6.1 Politics and Case Study: Climate Emergency and Local Councils

As we have reported in Section 4.3, politics and policy themes dominate the coverage of climate change in Australia. This finding is not surprising. It is consistent with other research that found a heavier focus on domestic political conflict in Australian coverage than in that of other countries (Eide et al, 2010). The political battles over Australia’s climate policy have always been strongly linked to the ways climate science is represented. This continued during the year of this study.

Marian Wilkinson has recently spelled out in her book The Carbon Club how a network of climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders have fought to control Australia’s energy policy for more than two decades (Wilkinson, 2020). News Corp continues to be a major protagonist in this battle to enforce Australia’s dependence on fossil fuels, or at least to slow the decline in their use.

James Painter, who studied how scepticism was covered in six countries (not Australia), found a strong correspondence between the political perspective of each newspaper and the prevalence of sceptical voices within it, particularly on the opinion pages. ‘By most measures (but not all), the more right leaning tend to have more such voices, the left leaning less.’ (Painter, 2012). In comparing UK newspapers, Maria Ruiu also found that more right-leaning newspapers tended to contain more scepticism than centre-left ones, even as the consensus position around key findings of climate science strengthened (Ruiu, 2020). She suggests, however, that the scepticism may change from denying that humans cause climate change to focusing more on its consequences; for example, that climate change is happening but it is making things better. (Bolt has used this argument recently.)

6.1.1 Negative bias against action to address climate change

This study has revealed that News Corp Australia is biased against action on climate change. Of those items in which attitude to climate action was relevant, 59% were negative, 21% were positive, and 20% were neutral. The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun were the most negative.

An earlier, more narrowly focused study on how the Australian media covered the Gillard government’s carbon price policy in 2010, showed how The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun were extremely biased against this policy. Across all News Corp publications negative coverage (82%) outweighed positive (18%) articles. The study report commented: ‘This indicates a very strong stance against the carbon policy adopted by the company that controls most Australian metropolitan newspapers, and the only general national daily’ (Bacon, 2011; Section 2.1).

Lower figures in the current research might suggest News Corp coverage has become less negative since then, but this is due to the larger scope of this study that includes all mentions of climate change, not just those related to policy.

In 2010, the attack on Gillard’s carbon policy was mostly framed by economic concerns about the loss of investment, jobs and prices. These same themes continue today. Much of the coverage in 2019–20 in News Corp publications was based on a binary equation that the preservation of jobs and a viable economy is negated by any action to reduce carbon emissions.

Although there is ample evidence that climate change policy advocates have a wide range of proposals for workers to transition to new jobs rather than become unemployed, entrenched ‘binary equation’ frameworks prevail in News Corp publications.

For example, in a post-election 2019 column in the Courier Mail, Peter Gleeson re-stated the binary mutual exclusion between jobs and opposition to expanding coal mining in Queensland:

The cold, hard reality is that Labor misread the mood of the public, who have opted for jobs over a global warming scare campaign. The Queensland Labor Government has been the leader of the anti-Adani cheer squad, prepared to invent legislative obstacles to appease their socialist mates. May 18 changed everything. To suggest otherwise is fanciful, and frankly, an insult to our intelligence.

— ‘Queen Jackie versus Snow White Palaszczuk’, 11 June 2019

While most of News Corps’ political coverage is focused on the two major parties, its political reporters are constantly nudging Labor towards the right and chiding it for not protecting fossil fuel interests. For example, after the 2019 Federal election The Australian reported that Labor leader Shorten ‘conceded’ that he was unsuccessful in projecting a message that there would be jobs in renewable and other new industries (‘We got it wrong on climate change: Shorten’, The Australian, 18 December 2019). News Corp, especially in Queensland where it controls all major newsprint outlets, had made that task very difficult.

Here are some typical, albeit somewhat contradictory, headlines from 2019:

‘Labor to turn screws on major polluters’

— The Australian, 1 April 2019

‘Labor candidates come out in favour of coal mines’

— Courier Mail, 11 April 2019

‘Labor plan falls into category of fairytale’

— Courier Mail, 21 April 2019

‘Labor fights for coal’

— The Australian, 15 May 2019

Wilkinson notes that Australian PM Morrison has strongly adopted the ‘focus on jobs’ theme as a way of not debating potential climate action strategies but instead as a means of turning away from discussion about climate (Wilkinson, 2020, p. 337).

