results of this study are truly alarming. Journalism is about reporting contemporary events as accurately as possible. There could be no better example of the importance of this than the reporting of climate science.’

Eight years later and with an even greater understanding of the urgency of the threat of climate change, the same authors welcomed the chance to produce this report, commissioned by GetUp.

A number of volunteers also contributed to the work of data coding for this report, and we thank them. They share our concern about how News Corp covers climate change. Our aim has been to produce the most accurate report possible, and responsibility for its content lies solely with the authors.

The research sample is very large, and as we report, the patterns that have emerged are clear. Despite News Corp’s executive chairman Rupert Murdoch saying in two consecutive years (2019, 2020) that there are no ‘climate denialists’ in his company, News Corp continues to pursue its practice, honed over many years, of producing large amounts of content that derides and undermines climate science, climate scientists and climate policy change advocates.

Like any other media organisation, News Corp Australia is not monolithic. Editorial strategies driven by commercial and political imperatives are geared towards building targeted audiences. Over the years, as documented in our previous reports, journalists have pushed back against News Corp’s editorial agenda, some even eventually leaving their jobs. Mostly, journalists accept the findings of climate science, although news reporting is still oriented to fit News Corp Australia’s editorial agenda. This is why the role that opinion and commentary plays is so important.

Journalists not only produce visible content. They can also produce absences: silences and invisibilities. Our research reveals absences, including the exclusion of leading climate scientists and of First Nations sources, and the production of a myopic worldview, in which the plight of communities impacted by extreme weather linked to climate change in the Pacific, South Asia, South-East Asia, and elsewhere, is invisible.

Some may argue that News Corp Australia’s repeated attacks on climate science don’t matter. As recent polls show, most Australians understand that climate change is happening. News Corp’s audience and revenue is declining. However, if particular audiences, even if not huge, are being told that their interests, values and way of life are threatened, it can only make the processes of change slower and more difficult.

News Corp’s coverage seems to be more about producing ignorance than informing people so they can participate in debates about solutions. If people are confused or ignorant about potential threats, they cannot be expected to support action to confront these.

Our research clearly demonstrates active opposition by News Corp Australia to the development and implementation of effective public policy to address the massive threats of anthropogenic climate change.

Half a million signatures on a 2020 petition to Parliament calling for a Royal Commission into News Corp Australia is an indication that there is a great deal of public concern about the role that News Corp plays in climate change and other political debates. We hope that this report will increase public and scholarly understanding about the complexity of media strategies to serve an editorially defined political agenda of thwarting popular knowledge about and effective policy responses to anthropogenic climate change.

Wendy Bacon and Arunn Jegan, December 2020