5.1 Columnists

A key finding of this research is that from April 2019 to March, 2020, News Corp Australia continued its long record of producing a large amount of content that undermines climate science. In this section, we identify the top News Corp opinion writers, and discuss editorials. Sceptical sources are included in Section 6.2.

Figure 5.1.a: Table showing the top ten opinion writers by volume and proportion of articles discussing climate change across four News Corp publications from April 2019 to March 2020.
Columnists # of items % of share
Andrew Bolt 403 17%
Tim Blair 167 7%
Peta Credlin 81 4%
Peter Gleeson 73 3%
Chris Kenny 69 3%
Terry McCrann 57 2%
Renee Viellaris 45 2%
Gerard Henderson 44 2%
Judith Sloan 34 1%
Miranda Devine 33 1%
Total from top 10 of all opinion 1006 42%

These top ten opinion writers accounted for 42% of 2,309 opinion articles. Eight of these top ten writers work or previously worked for News Corp. Gerard Henderson runs the conservative think tank The Sydney Institute and Judith Sloan was previously a contributing Economics Editor at The Australian who has been a regular writer for many years.

All these writers produced opinion articles that conveyed scepticism towards climate science, or were extremely negative towards climate change action and movements. They have a range of styles and attitudes, some being more sceptical about climate science than others. Some pieces focused on climate change, while others referred to it in the context of other topics such as the ABC, progessive movements and refugees. We observed a lack of consistency in approach to scepticism even by a single writer. This is consistent with a recent study which found that the increasing consensus around both the causes and consequences of climate change does not necessarily mean that scepticism has disappeared, but may change the way it is represented, especially in UK centre-right publications (Ruiu, 2020).

The strength of the contribution from the opinion writers demonstrates that while News Corp continues to promote the views of external sceptics, it also produces a large amount of sceptical content in-house.

Andrew Bolt dominates the field accounting for 17% of all opinion pieces in the study. Tim Blair, who regularly appears in The Daily Telegraph, had the next most opinion pieces with 7%. These two men produced nearly one-quarter of all opinion pieces mentioning climate change in four News Corp publications from April 2019 to March 2020. Across the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, and the Courier Mail, Bolt and Blair accounted for 39% (570) of all opinion pieces that referred to climate change.

Other News Corp columnists who expressed scepticism about climate change but who were not among the top ten opinion writers include Alan Jones, Piers Akerman and Jennifer Oriel.

Columnists who accept the findings of climate science include Peter van Onselen, Paul Kelly, Niki Savva, John Durie, Susie O’Brien, Phillip Adams, and until December 2020, Alan Kohler.

Andrew Bolt

Andrew Bolt has worked for News Corp Australia since the 1990s. In 2014, the current editor of The Age Gay Alcorn described him as ‘the most ubiquitous and influential conservative commentator in the country... [who] writes highly readable, sometimes funny, always provocative columns in The Herald Sun’. One of his ‘obsessions’ is ‘challenging the orthodoxy of climate change’, along with campaigning against ABC left-wing bias and the people he calls ‘leftists’. News Corp embraces Bolt and promotes what it calls ‘his enormous influence’: ‘With a proven track record of driving the news cycle, Andrew Bolt steers discussion…’ (Herald Sun, 2020). His employer may be overstating his influence but there is no doubt that Bolt successfully generates loyal support from his strong follower basis.

Our research identified 403 stories by Bolt over the year mentioning climate change. This was more than double that of the next most prolific writer on the topic, Tim Blair (see section below).

Andrew Bolt’s contributions represented 12% of all articles (opinion, news, features, and editorials) discussing climate change across The Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and the Courier Mail. In the Herald Sun alone, he had 32% (302) or nearly a third of all articles mentioning climate change.

Bolt’s crusade against climate science goes back more than 20 years. In the years since 1997, he has published thousands of articles and posts about climate change in the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Advertiser (Adelaide), the Courier Mail (Brisbane), The Northern Territory News, The Townsville Bulletin, The Cairns Post, and The Gold Coast Bulletin. He also broadcasts a week-nightly TV show on Sky News’ Sky after Dark which he cross-promotes with his online postings. He attracts many letters and thousands of comments (The latter are not included in this sample).

