6.3 The Bottom Line and Climate Change: Reporting Business

These findings apply to the business coverage for the full year from April 2019 to March 2020, and need to be considered in the light of the dynamic and shifting nature of 2020 events in relation to energy, COVID-19, and international relations.

In our coding, we had a category for items concerning business, industry, and large-scale agriculture (not small-scale farming). In the rest of this section, we have referred to this category as ‘business’. Overall, we found the proportions of coverage were low, with 1,444 items. This was less than half that of all politicalthemed coverage, which had 3,151.

Most (63%) of the business coverage was in The Australian which has a separate lift-out section for business and sport. 23% of items in The Australian were coded with a dominant theme of business, compared to only 11% across the tabloids. This reflected the different target audiences of the publications. Audiences interested in business have a wide range of international and local sources of information beyond the mainstream media and would be unlikely to seek information about business or finance in a News Corp tabloid. The Australian competes with Nine Entertainment Co outlets including Australian Financial Review and the business sections of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, for the available mainstream business audience. Sources of advertising to sustain business news reporting have shrunk.

Who gets a voice in business news?

Much of the business news in our sample was of a promotional nature, reflecting the perspective of a single company, executive or peak business group. This has been observed in other studies of business news (ACIJ/ Crikey, 2010; Nash, 2011).

13% (129) of business reportage (news and features) acknowledged no source at all. Of the 595 news and features where the first source was business, 58% of stories had only one source. This lack of contestation is further evidence of the promotional nature of the coverage.

However there were stories that included the perspectives of different business sources and a few longer features.

6.3.1 Promotional nature of business news

Of 724 business sources in business themed news, The Australian published 549 items or 76% of the total. The other 24% were spread fairly evenly across the tabloids. This was less than half the level of political sources. As explained in Section 4.4, we broke the sources down into types of business sources which represented 18% of the total. Together, financial, fossil fuel, and other mining sources accounted for 56% of all business sources. See Figure 4.4.2.c for this breakdown.

Of the 724 business sources in business themed articles, only 34 (less than 5%) represented the renewables industry including those focused on developing renewable forms of energy. Of the 34 renewable energy business sources, the vast majority (30) were in The Australian.

This shows continued strong representation of the mining/fossil fuel industries in climate change business reporting, which overwhelmed the number of renewable sources by a ratio of over 11:1 in 2019/2020. In an editorial of The Australian of 13 November 2019 called ‘Lies, Illusions, extremists stalk the political fringes’, the paper proudly claimed that:

The nation (Australia) is investing in wind and solar power three times faster per capita than Germany and four to five times faster than China, the EU, Japan and the US.

Given how avowedly well Australia is doing on renewables and the constant claim by News Corp that Australia is doing its part, one might have expected more reporting on renewables relative to fossil fuels and mining. One explanation of the huge discrepancy is coverage is that News Corp is seeking to bolster declining support for fossil fuel and mining interests in the face of the strengthening position of renewables. It also publishes Special Coal Reports which contain promotional features and are funded by the coal industry.

6.3.2 How do News Corp business reporters approach action on climate change?

As we reported in Section 4.6, 43% of business items (News, features, opinion, letters, and editorials) were positive to action on climate, 37% were negative, and 20% were neutral. This finding stands out as business was the only theme in which items were more likely to be positive than negative. The majority of these items were in The Australian, of which 45% were positive, 33% were negative, and 32% were neutral.

Not only were articles more likely to be more positive towards action/efforts to tackle climate change if the article is about business but very few about business were coded as rejecting or questioning the findings of climate science.

Reiterating this, of the 864 News Corp reportage items (news and features) that were business themed and where an attitude to climate change action can be discerned, 53% of these were positive, with only 22% negative, and 25% being neutral towards action on climate change. In fact, of these business themed reportage items, 626 articles expressed a position on climate science, of which 95% accepted the consensus position.

Indeed, business readers are given a more realistic, more positive approach to climate action than the rest of News Corp’s target audiences. How can this be explained? Here are some suggestions.

6.3.3 Risk analysis and reporting

For any serious business to operate in the market where the object is to make money, a risk analysis is necessary to create strategies to accept, protect, or deter risk. Risk analysis requires a realistic approach to available evidence to enable decisions to be made with confidence.

