In a move that surprised some of its harshest critics, News Corp has launched an editorial series calling for net-zero emissions by 2050. But experts are wary about the campaign - with some accusing the company of “gaslighting” its audience.
When Australia’s bushfire crisis was unfolding in late 2019, The Australian published an opinion article from climate science sceptic Ian Plimer who claimed: “It has never been shown that human emissions of carbon dioxide drive global warming.”
The press council found the article, titled ‘“Let’s not pollute minds with carbon fears”, was in breach of two of its principles; ensuring factual material is accurate and second, that facts are presented with reasonable fairness and balance and opinion is based on fact.
Another article published by The Australian that focused on arsonist events during the devastating summer bushfires also received heavy backlash from climate change advocates.
So when News Corp kicked off an editorial series calling for action on climate change this weekend, a few eyebrows were raised online. Climate and technology analyst Ketan Joshi accused the publication of “gaslighting”.
An editorial published in several News Corp papers said, “for decades the issue of climate change has bedevilled Australian governments on both sides of politics.”
“It has led to the downfall of at least two prime ministers and been used as a political dagger by the hard left and a political battering ram by the hard right.”
The company published 16-page wraparounds in every tabloid on Monday - including the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and the Courier Mail - supporting the need for climate action.
The campaign comes as world leaders prepare for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow and champions net-zero emissions by 2050, a goal News Corp's editorial described as “the most important mission on Earth.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported Mr Morrison was given a heads-up on the campaign by management but both parties said there was no collusion on the coverage.
The new campaign also coincides with a shifting sentiment from The Business Council of Australia and mining companies like Rio Tinto who have vocalised their support for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - who is calling for a Royal Commission on concentrated media ownership by News Corp - claimed the papers had taken the public “for fools.”
He called it a “total bucket of greenwash from Murdoch” and said his “monopoly has attacked climate action for more than a decade."
“Meanwhile Murdoch’s Sky continues that attack. All to provide political cover for a Morrison U-turn on 2050.”
And while the popular tabloids ran their editorials, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt openly criticised the campaign, describing it as “rubbish” and “global warming propaganda”.
“Millions of Australian readers would have got a shock this morning when they picked up their Murdoch newspapers around the country,” Bolt said on Sky News on Tuesday night.
“Prime minister Scott Morrison will actually be delighted because he can now have the Malcolm Turnbull-type policy that he wants – net-zero emissions – and take it to the next big global warming conference in Glasgow in November, knowing that he has the backing of the Murdoch media.”
But earlier this week Daily Telegraph editor Ben English said the campaign wasn’t a switch in the paper’s stance but an increase in coverage of climate issues.
“Perhaps wrongly, our position on the climate issue has been characterised by the views of some of our columnists,” he told 2GB’s Ben Fordham.
“What’s different about this is that we’ve actually put enormous resources into this; this is the biggest journalistic campaign or project that we’ve done … for a decade.”
So what do experts make of News Corp’s new campaign?
Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch owns a significant slice of the country’s media landscape, including Sky News Australia and Australia’s News Corporation titles.
News Corp's website says the Daily Telegraph has a monthly reach of 1.8 million in print and 2.8 million in digital. While The Australian’s monthly reach is 1.8million in print and 3.1 million in digital
Graeme Turner, AO and emeritus professor in media at the University of Queensland, said News Corp’s concentration of media ownership has been “corrosive on democratic debate”.
“[News Corp] reinforces positions, and it gives people a place to go where they can hear what they want to hear rather than providing an objective and a multitude of perspectives… it has been an increasingly singular voice,” he said.
He described News Corp’s shift on climate change as “hypocrisy”, referencing the paper’s long history of publishing columns by climate sceptics.
“I think that if they came out and said they were wrong then that would make a difference,” he said.
“It would have a better to come out with a kind of apology and a recognition of the damage that has been done, and their responsibility for that.”Professor Turner said News Corp’s readership was likely to find the shift in climate change coverage “puzzling”.
“I seriously doubt whether people who are reading The Australian or the Telegraph over the last 20 years would read this new campaign and suddenly change their minds.”