One of his earliest pieces was about the ‘greenhouse scare bull’ in 1999, which was an attack on Peter Garrett, then president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Garrett predicted 'longer-lasting droughts’ and 'more flooding' could occur as a result of global warming. Bolt accused him of getting 'gullible people to support green causes by scaring them silly'. In fact, Garrett was right, as is shown by subsequent events and by climate science which has strengthened over the years.

In 2002, Bolt deployed climate scepticism in favour of logging old-growth forests. He wrote, ‘And with so many forests now shut away to age and rot, we’ll have twice as much old-growth forest in Victoria by 2100 than we do today. And guess what gas dying trees give off as they decay? Yes, carbon dioxide –– that naughty poison that greenies blame for causing greenhouse warming. So do go down to the woods today and take a deep breath. What would you rather smell — the life-affirming whiff of fresh-sawn timber, or the dank and lifeless waft of rotting wood?’ Notably, the politics of logging was integrated into his climate-sceptical views.

Over two decades, climate scepticism has evolved. Bolt has moved away from straight-out rejection of climate science into a range of shifting positions. Bolt has recently claimed to have ‘never denied a single one of the changes in climate’ (‘How civility and truth are becoming scarce’, Herald Sun, 18 December). He chooses not to remember that he rubbished Garrett and many others for linking extreme weather with climate change. While insisting he accepts that the climate is changing, he attacks mainstream climate-change thinking as ‘a warming religion’ that does not ‘like facts’.

Bolt’s style of argument is to focus on very specific details from which he draws overly generalised conclusions, often sharing the work of others in the international sceptic network. For a long time, he contested the facts on global warming. In 2008, he published five graphs from which he argued in the piece ‘Column - Seven Graphs to end the Warming hype’ that the earth was cooling, not warming. Michael James, a director of the Genome Variation Laboratory at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research analysed the graphs in a Crikey piece, ‘Andrew Bolt: Master of Climate Representation’ (2008). He demonstrated how Bolt’s highlighting of very short term ‘blips’ in data obscured trends over time.

Bolt constantly complains that he is a victim of abuse or that he or other sceptics are being censored. While attacking well-established scientific findings, he asserts his right to exercise free speech or state alternative ‘facts’. He seizes on isolated statements to produce a series of ‘gotcha’ moments, and adopts an authoritative and apparently reasonable tone making his conclusions seem like the only ones possible.

While accusing others of not being interested in facts, he rarely approaches climate scientists asking them to put his ‘facts’ in context or respond to his criticism. Instead, he insults them by suggesting that they have closed minds. Although News Corp promotes him as being a journalist, these are all unacceptable journalism practices.

Discrediting Pacific Islanders

Bolt assumes the mantle of a person of reason by cherry-picking scientific findings and using them to discredit other scientific research, and to attack other journalists and those advocating action on climate change. Among his familiar targets are the Pacific Islands’ national leaders who for many years have been urging the global community to save their islands from the devastating impact of climate change.

For example, on May 8 2019 in ‘Fran Kelly pushes fake news on drowning Kiribati’ and on 26 August 2019 in a piece called ‘What’s the ABC’s excuse for still pushing this drowning-islands falsehood?’ (Herald Sun), Bolt attacked the ABC, Guardian Australia, and the Nine newspapers for getting the science about the Pacific Islands wrong. He referenced a study that found some atolls in the Pacific are growing in size and not shrinking.

This line of attack goes back ten years when academics Arther Webb and Paul Kench published a study showing that rather than being threatened by sea level rise, some Pacific atolls were growing in size (Webb & Kench, 2010). At the time, other leading scientists put this work in context by pointing out that the Kench study was not relevant to the main concerns of climate scientists that include damage caused by extreme weather that results in inundation during high tides and loss of arable land (Bacon & Nash, 2013; Nash, 2015).

More recently, Profesor Virginia Duvat published the results of another study (Duvat, 2019) that investigated the relationship between sea-level rise and atoll size and found that in most cases, sea-level rise was not causing atoll land mass to shrink. The study explicitly accepted that climate change is a driver of environmental change in the Pacific and considered how it might interact with land reclamation and other factors. But Bolt seized on this 2019 study and reduced the issue of climate change impacts to island size, without bothering to talk to scientists who could explain that his reductionism was misrepresenting the findings and analysis in the article. Across the Pacific horticultural and habitable land continues to shrink or be damaged as a result of inundation and salinisation.