If we lift our gaze from the parochial stage of domestic Australian politics, we may notice that the rest of the world is watching. In December 2019, The Climate Action Network’s 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia the worst in the world on climate change policy, out of 57 countries. Journalists, and the public, might think this lowest ranking would be newsworthy in Australia. The Guardian and Nine decided that it was news, but the four News Corp publications did not. The only reference that we could find on the Factiva database was in an opinion piece by Peta Credlin, which was syndicated across the three Newscorp tabloids we studied. Credlin, one of News Corp’s top sceptic opinion writers, mentioned it in the context of trying to justify the adequacy of current policies, including by repeating the refrain that ‘nothing we do can make the slightest difference’ (‘Burning not climate driven’, Courier Mail, 15 December 2019). This article is discussed in Section 5.1.

As well as being framed by a choice between ‘jobs’ versus ‘action to reduce emissions’, the political coverage of climate change in 2019–20 was also driven by broader political and ideological battles on News Corp Australia’s agenda – opposition to the ABC, a professed desire to destroy the Greens, a dislike of progressive voters, opposition to all forms of left-wing politics, suspicion of local councillors who see a role for local government beyond ‘roads’, and distaste for the regulation of media, land clearing and most forms of business.

The following case study of local government coverage demonstrates how these intertwined themes emerge through language and selection of sources.

6.1.2 Case study: Local politics, climate emergency declarations and News Corp media politics

Climate emergency declarations are one of many activist strategies to address climate change. They are designed to highlight the urgency expressed by the IPCC. Climate emergency declarations are made at international, national, state, and local levels. For instance, the World Health Organization has declared a climate emergency.

While declarations can be largely symbolic, they can also empower communities in different cities and regions to take action even when national governments are more resistant. In Australia, local governments have been out in front of the political process in declaring emergencies.

The first Council to declare an emergency in Australia was Darebin Council in suburban north Melbourne in 2016. Since then, 90 municipalities across Australia have joined 1400 local governments across the world in making climate emergency declarations.

Sceptics portray such declarations as a form of hysteria. For example, in a column ‘Can we afford Labor’s climate folly?’ published in the Herald Sun on 3 April 2019, Andrew Bolt referred to Labor environmental spokesperson Mark Butler as ‘hallucinating when he claims we face a “climate emergency”’.

Herald Sun – local government campaign

In July 2019, Herald Sun reporters John Masanauskas and Ian Royal published ‘Council accused of climate hypocrisy’. Cathy Okie, a Greens Councillor on Melbourne City Council, had moved a motion supported by other councillors to declare a ‘Climate Emergency’. The council declaration said climate change and mass species extinction posed serious risks to the people of Melbourne and Australia. The story then honed in on the fact that Okie had taken airline trips: a council-paid trip to Bonn for a forum on ‘resilient cities’ and another paid-for trip to Canada.

They wrote, ‘City of Melbourne councillors and staff are under fire for taking at least 30 high carbon jet flights overseas in a year before the council declared a “climate emergency’”. The cost of the trips was $100,000.

Of all the possible sources who might have provided a comment, the reporters chose Evan Mulholland, the communications director of right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The IPA is an important part of the climate sceptical network in Australia (Wilkinson, 2020). Mulholland was quoted as saying, ‘An emergency is a fire or a flood… This so-called emergencry is an unnecessary distraction from the council’s core business. Get back to roads, rubbish and keeping rates low.’

Okie was quoted in response, ‘With any work-related travel, we ensure that the agenda and activities justify the cost. In my role as vice-president of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, it’s important that I attend the annual board and committee meetings in Germany.’

Herald Sun considered the story important enough to warrant an editorial on 22 July 2019:

Greens councillor Cathy Okie last week emotionally declared the City of Melbourne was in a “climate emergency”. Despite Australia contributing only 1.3 per cent to global emissions, Cr Okie declared the city was in “dire circumstances”…There are more than enough pressing concerns for the council to focus on at home: economic growth for city businesses, managing traffic disruption amid major works, balancing the needs of motorists and cyclists and improve parking. And yet Melbourne is not alone: 27 other Australian councils have moved similar motions including the City of Sydney and Noosa … Residents would prefer councillors focused on local issues rather than spend time and money campaigning on an international level.