As is now widely acknowledged in the corporate and legal fields, climate change threatens social, economic, political, and security assumptions and models. So while News Corp has no hesitation in continuing to sell heavy doses of climate scepticism to its tabloid readers, its business readers are not expected to accept opinions that repudiate concerns based on scientific evidence. A more accurate reflection of climate change is required when there is a financial imperative.

6.3.4 Shareholder activism

The activities of shareholder groups agitating for companies to withdraw from fossil fuels has increased in the last three years. Part of the core business of reporting on markets is to report on annual general meetings. Groups such as the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Market Forces have intervened in the field and demand at least minimal coverage.

Business is moving on

As the pace of fossil fuel disruption accelerates, renewable energy and other businesses adapting to climate change are a source of news and advertising. Like all businesses, they invest resources into seeking promotional coverage in mainstream media.

In December each year, The Australian business section interviews CEOs. This provides them with an opportunity to say what they consider to be their priorities. The section editor John Durie acknowledged in 2019 that more executives raised climate change as a key concern than ever before. In ‘Climate a hot issue for leaders’, he quoted legal services firm MinterEllison’s chief Annette Kimmitt: “We’re seeing a tipping point in corporate Australia’s approach to climate risks”, and the survey of more than 70 business leaders underlined the point. Some leaders made it clear that they were not satisfied with the Morrison government’s climate policy. The Union Bank of Switzerland Australia boss Anthony Sweetman spoke for many: “Over the past decade, Australia’s energy policy has lacked clarity and consistency. Businesses are not surprisingly reluctant to make significant long-term investment decisions in this environment and ultimately it is the community that will incur the cost either in the form of lost opportunities and or higher prices than would be necessary.” Readers were left with no doubt that business was pressing for more action on climate change.

6.3.5 Examples

The following are some additional examples/ case studies illustrating the above analysis of News Corp’s business-related climate change coverage in The Australian.

Example 1

‘BHP holds out against activist push’, 17 October 2019, by Nick Evans, The Australian

This article is about shareholder pressure on BHP to stop being a member of a major fossil fuel lobby, the Mineral Council of Australia, and other mining industry associations. This article is based on statements made by BHP’s CEO Andrew Mackenzie at the company’s AGM in London. It extensively quotes CEO Andrew Mackenzie on reasons for opposing the “action on climate change”. The push attracted the support of one of BHP’s biggest shareholders, Aberdeen Standard Investments, which had taken the step of “calling on BHP to withdraw from groups that lobby for policies inconsistent with global climate change limitation goals”. The article provides Mackenzie with ample room to defend BHP’s position but it also clear that he is on the defensive, stating that BHP will review “its membership of industry associations, and that its membership of Coal 21 — a group originally set up to back research into carbon capture technology but which bankrolled pro-coal advertising campaigns — would end if the body does not focus on its original remit.”

Other investment background is provided including that production figures from BHP’s Pilbara iron ore operations fell 3% in the previous quarter, and that some of BHP’s coal mines had fallen “dramatically”. Despite this, BHP’s long-term view remained optimistic.

This article indicates that a business activist group campaigning on climate change is able to impact what would usually be a very straightforward report of an AGM. The report still provides ample room for the CEO’s perspective and does not seek comment from Australiasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR). It nevertheless informs readers that fossil fuel investments are risky and that fossil fuel lobbies are under pressure from climate change campaigners.

Example 2

‘Virgin turns new page on cutting fuel costs’, 6 August 2019, by Robyn Ironside, The Australian

This is an example of a promotional piece about airline Virgin’s climate action. The company has cut its magazine to lower weight and fuel costs. Other measures adopted to save weight include ”lighter businessclass pyjamas”, replacing the steel brakes on 737s with a lighter carbon variety and moving to featherweight mattress toppers. Some context is provided through a second source but no critical alternative perspective is provided. This is a positive promotional story about corporate action to reduce emissions.

Example 3

‘Blue sky mining’, 28 April 2019, by News Ltd Reporters and BHP, The Australian

This article is entirely promotional. The Australian acknowledges that it is produced in partnership with BHP. It provides the optimistic perspective of a fossil fuel company and its ‘revolutionary’ technology plans without any scrutiny of its claims. It begins: “The mining industry is on the brink of a technological step-change, and Australia is in the box seat to lead it. According to Franz Wentzel, global mining consulting lead at PWC, “the sector is on the cusp of a massive breakthrough in applying technology to all aspects of the industry, from extraction right through to the customer”.