Sea-level rise is a complex area of science, and research has shown it is greater in some parts of the Pacific, including in the Solomon Islands. These issues have been accessibly explained by five scientists and other academics in a piece for The Conversation in 2016 (Albert et al, 2016). Kench himself also published an article this year about sea level rise in the Indian Ocean (Kench et al, 2020). But instead of trying to clarify the issues, Bolt and other sceptics seized on one partial finding in the Duvat study to mock Pacific Islands leaders who communicated the existential threat experienced by their communities at the time of the 2019 South Pacific forum.

In a single column, Bolt spread confusion about the nature of actual threats to Pacific Island nations, continued his long-standing campaign against the ABC and positioning himself as a defender of Australia’s borders. He stigmatised Pacific Islanders as spreaders of falsehoods who are attempting to commit fraud on the Australian government aid budget. Disregarding the warnings of Pacific leaders, activists and scientists, Bolt’s aims to convince readers that they should disregard the concerns of their neighbours in the Pacific (‘What’s the ABC’s excuse for still publishing this drowning nonsense’, Herald Sun, 26 August 2019).

This misinformation is published in a context where readers of News Corp tabloid publications are provided with almost no actual news about developments in the Pacific and South East Asian regions. Although agencies and communities in these regions are actively dealing with threats, Bolt and others reduce them to a mere meme in the domestic politics of Australia’s climate change battles.

Amplifying scepticism on Sky after Dark

Bolt extends his attacks onto Sky After Dark which often consist of interviews with other News Corp sceptics.

On 19 September 2019, Bolt invited Nick Cater, the director of the conservative think tank the Menzies Research Centre and columnist for The Australian, and Rita Pahani, Herald Sun columnist onto his show to discuss Greta Thunberg and her appearance before US Congress. These two commentators also appeared prominently in our study, publishing 14 and 17 pieces respectively.

Bolt introduced his segment with a clip of a US Congresswoman asking Thunberg to give some examples of impacts of climate change. She told the Congress committee that she had spoken to communities whose food and water supplies had been impacted by ‘climate catastrophes’. Thunberg’s statement was consistent with reports that climate change is impacting food supplies in various regions of the world. Pahani, who also has her own Sky After Dark show, responded ‘give us some facts, you know, not just, tell us some instances where people have in fact faced catastrophe, had their water and food supply threatened by climate change. We’re not going to take, “I know lots of people, it’s devastating”. We’re going to want examples.’

Cater referred to Thunberg: ‘... I think she is talking nonsense...and is a nice looking girl and all that...she is probably crying to her mother, and those things... but she doesn’t know what she is talking about’. He also said, ‘who have you seen that has actually lost their water because of climate change? No, it’s always I’ve spoken to somebody who is threatened by it.’ None of these commentators were interested in whether what Thunberg said was likely to be true or the implications if it was. The intent of the piece was to attack her.

Such videos are recycled by News Corp into other news stories and remain on Facebook. Although the audience may not be huge, these marketing strategies add to the cumulative impact of Bolt’s work on targeted audiences.

The Australian Press Council found that one of Bolt’s attacks on Greta Thunberg breached its guidelines.

Tim Blair

With 167 articles, Tim Blair comes in with the second-highest amount of News Corp produced articles across four publications between April 2019 to March 2020. His writing contributed to 12% of articles (news, features, opinions, and editorials) in The Daily Telegraph, and 29% in its opinion articles alone. The findings of this report conclude that The Daily Telegraph is the most sceptical publication of News Corp amongst the four in this study. Tim Blair is unapologetic and a major contributor to this scepticism.

His style is different from Bolt’s. His approach is more emotional, compared to Bolt’s tendency to focus on pieces of so-called ‘evidence’ to prove his case. His tone is personal, dismissive and sarcastic.