But Professor Turner said he doesn’t think the paper set out to change minds with the series. Instead, he said it was about repositioning the papers’ stance on this issue.
“I suspect that they look like being the last man standing on this, with the Business Council of Australia changing its position as well,” he said.
A cause for optimism?
Alvin Stone, media and communications manager at ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, said News Corp’s climate coverage is unlikely to be a “road to Damascus”.
“The question is, are we looking at a brief moment around COP26 with Glasgow or are we looking at something that is going to be sustained?
“I'm cautiously hopeful, but I think the real test will come with next year's election.”
He said James Murdoch’s decision to leave the company last year was “telling”.
On announcing his departure, the youngest son of Rupert Murdoch said, "My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the company's news outlets and certain other strategic decisions."
In January, a spokesperson for James and his wife, Kathryn, told The Daily Beast that the pair's "frustration with some of News Corp and Fox's coverage of the topic is … well known".
"They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial of the role of climate change among the news outlets in Australia, given obvious evidence to the contrary," the spokesperson said.
News Corp’s coverage was also criticised by a member of its staff in a scathing email following her resignation last January.
Former commercial finance manager Emily Townsend made headlines when she accused the organisation of a “misinformation campaign” filled with “irresponsible” and “dangerous” coverage of the national bushfire crisis.
Founder and chairman of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch, has rebuffed claims his company promotes climate change denial.
"There are no change climate change deniers around, I can assure you," he said at the company's annual general meeting in New York in December last year.
But Mr Stone stressed there were exceptions to News Corp’s climate coverage in some community papers and news.com.au.
“News.com.au has really impressed me for the most part over the past few years,” he said.
“They have been quite active in the climate change space, have regularly and accurately quoted scientists and were responsible for a major series on climate change at the beginning of 2020.
“I think it would be unfair of me not to recognise their contribution.”
When asked by The Feed, News Corp Australia didn’t provide any details regarding the future of this kind of coverage.
A spokesperson for News Corp pointed to editorials that ran in The Australian and The Daily Telegraph supporting the move towards net-zero emissions by 2050.
An editorial by editor Ben English said “Australia can do really well out of the world’s shift to clean energy”, adding, “for too long the climate debate has been dominated by ideology and extremism.”
The Australian also published an editorial that warned if Australia did not declare “a net-zero target, [it] stands accused of pushing against good citizenship and global opinion.”
“The first point to make is this is an editorial series and not a corporate initiative,” the News Corp spokesperson said.
“However, I'd draw your attention to Ben English's editor's letter to readers on Monday and The Australian's editorial on the same day.
“Regarding Sky News, it operates independently of the News Corp Australia mastheads. However, I'd also draw your attention to their upcoming documentary on nuclear.”
Richie Merzian, director of the Australia Institute’s Climate and Energy Program, said he’s glad News Corp is “catching up with the reality of climate concern, and the need for action.”
“It's a welcome shift, given its [coverage] has been so destructive to informing discussions on climate change,” he told The Feed.
But he described the push for net-zero by 2050 as mild and that if the paper wanted to make an immediate difference it would call to stop any new coal gas or oil projects.
“As soon as News Corp does that then you know that they're actually doing something aligned with the science,” he said.
“Talking net-zero by 2050 is easy. That's a target 30 years away, and if it's going to be unaccountable it's going to have no immediate impact and it's pretty much worthless.”
He also emphasised his desire for News Corp to stick to the science when publishing editorials on climate change.
Report indicates Australians in favour of emissions target
Research released by the Australia Institute on Wednesday shows 75 per cent of people polled are concerned about climate change.
The report, which tracked Australian attitudes to climate change from 2007 to 2017, revealed 69 per cent of people support an emissions target - with the majority supporting a transition through renewables rather than a gas-powered recovery.
“The research shows Australians also massively overestimate the size of the industry both in terms of jobs and revenue to the government,” Mr Merzian said.
For Mr Merzian, News Corp’s coverage of climate change over the years has been divisive and politically influential.
“It’s had a major impact on Australian politics and has played a significant role in bringing down politicians and made it very difficult to take any policy forward.”