The reference to 1.3% emissions is a familiar idea used to convince the public that there is no need for Australia to treat action on climate change as an urgent matter (we discuss it further in Section 5.) The hypocrisy of climate action advocates taking jet trips is raised again. The Editorial then indicated that the Herald Sun has more general concerns. The editorial voice claims to speak for ‘residents’ but does not explain on what basis it knows their position (Herald Sun editorial, 22 September 2019).

Two weeks later, prominent News Corp Australia opinion writer Peter Gleeson contributed to the discussion in ‘Councils must deliver basics, not save the world’ (Herald Sun, 4 August 2019). News Corp Australia concerns extend to Queensland:

Noosa Council recently passed a motion that Australia was in a “climate emergency”, whatever that means. Brisbane City Council rejected that this week but Sydney City Council and a dozen or so other local authorities have also declared a “climate emergency”, despite Australia being on track to meet its Paris Agreement target five years earlier than planned.

Gleeson ends with ‘the best councillors are those who listen to their people and deliver what they need. Right now, “quiet” Australians want their councillors to be honest and transparent and stay away from Left-wing ideological ratbaggery’.

Rather than research easily available information about what a ‘climate emergency’ might mean, Gleeson leaves it as an unknown. He tells readers that Australia is on track to meet its Paris Agreement commitments although that is a matter of debate. Finally, he links councillors proposing climate emergency motions with ‘left-wing ratbaggery’ and claims to know what ‘quiet Australians’ want them to do instead.

However, not all News Corp Australia reporters are so dismissive of support for climate emergency motions. On 23 August 2019, the local News Corp outlet in Melbourne, The Leader, ran a small story about a petition calling on Monash Council to declare an emergency. This story did not align with the Herald Sun’s campaign against such activity by councils, and was added to the Herald Sun online news. This reinforces our earlier point in Section 4.6 that local stories are often more positive, perhaps because younger reporters look for news opportunities beyond the constraints of the main editorial agenda. With the closure of multiple local outlets in 2020, such opportunities for positive views have likely already diminished.

There were related stories in the Herald Sun over following weeks, including one about Yarra City Council hosting climate activists for ‘training’.

On 17 September 2019 John Masanauskas had another local government climate story, about a plan by the City of Phillip. The story was headlined ‘Council to declare “climate emergency” in Bangladesh’, and continued, “Another Victorian council is set to declare a ‘climate emergency’, with a Greens councillor claiming countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Egypt face permanent flooding unless action is taken”.

Again Masanauskas turned to the IPA for comment, this time from its policy director, Gideon Rozner. Rozner said that:

so-called climate emergencies were a meaningless political fad. “Does the City of Port Phillip intend to give itself “climate emergency powers”? Will ratepayers be living under “climate martial law”?” he said. ‘Australia accounts for only 1.3 per cent of the world’s emissions. Victoria only accounts for part of that and Port Phillip a tinier fraction still. Ratepayers should rightly be wondering how this pointless gesture will affect the earth’s climate.

Rozner, who actively campaigns in favour of climate scepticism, reduces climate action to a ‘fad’ and mocks the concept of climate emergency as ‘climate martial law’. The article also dismisses the global dimension of the extreme weather occurring in Bangladesh and Philippines linked to climate change, encouraging readers to dismiss it as irrelevant to Australia. As The New York Times reported in July this year, devastating climate impacts have already been experienced in Bangladesh and elsewhere. The Times article highlights how climate change will have very severe impacts on many poor communities in countries with less resources to adapt than rich countries like Australia. This is presumably what the City of Phillip councillors want to highlight by mentioning Bangladesh in their ‘climate emergency’ motion.

As well as quoting the Institute for Public Affairs, the Herald Sun went further, and promoted an IPA project as well. The Institute was raising funds to produce a fourth edition of its book Climate Change: The Facts, a collection of articles by climate sceptics. The Herald Sun continued to push back on climate action by Victorian councils during November.

An attack on Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore that backfired

Meanwhile on 21 June 2019, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore expected the City of Sydney to pass a climate emergency motion because climate change posed a ‘serious risk’ to residents. After the motion was passed, Moore wrote a letter to PM Morrison urging the national government to treat climate change as a ‘national emergency’ and lead the transition to renewables and a lowcarbon economy. Morrison passed the matter to the Minister for Energy Angus Taylor.