On 16 October 2019 after the Federal election, Blair refers to Labor wanting to give ‘the old climate gambit’ one more shot (‘Definition of Insanity’, The Daily Telegraph, 16 October 2019). He writes, ‘Recognition of a bogus climate emergency is, of course, the central demand of those Extinction Rebellion wingdings.’ This is typical of Blair’s approach: he makes passing reference to themes such as ‘the bogus climate emergency’ without providing any more evidence about what he means. The rest of the column is a sarcastic description of Extinction Rebellion protests in Perth.

In another column on 10 January 2020, Blair wrote about accountant Emily Townsend in ‘The Left’s Latest Hero’. She had just resigned from News Corp, accusing the company of spreading ‘misinformation’ and diverting attention from climate change during the bushfire crisis. In an email to News Corp management, she said The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun were misrepresenting facts by focusing on arson as a cause of the bushfires rather than climate change. The email was leaked and the story widely covered in the rest of the media, including quotes from News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller who stood by the professionalism of News Corp’s coverage.

In the public discussion that followed the email revelation, some people mistakenly identified Townsend as a journalist. This is the focus of Blair’s column. ‘Unlike us primitive deniers, climate activists carefully examine all available evidence before reaching intelligent and informed conclusions. Except they don’t. Just look at this bunch of leftist climate change cranks applauding the fearlessness of Emily Townsend, who they imagine to be News Corporation’s solitary brave and truth-telling journalist.’

To point out the careless confusion about Townsend’s professional role at News Corp was legitimate: she was an accountant, not a journalist. But by making this the focus, Blair diverts from Townsend’s reasons for resignation, and uses the error to hint that those who are interested in climate are careless with facts. He uses the fact that she had once worked in the coal industry to further discredit Townsend, although why this is relevant he doesn’t explain. The column is all about building negative attitudes towards campaigners, scientists and journalists who address climate change to avoid attention on the concerns raised by Townsend.

Five days later, Rupert Murdoch’s son James and his partner Kathryn were reported as being upset about the climate scepticism being spread by News Corp, particularly in the context of the bushfires. Five months later James Murdoch resigned from the company.

Peta Credlin

Credlin was a Liberal staffer and Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. After Abbott was deposed as Prime Minister by Malcolm Turnbull, she moved to Sky News where she has her own weeknightly show. She is a rising star in the world of right-wing political commentary. Her opinion pieces are syndicated across News Corp Australia’s publications. In our study, she had 81 articles, representing 4% of all opinion pieces, and was published in all four publications. Her style is less superficial than Bolt or Blair although many of the same themes occur.

Credlin’s columns are less emotional than Blair’s and less rhetorical than Bolt’s. She is quite explicit in her support for the fossil fuel industry and continued reliance on coal-fired power stations.

In ‘Burning not climate driven’ (Herald Sun, 15 December 2019) she draws together a number of familiar sceptic themes. She begins: ‘All the so-called leaders and self-appointed climate guardians blaming the current bushfires on climate change know little of our history – and even less about how indigenous [sic] people managed land for tens of thousands of years.’ This statement is made without any evidence that those who advocate for climate change action do not know about Indigenous fire practices, which she then briefly describes.

Credlin then outlines the losses in previous major bushfire events including the 1851 Black Thursday bushfires in Victoria. On the basis of this she launches an attack: ‘So massive bushfires are nothing new in this land of “droughts and flooding rain”. What is relatively new, of course, is climate cult hysteria and the readiness of grant-hungry researchers, headline-hunting MPs and virtue-signalling business people to attribute every extreme weather event to carbon dioxide emissions.’

She does not engage with the huge amount of science that from 1988 onwards has been warning that bushfires will become more intense and frequent with climate change or deal with statements by climate scientists who have used the term ‘unprecedented’ to describe the nature and scale of contemporary fires (Steffan et al, 2020). She uses historical information to distract rather than engage with statements by scientists and others that the scale and frequency of massive fires are correlated with climate change. Before dismissing that body of science a journalist would be expected to ask how historical facts should be considered in the light of recent evidence.

Credlin ends on another familiar version of anti-climate change action arguments. ‘Two things are clear though: first, as the source of scarcely 1 percent of the world’s emissions, nothing we do can make the slightest difference to any CO2-caused climate change; and second, it doesn’t matter how much we do, it will never be enough for the climate change true believers.’