It then quotes Rag Udd, BHP’s global head of technology transformation, who:

believes the introduction of autonomous vehicles, drills and ports is just the beginning of a revolution that will transform the industry...

If I can get instantaneous information as I’m drilling the ground to understand what to put into our mine plans and into how we work with our trucks, diggers and logistics plans, that is the real unlock for us as a business.

Further down the article, PWC’s Wentzel explains that BHP’s technological success will have significant flow-on effects:

The halo effect is really important for the broader economy in Australia, where you can create an environment for technology organisations or innovative companies to use the mining industry as a ‘sandbox’... If the mining industry wants to accelerate or revolutionise the use of analytics and innovation, it needs to learn from small and nimble organisations about how to quickly adapt.

Wentzel then links technology transformation with conversation with consumers and suggests:

technology is expected to be transformative for miners, and not just in terms of the extraction and refining process. It could eventually create new opportunities to strengthen their brands, perhaps even allowing them to charge a premium for their products.

Wentzel continues:

This is going to happen, and whether it happens in Australia or the US or China or Korea, the reality is that these advanced technologies are more than just safety and productivity. It is going to be addressing very real concerns that people have around global warming, dealing with real issues around carbon capture and other areas. So we see technology really being a bigger unlock to actually help address some of those other problems out there.

Example 4

‘Anything but COAL’, 20 March 2019, by Sascha O’Sullivan, The Australian

This is one of a very low number of longer features in the sample that provided space for more perspectives. The story is very favourable to renewable energy but also explores whether small nuclear energy is an option in the UK. The heading ‘Anything but Coal’ conveys a strong anti-fossil fuel perspective.

Sascha O’Sullivan reports that “Renewables are big business in Britain, and the big companies want their bottom line to be part of it. Indeed, Britain is light years ahead of Australia: last year more of the country’s power came from renewables than traditional forms of energy. Less than 1 per cent of its energy came from coal, according to analysis from energy experts Carbon Brief.”

The article explains that “wind, solar and nuclear are the big beasts of British renewables, and energy companies are rushing to get a slice of the future. On one hand, luxury car brand Rolls-Royce is edging its way into the market with plans to build mini nuclear reactors; on the other, energy supplier Bulb, one of the smaller renewables-focused companies, is giving consumers the option of a clean energy tariff.”

Bulb Founders Amit Gudka, 35, and Hayden Wood, 36, quit their previous jobs to set up Bulb in 2014. Gudka says that six years ago, renewable tariffs were an option only for the wealthy but now the cost of renewables has plummeted and renewable tariffs offered by Bulb are on a par with traditional prices at the so-called Big Six energy suppliers in Britain.

It’s a good news story. Gudka believes storage costs will fall, just as the cost of renewables has during the past few years. “The key problem is storage, and once that becomes cost effective then you really have the case to keep investing with wind and solar,” he is quoted as saying. A pro nuclear industry source is interviewed. He acknowledges the huge cost of large-scale nuclear power. Small nuclear plants are an option but even they cost $1 to $2 billion. The story ends with a quote from Amit Gudka: “There are more efficient nuclear technologies such as small-scale nuclear, but if you look at the rate the cost of wind and solar (has) continued to fall, then you can expect them to keep dropping and the economic case to keep investing in that makes sense.”

This story can be contrasted with a number of Australian stories that appeared in our sample that promoted the interests of those wanting to develop a nuclear industry in Australia without considering how that idea stands up against the possibilities for renewable energy. For example, former Victorian Energy Minister and now Herald Sun columnist Theo Theophanous strongly pushed nuclear power as the solution to climate change in the opinion piece ‘Why Australia must consider nuclear power’ in August 2019. The author argued the advantages of nuclear power in terms of cost, efficiency, and zero carbon emission, and compared it positively against renewable sources. He made claims that nuclear energy is safe and more sustainable and resource friendly than renewables. The perspective of the renewables industry was not provided.

6.3.6 Conclusion

Business reporting is closely aligned with the interests of its readers and advertisers. It provides a more realistic approach to the reporting of climate within a pro-business frame. Overall, News Corp treats its business sources with respect, even those who promote action on climate change, more so than it does scientists, NGOs or protesters. While it does provide coverage of renewable energy companies and other businesses marketing sustainable solutions, it still favours fossil fuel interests. This support for fossil fuels is supplemented by a smaller proportion of more balanced features.