Covering Climate Now

Australia’s fires are a climate reckoning for the Murdoch press

January 17, 2020

For several months, catastrophic fires have been raging in Australia. Collectively, they’ve torched some 38,000 square miles nationwide, killing at least 28 people and, according to the University of Sydney, more than a billion animals. In recent weeks, heart-rending stories of death and displacement have spread across the world’s media. Reports have scrutinized the regressive climate policy of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a man who once brought a lump of coal to Parliament as a prop and who vacationed in Hawai’i as his country burned. Apocalyptic imagery has adorned the front pages of newspapers, as if to show that the apocalypse is unfolding before our eyes. “For Australia, dangerous climate change is already here,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State who has been on sabbatical in Australia, wrote earlier this month in The Guardian. “It’s simply a matter of how much worse we’re willing to allow it to get.”

Bushfires are nothing new in Australia. Still, climate change has indisputably played a big part in making them more frequent and more dangerous. That hasn’t stopped an onrush of disinformation attempting to deny the climate link. There’s the online bilge—photoshopped images, old footage masquerading as new, unverified rumors. Much of it is coordinated:  research by Timothy Graham, an academic at Queensland University of Technology, found that a group of automated social-media accounts has spread misleading reports exaggerating the role of arson in the fires and downplaying that of climate change. And then there’s irresponsible journalism, for which nobody gets more credit than Rupert Murdoch.

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News Corp Australia, which Murdoch owns, runs nearly 60 percent of the country’s dailies. As Damien Cave of the New York Times reports, in recent weeks, Murdoch has amplified the “arson emergency” line and other phony narratives—for example, that the fires are no worse than in the past, and that environmentalists have opposed fire-prevention measures—while staunchly backing Morrison’s government amid mounting public criticism. (After residents of a town destroyed by fire reacted angrily to a visit from Morrison, Chris Smith, a broadcaster on Sky News, which Murdoch owns, called them “ferals.”) In early January, Murdoch’s biggest paper, The Australian, was accused of ignoring the fires; on the same day that many international outlets featured horrifying fire photos on their front pages, The Australian centered a New Year’s Day picnic. (“No suits, just banter at Hanging Rock,” the headline read.) Writing for Time yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull—who preceded Morrison as prime minister and belongs to the same party—accused the Murdoch press of having joined with fossil-fuel interests and right-wing politicians in “a toxic, climate-denying alliance.”

News Corp Australia has denied climate denialism. In a recent editorial, The Australian accused other outlets, including the Times and The Guardian, of “wilfully and ineptly misrepresenting” its stance. Yet the recent failings of the Murdoch empire on climate are consistent with a pattern. Yesterday, in the Sydney Morning Herald, Zoe Samios laid it out: in the 2010s, she wrote, Murdoch briefly seemed to take climate change seriously, but in the years since, “News Corp has run many pieces that have questioned the legitimacy of widely-accepted climate-change science,” including references to it as a “cult” and a “socialist plot.” Many have noticed the growing influence of Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s arch-conservative son, who recently accumulated more power within his father’s business. Last year, in a piece on the Murdochs for the New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg wrote that Lachlan “questions what he sees as the exorbitant cost of addressing climate change and believes that the debate over global warming is getting too much attention.”

That view is not universally embraced in Murdochworld. In recent days, the Australia fires have forced internal dissent out into the open. In an email obtained and published by the Sydney Morning Herald, Emily Townsend, a News Corp staffer, excoriated management for its coverage: “I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies,” she wrote. Later, James Murdoch, another son of Rupert’s, told the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright that he has been disappointed in the “ongoing denial” of climate change presented by his family’s Australian titles. In some ways, James’s comment wasn’t that surprising: he’s a liberal who, along with his wife, Kathryn, has supported climate initiatives, and his power within the family business has ebbed. Still, James remains on the company board, and some insiders were surprised that he took his concerns public. “They are pissing inside the tent and that’s unusual,” a News Corp executive told Cartwright, of James and Kathryn. “The majority of people who work here agree with James. We are hoping this may be the tipping point.”

