News Corp Australia, seen by many as the nation’s most enduring purveyor of climate science denial and a faithful backer of fossil fuels, is about to turn over a fresh green leaf.
At least that’s according to unconfirmed reports from Nine newspapers and the New York Times that say the Murdoch-owned outlets will launch a campaign next month backing a global net zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050.
In an editorial this week, the Sydney Morning Herald declared News Corp had decided to “to end its longstanding editorial hostility towards carbon-reduction policies.”
But while News Corp itself has not confirmed the campaign, that has not stopped widespread speculation over the impact – or otherwise – of a pro-climate campaign from one of the country’s most divisive voices.
“I’m not going to give them credit for something they haven’t done yet,” said former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking to the New York Times.
Turnbull told one senior News Corp figure last year the company’s “campaign on climate denial” had done “enormous damage to the world” and had left a “shocking legacy” of inaction.
News Corp Australia – which owns a host of tabloid city and regional newspapers including Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, Sydney’s the Daily Telegraph, Brisbane’s the Courier-Mail and national publication the Australian – has so far remained silent.
Here’s what we know about the campaign and how much credit, if any, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire should be given.
What do we know?
News Corp Australia has not confirmed a campaign, or any shift in the way it presents climate science in its outlets.
But anonymous sources have told Nine newspapers and the New York Times that a campaign is being planned, will roll out next month and be fronted by columnist Joe Hildebrand. The campaign would exclude the broadsheet the Australian, according to the reports.
News Corp Australia also owns the 24-hour news and commentary channel Sky News. At a hearing this week, the channel’s chief executive Paul Whitaker said a documentary had been commissioned on net zero.
But referring to the report in Nine newspapers, he said “I don’t believe it’s as advanced as what’s been indicated in that report” and that he “wouldn’t describe it as a campaign”.
In the New York Times, one anonymous source from a News Corp paper said political and business figures had been given advanced notice of a campaign.
A Vanity Fair article has asked whether the “climate rebrand” from Murdoch’s Australian outlets could reach Fox News and the Wall Street Journal (the former is partly owned by the Murdochs, and the latter is owned by News Corp).
Would it be significant?
A campaign that backs a target to reach net zero by mid-century would be in some ways be unremarkable and place News Corp alongside practically every major industry group in Australia, including its coal and gas lobby.
But the fact that even the suggestion of such a campaign sparks stories in the New York Times and Vanity Fair shows how it would contrast with the organisation’s past record.
Nine newspapers reported the campaign will run for two weeks leading up to major international climate talks in Glasgow in November, when countries are being asked to pledge deeper and faster cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
Nine newspapers also suggested major advertiser Coles is a backer of the shift, although the supermarket’s statement was referring only to its general advertising policy and was not a specific endorsement of a campaign that is yet to materialise.
But much of the climate science denial and ridicule towards climate action comes in an ever-flowing stream from News Corporation’s high-profile commentators and bloggers.
Will commentators like the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, who describes global warming as a “cult of the elites”, or the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair, who says the climate emergency is “bogus”, suddenly pull back on more than a decade of ridicule and antagonism towards climate science?
How has News Corp covered climate change?
News Corp Australia is owned by News Corp – which itself has a target to reach net zero emissions across its operations by 2050. But that endorsement is distinct from its editorial stance.
A study from journalism expert and former academic Wendy Bacon, commissioned last year by community campaign group GetUp!, analysed 8,612 articles across the Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph and the Australian and classed 45% as being sceptical of climate change. Almost two-thirds of opinion articles were sceptical.
A 2013 study, also led by Bacon, found a third of articles in News Corporation tabloids doubted that the climate crisis was caused by humans.
Columnists have been accused of cherrypicking or misrepresenting data or statements from scientists.
Voices from the Institute of Public Affairs, a thinktank known for its longstanding promotion of climate science denial and heavily funded by billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, are often promoted (Rupert Murdoch’s father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a co-founder of the institute).
Reports and analysis on the climate crisis or energy policy often go to sceptical voices for commentary, or choose angles that will inflame suspicions that have been cultivated for many years that “unelected officials” at the United Nations are in some way robbing Australia of its sovereignty.
For example, in the Australian on Monday the newspaper’s environment editor, Graham Lloyd, wrote how a UN official was to reveal a “roadmap” showing Australia had less than a decade to shut its coal industry.
On Sky News, Lloyd told host Peta Credlin it was “news that will have come as a bit of a shock to a lot of people” and that a coal shutdown was seen as a “deliverable” for the Glasgow talks by UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Credlin asked why Australia was being singled out.
Sky News host Paul Murray also invited coal-loving Nationals senator Matt Canavan, Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon and climate science denier and fellow Sky host Rowan Dean on to a segment to discuss the UN’s newest “demand”. Australia should pull out of the UN, not coal, Dean said.
Yet, the reported new roadmap was a fiction, as was the claim the UN officials were making any new statement, let alone any new demands.
What actually happened was that Selwin Hart, a special adviser on climate action to the UN’s secretary-general António Guterres, repeated his boss’s very public statements on coal from six months ago.
Back then, Guterres urged all OECD countries to phase out coal by 2030 if they wanted to meet the targets in the Paris climate agreement. He wanted major emitters and coal users to announce phase-out plans before the upcoming climate talks in Glasgow.
Have we been here before?
Yes. In 2006, after years of climate change scepticism Rupert Murdoch said the planet “deserves the benefit of the doubt” signalling an apparent shift.
A year later, his company launched a corporate environmental sustainability campaign called 1 Degree.
Yet Murdoch’s views soon reverted back to scepticism. The denialism expressed through his media outlets barely missed a beat.
In November 2019, Murdoch declared there were “no climate deniers” around his company.
The day after Murdoch made his declaration, the Australian published a column from mining figure and geologist Ian Plimer claiming “it has never been shown that human emissions of carbon dioxide drive global warming.”
The Australian Press Council later found the article had breached two of its principles around the reporting of factual material.
Guardian Australia sent questions to News Corp Australia about the reports of a campaign, but did not receive a response.