It’s no secret that News Corp, the massive global media force headed by the recently-vaccinated Rupert Murdoch isn’t particularly fond of climate action. Its record over the past decade on obfuscating the science of climate change through a blend of straight mis-reporting and columnist noise is simply too big to even begin to summarise. From Lomborg to Shellenberger, from Plimer to Abbott, it’s a gargantuan portfolio of simple, effective and unmistakably unique climate and energy focused misinformation.
Something significant has changed over the past couple of years. The social breathing room for the manifestation of old-school climate change denial has eroded, somewhat. When News Corp’s denialism flagship, The Australian, published an unintentionally hilarious opinion piece by climate denier Ian Plimer claiming that “There are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black”, it drew an equally funny response from climate scientists who had basically lost any need to be polite in their response.
“It uses nonsense logic, is clueless about the science, and says things which are wrong. Some of these false statements have been obviously wrong for years”, one NASA scientist told Climate Feedback. You can feel a decade’s worth of exasperation in those words. That this was published right at the cusp of Australia’s historic and climate-intensified bushfire season shifts it from kind of funny to actually quite horrific.
For the most part, News Corp has benefited from the fact that there isn’t a particularly good way of tracking media campaigns in traditional media outlets. Last week, advocacy organisation GetUp! released a detailed study they’d funded that attempted to reverse this, and get a grasp of the true scale of News Corp’s long-running misinformation campaign. After collating every news, feature, opinion, letter and editorial items that discussed climate between April 2019 and March 2020, the team behind the study came up with a collection of eye-opening findings.
The organisation still promotes denialism. 45% of the analysed items rejected or doubted the science. Much of it is skewed towards commentary, and there’s a lot – 44% of all content is opinion, and of that, 65% denied science. Perhaps more significantly, most items expressing a position on climate action were negative, with the exception of business themed reporting, which was more positive. The ‘straight reporting’ sections tended to be more balanced, but overall, the skew is one of very significant hostility towards emissions reductions.
This large analysis, conducted by journalist Wendy Bacon and research manager Arunn Jegan, matches several other recent attempts to put a hard number of exactly what News Corp is doing here. An analysis by ecologist and PhD candidate Phillip Erm published in January 2020 found that the letters page of The Australian is a particularly nasty zone of denialism.
Also earlier this year, a very detailed analysis from a group of six researchers from Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub), examined both the Black Summer and Black Saturday bushfire seasons, in terms of media coverage. For the Black Summer fires, “39% of articles related to climate change and the bushfires were published by News Corp. Of the overall accurate and in-depth coverage of climate change, News Corp made up 25%, while representing 59% of all denialist discussion of climate change”. They also found that denialist narratives most commonly featured Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “in 12% of all denialist articles”. For the Black Saturday fires, “Despite accounting for 33% of the overall coverage of Black Saturday, News Corp articles made up 53% of all articles featuring climate denialism”.
The Black Summer fires were a particularly significant moment in terms of illustrating the modern function of climate misinformation. The Australian, and several other News Corp publications, began spreading the theory that it was a cabal of arsonists intentionally sparking fires causing the abnormal and extreme fire conditions across Australia; retweeted by people by Donald Trump Junior to millions of followers. Once the pattern was established, it was mimicked mid-year in California by Fox News, as similarly intense wildfires began spreading there, alongside rapidly spreading misinformation. An analysis of satellite data paired with machine learning published this week found that, for Victoria, “82% of the fires can be attributed to lightning, 14% to accidents and 1% to burning off. Only 4% can be attributed to arson”. In NSW, an official report found that it was more like 0.09% of total fires.
One year on, what came of their efforts? Australia’s public views on climate remain just as strong. Business, civil society and state governments have all taken extra steps towards climate action. The pushback is increasing, led partly by former Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, both prodding the bear in their own ways, and both clearly a new weakness in their long-time foe.