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Arson is not the driving factor behind the Australia fires. In a broad sense, however, they are the product of a global political and business elite that has set the world aflame. That includes the Murdochs. As Richard Cooke—a writer who excoriated the Murdochs last year in a viral essayputs it in the Washington Post, “When we think of industries that must change to prevent further global warming, we tend to imagine carbon-intensive concerns such as mining, aviation and energy production. But the Murdoch media and the rest of the climate denialist industry will also need a transition plan.”

Below, more on the fires in Australia and climate change:

  • Mitigation or greenwashing?: In November, Stephen Mayne, an activist shareholder in News Corp, asked Rupert Murdoch why his outlets give “so much airtime” to Australian climate deniers. “There are no climate change deniers around I can assure you,” Murdoch replied. Then he discussed his company’s efforts to slash its carbon footprint. More recently, in the wake of the fires, News Corp pledged to donate $3.5 million to relief efforts. Murdoch has personally pledged an additional $1.4 million.
  • The need to do better: According to Media Matters for America, since September, major news shows on ABC, NBC, and CBS have aired 59 segments on the Australian fires. Only nine of them mentioned climate change. The finding is an example of US news organizations’ repeated failure to adequately contextualize climate disasters.
  • Another damning climate report: This week, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released findings showing that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016. Predictably, the news got buried by stories about Iran, Iowa, and impeachment.

Other notable stories:

  • President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial is underway. Yesterday, John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who is presiding, swore senators to a special oath. The proceeding will start in earnest on Tuesday. Already, reporters are facing draconian restrictions on their access. Capitol police have provided senators with cards suggesting phrases they should use to tell reporters to go away (e.g. “You are preventing me from doing my job”); yesterday, even senators who wanted to engage with the press were reportedly told to move on by police officers. (One senator who did not want to engage was Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona; when CNN’s Manu Raju approached her for comment, she dismissed him as “a liberal hack.”) As the trial starts, there’s plenty for senators to comment on—not least the explosive new allegations that Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, is making about Trump and Ukraine.
  • Trump’s Justice Department appears to be investigating whether James Comey, the former FBI director who is a frequent target of the president, illegally gave journalists details of a Russian intelligence document. Such an inquiry, Adam Goldman writes for the Times, would be unusual—“Prosecutors and FBI agents typically investigate leaks of classified information around the time they appear in the news media, not years later”—and raise fresh questions about Trump’s politicization of justice.
  • The opinion section of the Times faces a shake-up. Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reports that members of the editorial board, who currently write unsigned editorials, will be spun into the op-ed team and write under bylines; editorials will continue, but will be “rationed.” The reorganization is the latest in a string of unorthodox moves made by James Bennet, the opinion editor, who is seen as a potential future executive editor of the Times.
  • In recent weeks, Puerto Rico has experienced nearly 1,300 earthquakes. For Gen, Andrea González-Ramírez writes that Americans are once again ignoring the island’s plight. Puerto Rico was not mentioned at this week’s Democratic debate. And, she observes, “media attention has dwindled in recent days—even though the island has not stopped shaking—and many Americans have already flipped the page to the next anger-inducing news event.”
  • iHeartMedia, America’s biggest radio conglomerate, laid off hundreds of staffers this week. The company, which internally referred to the layoffs as “employee dislocation,” has not confirmed how many people have been affected, but the number could be as high as a thousand, with small markets hit hardest. Rolling Stone’s Elias Leight has more.
  • For CJR, Chantal Flores reports that journalists covering the long-running popular unrest in Haiti have faced violence. “Protestors accuse media outlets of supporting the government, and attacks on the press have escalated,” Flores writes. “Journalists are also harassed by counter-protesters and police from the opposing side.”
  • And the BBC thought it had booked Robert Shapiro, O.J. Simpson’s former defense lawyer, for a radio discussion about a new rule allowing cameras in British courts—but had actually invited a different Robert Shapiro, an adviser to top Democrats. The latter Shapiro pointed out the mistake live on air. He contributed to the program anyway.

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