On 29 September 2019, Anna Caldwell at The Daily Telegraph was provided with an ’exclusive’ by the Federal Minister for Energy Angus Taylor. She received a copy of his response to Moore shortly after he had sent it. The first paragraph of her article read: ‘Lord Mayor Clover Moore has been told by the federal government to rein in the hundreds of thousands of dollars her council is spending on international and domestic travel if she is serious about lecturing Australia on climate change’. Once again, travel hypocrisy was the line of attack.

The Daily Telegraph reported, based on figures from Taylor, that Sydney Council’s $300,000 a year outlay on air travel ‘outstrips that of Australia’s foreign ministers’. Taylor alleged that Sydney City Council had spent over $15 million on air travel, and was quoted as lecturing Moore that “One such example (of climate action) is to limit unnecessary air travel. Given your most recent annual report shows your council spent $1.7 million on international travel and $14.2 million on domestic travel, there is a real opportunity for your council to make a meaningful contribution to reducing Australia’s emissions.’

Only in the last paragraph did Caldwell report that Moore did not accept that these figures were correct. ‘He [Taylor] should focus on reducing emissions and providing reliable energy, not making up figures about travel by local government officials,’ Moore was quoted as saying.

This story is consistent with the News Corp campaign against councils declaring climate emergencies and their alleged hypocrisy. There is also a long history of The Daily Telegraph attacking Clover Moore, who was resoundingly re-elected in 2016 despite the paper’s strong campaign to toss her out. So from several points of view, the story fitted into News Corp’s agenda. It’s not clear why Caldwell was not cautious enough to hold the story when Moore’s office alleged the figures were wrong. But instead the ‘scoop’ turned into a political scandal. As The Guardian has since reported, by the time of publication Taylor’s staff had realised the mistake and informed him that the figures were wrong. It was not until the end of November that Taylor sent a letter to Moore unreservedly apologising. Although Taylor escaped any serious consequences, the issue has continued to plague him in parliament and the media.

These examples illustrate how a targeted editorial campaign against councils’ declaring climate emergency drew on a broader right-wing political opposition to progressive councils. While exposures of unaccountable or wasteful government spending at any level would widely be regarded by journalists as a legitimate story, these stories are driven by a political agenda rather than a strong evidentiary basis.

The selection of the IPA as the key source to provide commentary plus the promotion of its book shows how the News Corp and its conservative political allies work together. Although in this case the attack on Clover Moore backfired, it also highlights the hidden strategies that powerful sources such as the Minister for Energy Angus Taylor can use to gain access to the media via selected journalists.

In the further example below of one day’s coverage in The Daily Telegraph during the 2019/2020 bush fires, we can observe how several themes are drawn together for cumulative effect: News Corp’s hostility to climate emergency declarations, the Greens, and the line that arsonists are deliberately lighting the fires.

6.1.3 One day in the life of The Daily Telegraph: Local politics and bushfires

In mid-November 2019, many NSW coastal regions were burning. Along with the fires, fear and concern for those affected swept through the community. But on 14 November, readers of The Daily Telegraph were greeted with headlines ( ‘Mine Madness’, ‘Greens Adani motion is absurd’) on the front page. These were a teaser to a story inside the paper. The rest of the page was occupied by a large Harvey Norman advertisement.

Inside, there was a double-page spread of bushfire coverage with the headlines: ‘Fire coast aftermath’, ‘Risking it all to save a mate’, ‘Tears for a razed slice of heaven’ and ‘Close call for crew of RFS legends’. Page 9 included an exclusive report by John Rolfe: ‘Council out of its mine - Mayor says move to boycott Adani contractors will cost millions’. The Inner West Council’s Mayor Darcy Byrne told Rolfe that a ‘climate emergency’ motion relevant to council contracts had been proposed by Greens councillors and passed by Council. This ban on companies associated with Adani could potentially impact some Council contracts. Cr Byrne was quoted as saying that policy was ‘juvenile and ridiculous and will bring council into disrepute’.

For comment Rolfe went not to the councillors who had passed the motion but the well-known sceptic and supporter of the Adani coal mine, the then Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan. His predictable answer was, ‘Sounds to me like the council just wants to signpost its self-believed virtue, not actually do anything practical for the environment’.

