5.3 Sceptic sources

Journalists have an ethical obligation not to publish information that they believe could be false. There is no excuse for journalists not probing arguments and backgrounds of sceptics. Other journalists have worked for years to provide accurate and easily accessible relevant information via websites such as Desmogblog. (For more on the issue of ethical obligation of reporters and climate sceptics, see Bacon, 2013.)

Until about 2012, the ABC and Fairfax (now Nine) published some climate sceptics on the basis that they represented one strand of the debate about climate science (Nash & Chubb, 2013). But as sceptics’ links with the fossil fuel industry were exposed and ethical issues about publishing false information were debated, mainstream media gradually stopped promoting the views of sceptics.

We observed that since 2012, News Corp publications seem to be publishing fewer external sceptics. This may be because most News Corp staff agree with other organisations despite a policy that favours publication of scepticism at more senior levels of the company. It is possible that if in-house or regular opinion writers who can produce sceptical copy are readily available, why source and pay external writers?

More research is needed into the role of the external sceptics and their relationship with in-house sceptics. However, we can report that these people continued to have a presence in News Corp Australia publications, either as opinion writers or sources.

Ian Plimer

Geologist Professor Ian Plimer has a long association with both News Corp and the Institute of Public Affairs (Wilkinson, 2020, p. 163, 199).

In 2009, Elaine McKewon researched the coverage of the launch of Heaven and Earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science, a book by climate sceptic, University of Adelaide Professor of Mining Geology Ian Plimer and the controversy that accompanied it. In his book, Plimer argues that there is no connection between human activity and climate change (McKewon, 2009).

McKewon’s analysis showed that Heaven and Earth received sustained coverage when it was released. Of 219 separate print and online articles, more than half (56%) were favorable to Plimer, which is far more than would be expected given his attack on the consensus position. More than half of all coverage was in News Corp, two-thirds of which (64%) was favorable to Plimer. McKewon was critical of News Corp Australia for not disclosing Plimer’s connections to the mining industry in its articles.

Plimer continues to challenge the very basis of climate change science. Although attention on Plimer has waned, he is still promoted by News Corp Australia. For example, on 29 January 2020, Bolt promoted that night’s The Bolt Report on Sky TV with the words, ‘I’ll have a whisky with my mate Ian Plimer’.

On 17 November 2019, in the context of coverage of massive bushfires, The Daily Telegraph reporter Perry Duffin quoted Professor Plimer as saying that it was a ‘fraud’ to claim that we are ‘living in times of an “unprecedented” climate emergency’ (‘Town of Bobin in ruins after blaze claims 18 lives’ The Daily Telegraph, 17 November, 2019). Having quoted one sceptic in the news piece, Duffin added another sceptic source, retired meteorologist William Kininmonth, who was quoted as saying, ‘that bushfires were part of the Australian landscape and drought episodes were part of the natural variability of our environment’. No sources were quoted in response to these sceptics in this news article. Both statements by Plimer and Kininmonth were used again in a news article by Clarissa Bye in The Daily Telegraph the next day (‘Climate not the burning issue here’, The Daily Telegraph, November 18, 2019).

On November 21, The Australian published a piece by Plimer in which he described all climate models as having failed, and that carbon emissions are not a matter for concern (‘Let’s not pollute minds with carbon fears’, The Australian, November 21, 2019). When ABC Media Watch’s Paul Barry strongly criticised the piece, Bolt attacked him and accused him of ‘disgraceful’ tricks.

Chris Kenny promoted a new book by Plimer called Green Murder. In the book, Plimer argues that environmental movements are similar to fundamental religions in their ‘reliance on authority’ and ‘suppression of alternative ideas’ (Anti-Murdoch hysteria baseless bizarre, The Australian, February 2, 2020).

On July 2020, the Australian Press Council found that Plimer had not substantiated some statements in an opinion piece and that it would be preferable if he did acknowledge his mining interests. However, it found that because these interests were so well known, the interests did not have to be revealed. The full adjudication can be found here.

Bjorn Lomborg

Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg’s perspective on climate change is very different from Plimer’s. He accepts that climate change is happening but downplays the risks and argues against various policies that are recommended as ways to address it. In the survey period Lomberg was published five times, in The Australian, Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph. This is far more than leading Australian climate scientists. He consistently deflects from policies that address climate change and has argued that a small not large reduction in emissions is all that is needed. A detailed account of his views and publications can be found here.

Dr Peter Ridd

Dr Peter Ridd is closely associated with the Institute for Public Affairs. The Australian’s Graham Lloyd has given a lot of coverage to his views on the Great Barrier Reef and his disagreements with other senior and highly respected scientists. DesMos journalists have provided extensive background on Ridd. (For more on Ridd, see Section 6.2.)

Other sceptic identities or scientists on the fringe of climate science who were given favourable exposure during the period of the study include: Jennifer Marohasy (previously with the Institute of Public Affairs), Professor Valentina Zharkova, Henrik Svensmark and others associated with the Institute of Public Affairs. In her recent book The Carbon Club, Marian Wilkinson has documented links between the IPA and fossil fuel interests (Wilkinson, 2020).

In providing these names, we do not intend to suggest that journalists should not investigate dissidents in science but that they should adequately research their background and consider their views in a wider research context before promoting their views uncritically. The access and visibility granted to contrarians needs to be considered in the light of the low visibility given to Autralian climate scientists (see Section 6.2).