News Corp’s climate change campaign allows the company to shift its public without being committed to much at all.
The announcement, courtesy of a leak to the Nine Entertainment newspapers, that News Corp publications will campaign for Australia to adopt a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 answers one question about the global Murdoch empire.
That question is not whether News Corp has abandoned positions on climate change that range from “hasten very slowly” to outright denialism by its more strident opinion writers.
What the story artfully placed with the group’s competitor really tells us is that, despite numerous avowals to the contrary over the years, editorial direction at the empire comes from the top.
Viewers of Four Corners’ recent programs on Fox in the US will know that Lachlan Murdoch, the co-chairman of News Corp, has conceded that he speaks to editors to “get the positioning and messaging right”.
In other words, it is not the case that News Corp editors in Australia decide how to present the news and what editorial line to take without reference to the view held by the group’s global headquarters in the US. They know what is expected of them, and they do it.
What we are seeing with the climate-change campaign is a new round of massaging “the positioning and messaging”.
Assuming that the Nine report is accurate – it was acknowledged in an understated fashion by Sky News CEO Paul Whittaker at a Senate media inquiry hearing this week – the forthcoming “campaign” will allow the company to appear to shift its public stance on climate change without being committed to much at all.
The campaign will reportedly be brief, lasting only two weeks, and conducted through the group’s tabloid mastheads and Sky News.
The group’s standard bearer, The Australian, will not be involved, and those whom the Nine story refers to as “dissenting voices” – in other words, denialists among the opinion columnists and Sky presenters – will be expected to “reframe” their position.
What “reframe” means in this context is not clear and it is unlikely to get any clearer. In the toxic world of commentary packaged as news, if something sounds like a weasel word it probably is one.
Although this campaign will be notionally directed to Australian readers and audiences, it may be doubted whether they are the real target.
As the world’s governments prepare for the Glasgow climate-change conference in November, the Murdochs will seek to regain the kind of influence over US politics that they used to have when Donald Trump was in the White House.
If the campaign nudges the Morrison government into adopting the modest zero-by-2050 goal to which most develop nations have already committed themselves, it can be held up to the Biden administration as the achievement of a new, environmentally aware News Corp.
It won’t really be that, of course, because Australia’s debate on climate change will actually proceed much as before, with a little “reframing”.
But for the Murdochs, it is the group’s global strategy that matters. And that means, above all, the ability to exert influence over the course of debate in the US.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, giving evidence this week to the Senate’s inquiry into media diversity in Australia, described News Corp’s planned campaign as “green washing”.
Rudd said that it was difficult to take the story seriously, given the relentless hostility to action on climate change expressed in News Corp publications over many years.
This hostility has extended to outright dismissal of the science by commentators such as the Sky presenters Alan Jones and Rowan Dean, who have described climate change as a hoax.
We don’t hear overt scepticism from the higher echelons of the empire anymore. Instead, we get the repositioning announced in the Nine story – a repositioning to suit News Corp’s global strategy, but which will require no more of Jones, Dean and others than some nebulous “reframing”.
Whatever comes of News Corp’s new campaign, the fact that it can plan and conduct such a campaign in its own interest is a reminder of the power that this foreign-owned media group is able to wield.
News Corp owns two-thirds of Australia’s metropolitan newspaper market, and through that influences the daily news cycle in all media.
That is why the weakness of Australia’s media regulators, the Press Council for print media and the Australian Communications and Media Authority for broadcasters, is a matter of profound concern.
And it is why it is crucial that the National Broadband Network should remain in public ownership as Australia moves towards a media environment where almost all content will be delivered online.
Without reliable broadband access for all, new players will not be able to enter the media market and thereby increase diversity in the sources of news and opinion.
Whittaker, in his evidence to this week’s hearing, was questioned about Sky News videos that Google had taken down from the network’s YouTube channel.
The videos were removed, earning Sky a week-long suspension from YouTube, because they had contravened Google’s guidelines on reporting of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whittaker, without a hint of irony, complained that the way Google had acted showed the arbitrary power that can be wielded by a foreign-owned media company.
But we already knew what it is to be in the grip of foreign-owned media company – the one that employs Whittaker.