This was supported by an editorial headed, ‘Greens faith is beyond logic’. It begins by reporting that a “nine-year-old boy in Cowra was caught lighting a fire with a blowtorch”. The fire was put out quickly but police are “investigating many other Tuesday fires which they believe were deliberately lit”. Further on, the Editor writes, “Meanwhile, despite press allegations of so many deliberately lit fires, we have Senior Greens blaming Prime Minister Scott Morrison and coal mining”’. The editorial sympathises with Byrne having to work with Greens: “It is the standard price paid for any association with the anti-progress Greens”.

Opposite the editorial, there is a half-page cartoon ‘Coal Faces’ with a man in a turban and a flowing ‘Adani’ cloak serving spoonfuls of coal to hysterical Greens councillors in an inner west Sydney cafe. (This stereotypical representation ignores the fact that Gautam Adani, chairman and founder of the Adani Group, does not wear a turban).

Underneath the cartoon, a column by Andrew Bolt, ‘Facts don’t add up’, includes a promotional link to his Sky News Bolt Report. Most of the piece focuses on a defence of Cardinal George Pell but a side column is headed ‘Enough catastrophe mongering over fires’.

It reads:

Image snapshot of a column titled 'Enough catastrophe-mongering over fires'. Image snapshot of a column titled 'Enough catastrophe-mongering over fires'. Image snapshot of a column titled 'Enough catastrophe-mongering over fires'.


Enough catastrophe-mongering over fires

Feel like you've been played? Look at the apocalyptic headlines earlier this week about the fires in NSW.

"Catastrophic fire danger." "Worst bushfire conditions ever seen." "Unprecedented."

The language was off the dial: "State of emergency." "As bad as it gets". "The scale and fury of these fires in Australia is almost unimaginable."

And global warming alarmists fed hungrily on the cataclysmic headlines.

Yet what have we actually seen? Yes, very bad fires. No doubt. Nearly 200 houses burned and, worse, three people dead.

Thank the firefighters and police for limiting the losses. But wait. This was "as bad as it gets"?

Not even close.

Victoria's Black Saturday fires a decade ago killed 173 […]

So what's with the apocalyptic language?

Well, journalists love it because sensation sells.

Fire chiefs love it to scare people into taking precautions.

And global warming activists, which includes many journalists, adore it because it sells their global warming scare.

"Unprecedented" to them means "because of global warming".

Bolt is asserting that people are being manipulated. He uses historical bushfire statistics to dismiss an entire body of findings by scientists and fire experts. Instead of exploring the basis for use of the word ‘unprecedented’, he suggests that it has no basis and is just another form of political opportunism by journalists, fire chiefs, and climate action advocates who are making money (or encouraging precautionary behaviour) by spreading fear and alarm.

The rest of the double page is occupied by letters, most of which dismiss the connection between fires and climate change. The two quoted below are among hundreds of similar letters that News Corp Australia selected for publication during the fire season.

One reads:

Let landowners protect properties properly. Hopefully the lesson has been learnt by these tragic bushfire events and landowners will be able to go about protecting their properties as only the landowners know how without the interference of green council bureaucrats dictating how the bush is managed from the safety of the office chairs. And please, I don’t want to hear another politician using these fires as a soapbox for climate change. Fires are started either accidentally or by people doing the wrong thing.

Another reads:

Assistance is always there. A few things about Australia that will always happen:

  1. There will always be natural disasters such as droughts, floods, cyclones and fires.

  2. There will always be politicians using natural disasters to improve their profiles.

  3. There will always be some TV coverage overstating the severity to enhance ratings.

  4. There will always be greens and others from the left blaming all disasters on climate change.

  5. Lastly, there will always be services and volunteers to assist and clean up after every natural disaster.

These letters selected by The Daily Telegraph for publication reflected tropes that occurred frequently in other letters during discussion of fires. These include: landowners should be allowed to do their ‘own thing’ without interference from ‘green council bureaucrats’; rejection of the scientifically established link between bushfires and extreme weather; media are exaggerating the severity of fires for commercial purposes; natural disasters are just a normal part of life and Australians are best to rely on volunteers.

In October this year, the Bushfires Royal Commission acknowledged the repeated expert evidence that climate change is, and will continue, to increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. It also dismissed arson as a factor. As the ABC’s Media Watch put it, ‘this dispelled a ‘popular media narrative during the fires’.

6.1.4 Conclusion

Through this case study, we begin to understand the cumulative impact of multidimensional editorial strategies through which different types of coverage combine across a range of fronts. The editorial purpose is to mobilise audiences in support of policies and values of News Corp Australia and its political and commercial allies.