RODNEY TIFFEN. The Murdoch Press and the Bushfires

The disastrous summer of bushfires has not been easy for Scott Morrison, but the News Corp newspapers have also had trouble rising to the challenge.

The News Corp AGM in New York in November lasted only 17 and a half minutes. In the very short time devoted to questions, a proxy for shareholder activist Stephen Mayne asked about the global role of News Corp in the current geo-political climate. And further if you, Rupert Murdoch, believe in climate change why does News Corp give so much air time to climate deniers?

Murdoch replied by reading out a prepared statement, nearly all of which was devoted to how much News Corp had reduced its own carbon footprint. It did not address the issue of the company’s journalism, and then finished with the sentence: ‘There are no climate change deniers around, I can assure you’ (Crikey 21-11-2019).

It is notable that the 88 year old Murdoch did not trust himself to answer the question except by reading a statement. But it was his last sentence that attracted disbelief among Murdoch watchers. His empire in Australia and the US is the main media bastion of climate change deniers. Is he simply being expedient in his dismissal, or does he no longer have any idea of what is going on in his newspapers?

A few decades ago, a younger Rupert would have moved quickly to change his papers’ bushfire coverage. This would not have been because he objected to their one-sided reporting, often verging on misrepresentation, but rather because the coverage was so out of touch with public opinion, so jarring against the dominant public mood.

Amanda Meade (Guardian 4-1-2020) reviewed the strange editorial priorities at News Corp papers around New Year. While many international newspapers had photos of the Australian bushfires on their front page, the first editions of the Australian had photos of the races at Hanging Rock, with the fire photos only on page four. The Herald-Sun also began its coverage of the fires on page four, while the Daily Telegraph was critical of the Bureau of Meteorology because its inaccurate weather predictions may have ‘lulled residents into a false sense of security.’ The Courier-Mail prominently carried the news that the ‘Onion Oracle’, Halwyn Hermann, was predicting rain using an old German tradition, and compared his predictions with the Bureau of Meteorology. These are hardly newspapers with their finger on the pulse of the nation.

In the last few years, the chorus of external critics has increasingly been joined by critics within News Corp, with former senior journalists and employees expressing damning judgements. Again this summer an email circulated to the entire company by commercial finance manager, Emily Townsend, was leaked. She wrote: ‘I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing that I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies.’ She thought the reporting in the major papers was ‘not only irresponsible but dangerous and damaging to our communities and beautiful planet.’

In the face of such criticisms, the Australian responded in an editorial (12-1-2020) with its well practised stance of wounded self-righteousness. The paper claimed it was willfully and ineptly misrepresented by the New York Times and Guardian Australia. One of the constant features of the Australian’s indignation editorials is the certainty with which they attribute (always malign) motives to their critics. Here it concludes that ‘the political and media reaction to this devastating bushfire season is a bid to replay the May election and get a different result.’

It deplores that ‘social media is driving a campaign of outrage in which an alleged right-wing conspiracy of climate denialism is framed as the key obstacle on the path to a better future’, and that ‘Australia has become a scapegoat for climate activists.’ Rather, it thinks, that ‘Australia’s record on climate change action is good.’ It asserts that ‘the evidence of global warming since the Industrial Revolution is clear’, and seems to think that its reporting has always been consistent on this point.

In fact the acceptance of anthropogenic global warming has been much less steadfast than the editorial says. Even an editorial from mid-November (16-11-2019) cast its role very differently in this summer’s crisis: ‘it is time for a dose of icy water. Climate change did not cause the fires. Drought and even deadlier blazes have been part of Australian life for more than a century.’

More important than its editorials are its stable of columnists, the majority of whom are strident in their dismissal of global warming and any measures to address it. Still more important is its eccentric, indeed bizarre, sense of newsworthiness.

In the current summer of crisis, it made front page stories out of the fact that the emergency workers lobbying the prime ministers had dealings with environmentalist Tim Flannery, and a Nimbin ‘hippy’ who said lack of clearing had gone too far.

But their slanted sense of newsworthiness is a much longer term trend. Out of many possible examples, one will have to suffice here: the paper’s embrace of Jennifer Marohasy’s charges that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s revised records represent propaganda rather than science.

She first burst in to the paper with these claims in the last week of August 2014, and the paper devoted seven prominent articles to her charges in the next week. She has been cited several dozen times by the paper in the five and a half years since, and seems particularly to be admired by columnist Maurice Newman and the error-prone environment editor Graham Lloyd.

In September 2015, Environment Minister Greg Hunt refused Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s wish for an inquiry, replying ‘we have perhaps one of the best meteorological organisations in the world. I have full confidence in their data.’ Or in Lloyd’s words, the minister ‘stymied’ the probe, and the bureau ‘escaped a forensic examination’ because the minister was concerned about the bureau’s ‘reputation’.

Also notable is the way they (Marohasy, Newman and Lloyd) build a sweeping edifice of conspiracy and bad faith on a few minute details. In August 2017, Marohasy declared a couple of stations had thermometers which would not go below a minimum that had been an issue once or twice by a fraction of a degree. This was enough for Newman to quote a denier saying ‘it is now perfectly clear that there are no reliable worldwide temperature records.’

Newman is not fond of qualifications or stating limits. He thinks ‘perfectly good raw data is manipulated to turn a cooling trend into a warming one’ (1-2-2016). Later (19-9-2017) he declares ‘Enough is enough. The Bureau of Meteorology yet again stands charged with fabricating temperature records.’ The following month Marohasy asserted ‘The Australian Bureau of Meteorology appears to have put in place a measurement system guaranteed to provide new record high and low temperatures.’

Even during the fires the paper (20-12-2019) chose to quote her challenging the Bureau’s declaration that Australia had just experienced its two hottest days on record. Their methodology was ‘totally flawed’, she said.

Outside News Corp, the IPA and the fringe group of denialist fellow travelers, her claims seem to have received zero support. Or in journalistic jargon, ‘your exclusive still exclusive’.

Rodney Tiffen is emeritus professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and the author of Rupert Murdoch. A Re-assessment (2014).

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