Key findings of this research are that News Corp Australia produces a large amount of sceptical content about the ideas of anthropogenic climate change and efforts to counter it, but omits coverage of the actual impacts of climate change. It publishes relatively equal amounts of reportage and commentary on these issues, but it is the commentary that overwhelmingly drives the sceptical agenda. News Corp expends considerable resources on well-paid opinion writers who publish large amounts of content that rejects facts established by the world’s climate science community. At the same time, our research shows that News Corp campaigns actively to frustrate the development of government and business investment policies that will encourage the necessary and urgent shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources.
The strategies used to achieve these goals are complex, dynamic and differ across publications and types of journalism, but all four mastheads that we examined (The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and Courier Mail) produce a substantial amount of sceptical content. From April 2019 to March 2020, overall, 45% of all items relating to climate change either rejected or cast doubt upon consensus scientific findings.
The Daily Telegraph is the most sceptical of the News Corp publications with 58% of its content discussing climate change being sceptical, while The Australian is the least sceptical with 38% of items not accepting the findings of climate science. The Daily Telegraph was also the most negative towards action to address climate change. The Courier Mail is the least sceptical of the three tabloids we examined with 45% of items not accepting climate change, perhaps because as the sole Queensland masthead it needs to capture a broader spread of reader and advertiser interests. We found some positive reports about climate change action in stories sourced from AAP (to which News Corps no longer subscribes) and local News Corp mastheads, some of which now no longer exist in print and have almost no remaining staff following redundancies.
News Corp provides its business readers with a more realistic perspective on climate change and climate science findings. Business-themed reportage (news and features) was more likely to be accepting of climate change science (95%) and was more balanced towards action on climate change. Just over half (55%) of business reportage was positive towards action/efforts. Financial, fossil fuel and other mining sources accounted for 56% of all business sources, while renewable energy business accounted for 5%. Just as we were preparing this report for publication, The Australian published a special report on the coal industry, with associated advertising.
These figures need to be considered in light of the fact that there is a 99% consensus of climate scientists about the actuality and dangers of anthropogenic climate change. Further, News Corp’s major competitors in the news media have decided not to promote climate scepticism, on the ethical grounds that it is false and misleading to do so. That leaves News Corp more or less alone to occupy the climate sceptic space among readers, corporate and political interests. This space in the media market is likely to be inceasingly constricted, due to advertising revenue declines, investors seeking to reposition themselves to take advantage of energy and other industrial changes and increasing awareness in the broader Australian community about climate change and its environmental impacts. Despite these factors, Newcorp Australia appears to have become ever more strident in its attempts ot mobilise readers attracted to its sceptic and other ideological stances.
Commentary (editorials, opinion, letters) plays a powerful role in contemporary climate journalism: fully 62% of items in this study were commentary. This compared to more information-based reportage (news and features) which, when combined, made up 38%. It is the commentary, especially the opinion pieces, that drives the scepticism.
All the top opinion writers at News Corp produce material that is sceptical or extremely negative to actions addressing climate change. Andrew Bolt, whose crusade against climate change goes back 20 years, is by far the strongest contributor on climate change coverage. He is personally responsible for 17% of opinion pieces relevant to climate change in our study. Andrew Bolt’s contributions represented 12% of all articles discussing climate change across The Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and the Courier Mail.
In the Herald Sun alone, he had 32% of all articles mentioning climate change. He was also the biggest contributor in our 2011 and 2012 studies. News Corp heavily promotes Bolt and his opinions across its media outlets. News Corp represents itself as a passive facilitator of debate between different opinions in the community. This is inaccurate: News Corp is a very active participant in the politics of climate change in Australia. There is a strong relationship between opinion pieces and letters in its coverage. The Australian employs an ‘Engagement Editor’ (currently Jason Gagliardi) who aggregates and recycles reader’s comments, however outrageously sceptic, into a column. The editor is constructing a sceptic community around the publication, promoting a sense of solidarity and connectedness in the audience, under the slogan ‘this is the column where you provide the content’.
As other studies have shown, a distinctive feature of Australia’s media coverage of climate change is that it is heavily politicised and framed by domestic partisan politics to the exclusion of other issues. Politics and policy are by far the strongest news themes associated with climate change. The scepticism aligns with coverage that is very negative towards action to address climate change, and aligned with more right-wing attitudes generally. While polls show that most Australians understand that anthropogenic climate change is happening and is dangerous, strategic minorities of climate sceptics can be mobilised in a political strategy to thwart effective action that will threaten identifiable political and commercial interests.
We have observed, as have other commentators, that as scientific research expands and deepens our knowledge of climate change, scepticism also shifts its ground. While there are still those that argue that human-induced climate change is not occurring, increasingly the argument is being promoted that we should act on other fronts before climate change, or that climate change is good for the planet. Scepticism morphs because rather than being about evidence, its purposes are ideological and political.
The content of coverage is one thing, but omissions in coverage are just as important. By contrast with the overwhelming levels of scepticism, News Corp Australia provides its readers with very low levels of coverage of climate science information, or actual or predicted impacts of climate change that might clarify misunderstandings promoted by sceptics. We did find a few individual in-depth stories from senior journalists – but then silence ensues, rather than the follow-up you would expect for a major issue. Silence produces ignorance.
News Corp regularly complains about others allegedly trying to stifle its voice or freedom of speech. However, one of the very clear characteristics of its own coverage is that it silences certain categories of sources, including leading scientists, and provides very little space for the voices of civil society. Leading scientists like Tim Flannery have been subjected to frequent abuse, but given little or no opportunity to actually articulate their arguments. It is effectively a policy of ‘shoot the messenger’. The language used to describe climate change advocates and scientists is frequently abusive. Women’s voices are not equally represented in coverage of climate change, especially given their strong contribution to environmental movements. First Nations’ voices on the impacts of climate change were all but absent. In News Corp coverage the rest of the world barely exists, including low income and low-lying countries in our region that will be among the most severely impacted by climate change.
Meanwhile, the climate crisis accelerates. As we conclude this report, Fraser Island (K’gari), a World Heritage site off Queensland’s coast, has been burning out of control for days. This time a year ago, a mega-fire unprecedented in scale was burning just outside Sydney. The 2019-2020 summer fires in southeastern Australia affected 143 million mammals, not to mention birds, reptiles and insects. Last week, record temperatures for November were set in NSW, ending the hottest ever November on record in Australia. Last year, the United Nations reported that more than 19 million children in Bangladesh are at risk from devastating floods, cyclones and other environmental disasters linked to climate change. As it plays its politics hard, one wonders what News Corp thinks might be its endgame.