The claim that there is nothing that Australia can do to make any difference to climate change is a well-worn theme. It had been used by Bolt in a column in 1 December 2018, 'Less marching, more learning’, which included a reference to the then Chief Scientist 'admitting’ that we ‘could stop all Australia’s emissions – junk every car, shut every power station, put a cork in every cow – and the effect on the climate would still be “virtually nothing”’. In a statement on 18 December, 2018, Finkel accused Bolt of completely misrepresenting him (Chief Scientist, 2018). There have been many other responses to this argument, some of which are spelled out in this column by Associate Professor Matt McDonald at the University of Queensland.

In a column, ‘Coal is still the only answer to reliability’ in The Daily Telegraph, Credlin gives a ‘thumbs up' to Coalition MP Matt Canvan’s campaign for more investment in coal-fired power stations. 'The only way to get more reliability is to stop building more generation that’s dependent on the wind blowing or the sun shining, and start replacing the ageing fleet of 24/7 coal-fired baseload power.' She criticises the political risk that 'has spooked the private sector' and the 'climate cult [that] has captured the Labor Party'. She urges her readers to ‘forget “climate emergency” claptrap…’.

Credlin raises broader ideological themes in her columns and links them with the issue of climate change. For example, on 26 January, she wrote a celebration of Australia Day: 'Be thankful for what we have and don’t cry over mistakes.’ In passing, she commented that 'usual suspects on the Left have been too busy arguing that climate change has caused the bushfire disaster.’ This underscored her attitude that climate action is about politics not science.

Peter Gleeson

Peter Gleeson published 73 opinion pieces, which makes him the fourth-most prolific of sceptic columnists. He is a Sky News host, and is published in all four News Corp Publications, but most prominently in the Courier Mail where he accounts for 11% (38) of opinion pieces.

Chris Kenny

Chris Kenny is an Associate Editor at The Australian who hosts his own TV show on Sky News. Kenny is the most published opinion writer for The Australian on the topic of climate change, accounting for 8% (69) of items. Kenny often links climate change with criticism of the ABC and other media outlets. Kenny’s position appears to shift. On 31 August in ‘Vision’ on the road ahead, Morrison in driver’s seat’ in The Australian, Kenny references Morrison as suggesting ‘that China, as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, no longer deserves a free ride in global climate efforts … and that means that the arrangements that we have in trade or whether it’s emissions reduction or the global responsibility and the relationships people have, this all changes too’ (Morrison). Kenny then validates this by saying ‘Morrison deserves credit for a careful reassertion of Australia’s values and interests.’ A reader would likely interpret this to mean Kenny does accept the need to drive down carbon emissions.

On the other hand, on 16 November 2019 in ‘Climate crusaders exploit fires to push their alarmist view’ in The Australian, Kenny writes:

Like a struck match in the bush, global warming is the spark that triggers a destructive firestorm in public debate. Heated on emotion, fanned by sensationalist media and fuelled by ideology, it burns through common sense, reason and decency, showing no respect for facts or rational thought. Climate alarmists are using tragic deaths and community pain to push a political barrow. Aided by journalists and others who should know better, they are trying to turn a threat endured on this continent for millennia into a manifestation of their contemporary crusade. It is opportunistic, transparent, grisly and plain dumb. Contributions this past week take lunacy to new levels in an ominous sign for public discourse. In this land of droughts and flooding rains — Dorothea Mackellar’s “flood, fire and famine” — we now confront an extra injury every time the weather tests us: silly and reckless posturing from climate alarmists trying to prove their point. History doesn’t matter to them, nor the facts. Rather than consider reality, they proffer an almost hallucinogenic alternative, pretending their political gestures will deliver cooler, damper summers unsinged (sic) by bushfires.

Kenny does not accept the climate science findings that the huge bushfires of the 2019 spring and summer seasons were linked to climate change. This fact has been confirmed by many scientists and the Royal Commission into Bushfires. It is clearly explained in Climate Council briefings that are based on scientific findings. Kenny’s attitude seems to shift in accordance with his political focus and the object of his attack.