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Jan 15, 2014

Climate sceptics crow as Fairfax starts questioning the science

Recent op-eds in Fairfax have questioned the science of climate change and the need to act on it. Is the trend here to stay -- or a hiccup caused by editors being on summer holidays?

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Climate sceptics are delighted to have cracked the pages of Fairfax newspapers after it published prominent pieces casting doubt on the science of climate change and the need to act on it. But is Fairfax really heading down the News Corporation path?

Some Fairfax insiders told Crikey the pieces probably slipped through because the regular editors were on holidays, while a former reporter with the company said it was all about website click bait.

A piece by John McLean ran on The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald online on January 3, describing the United Nations’ climate science body as delivering “exaggerated science with a large dollop of politics”. Crikey looked into who McLean is on Monday. The piece came with a cartoon by John Spooner, who illustrated a book called Taxing Air

This was followed by an opinion piece by Tom Switzer, editor of The Spectator Australia, in the SMH yesterday. Called “Game finally up for carboncrats“, the piece ran across two pages in place of Peter Hartcher’s column (he’s on leave). Switzer argues the “anti-carbon agenda is being subjected to the most intense scrutiny, and is found wanting”. It contains the claim that “2013 marked the 15th year of flat-lined global surface temperatures” (climate experts contest this). “The game is up,” Switzer wrote of the “madness” of those advocating for deep reductions in emissions. An accompanying cartoon showed the world freezing …

The climate sceptic movement has been buoyed by Fairfax’s apparent new tone. The Australian Climate Sceptics group congratulates McLean on its website:

“It was with great delight that we saw he had managed to penetrate the fog that the Fairfax Press has created around the Catastrophic Man-Made Climate Change (CAGW) debate.”

Go-to climate sceptic blogger Jo Nova (not her real name) praised the SMH for running Switzer’s “no-holds barred description of the current state of the climate scare”, under this heading:

But some Fairfax readers (and apparently a few staff members) are not impressed with the stories. “They’re just looking for anything that lights up their comment page,” said a former Fairfax journalist who did not rate either story highly. “It’s click bait, it gets them the number of clicks they need.” It’s understood there have been newsroom tensions around climate scepticism in the past.

Click bait it may be, but one reader claims the Switzer piece was taken down from the SMH‘s Facebook page last night amid a flurry of negative comments. The piece was not there this morning.

A factor in the stories’ publication may have been that key staff members who could have queried the pieces or asked for more fact-checking were on holidays. Helen Pitt, the opinion editor at the SMH, appears to have been on leave. SMH deputy editor Ben Cubby, who has reported extensively on the environment, was on leave, as was morning news director Marcus Strom.

The Age‘s society and science editor (and former environmental reporter) Adam Morton was on leave. It’s not clear if The Age’s opinion editor Sushi Das was on deck.

Wendy Bacon, professorial fellow at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, slams the publication of the pieces. “I think its really disappointing that Fairfax — which has actually had a very good record on climate science reporting — would so blatantly downgrade their own coverage, whether it’s the clicks or whether it’s because someone is on holidays,” Bacon told Crikey.

“I can’t think of any other topic where the Herald would cover a piece of scientific opinion that so recklessly flew in the face of all the scientific evidence.”

Bacon says people have a right to express their opinion but it should be well-researched, accurate and based on facts. She queries whether the Switzer piece was fact-checked, and says editors should send back any articles for corrections or clarifications before publication.

She points to her research which found Fairfax usually has a high standard on reporting on climate science. The ACIJ report looked at 10 newspapers over six months in 2011-12. It found News Corp papers published 92% of the articles which rejected the consensus position of climate scientists on anthropogenic global warming. The Australian was the paper most likely to publish articles suggesting doubt about human-induced climate change.

By contrast, the study found Fairfax “does not promote scepticism”. In the six-month period studied, the SMH and The Age published just one article each rejecting human-induced climate change (by former Liberal senator Nick Minchin). “It was unexpected to me, having done a lot of research in this area,” Bacon told Crikey of the recent Fairfax stories.

But there’s another school of thought: that Fairfax has for some time occasionally run op-eds with various degrees of scepticism about climate change — Miranda Devine and Gerard Henderson used to write for Fairfax — so these stories are nothing new, and are part of presenting a diversity of views on key topics. And some say the people who made the decisions to run the pieces knew exactly what they were doing and had thought it through.

Crikey asked Fairfax for comment, as well as the opinion editors at The Age and the SMH, but didn’t hear back by deadline.

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21 thoughts on “Climate sceptics crow as Fairfax starts questioning the science

  1. Russell

    Right above Switzer piece in a very large banner it says “comment”. It is opinion. The Herald is not supposed to publish opinion Wendt Bacon and Crikey disagrees with? Really? Where does this end?

  2. Rohan

    The editors-on-leave theory is bullshit.

    Fairfax have clearly made a commercial decision that shoring up their viability means courting more idiots.

  3. Russell

    Sorry about the type above (first line)

    “It all about clicks.” Heavens above, the Herald wants people to read its pages! Who would have ever imagined that?

    All the right-thinking Fairfax staff were on holidays. Hmmm… While the group-think czars and school prefects were lazing about on the beach, the naughty boys who sit down the back on the bus (smoking!) took over the Herald and Age. Egads!

    Like Switzer, I’m quite happy to believe capitalism is cooking the. But unlike Crikey’s deputy editor, I’m quite happy to read alternative views and angles which I disagree with.

    That’s one of the reasons I have been subscribing for so many years.. But this piece of censorious nonsense alarms me. Don’t do it again, please…

  4. Salamander

    Ho hum I’ll say it again. We are all entitled to our own opinion, but not to our own facts.

    Bugger Postmodernism. It sure got used for bad.

  5. Will

    The hoary old chestnut that climate change is about open-mindedness and diversity of opinion is absolutely risible. The marketplace of opinion is a scare resource given contestation of mainstream science is over-represented alright we are rightly concerned tha the pendulum swings back to represent credible viewpoints more closely than those that are arbitrary and capricious.

    So you can spare us the lofty declarations of open-mindedness – as a sophist might declare their “reasonable” openness to the existence of Zeus and the almighty Apophis – the rational community is unmoved by such nonsense.

  6. AR

    The teabagger antecedents/influence (if not all the verbiage)is well demonstrated by the illustration – anyone here seen much snow recently?
    I also don’t believe it is just the grown-ups being on holiday – it is click bait pure & simple (emphasis on the latter)but a very poor decision if the corporate aim is to entice more ‘low information’ readers – they are already over supplied with too many big words (more than 2 syllables or 6 letters) by mudorc’s terror/hun.
    Do they really imagine this will halt the too long delayed death of SMH? It reminds me of mudorc many years ago shirtfronting a scion of an upmarket store in NY and demanding to know why he didn’t advertise in the NYP. The patrician gazed now his nose and replied, “your readers would be our shoplifters”.

  7. Reechard

    So a poster boy of a rightwing think sink (is the Spectator Australia funded by the well named Koch brothers too?) does a amateur hatchet job on years of work by dedicated scientists and the deny-listers crow.. Extraordinary.

    Their ignorance of the science behind the recent US cold storms is breathtaking. They fail to realise that this cold validates the science and ongoing warming (as if that were really necessary). If they were not so dumb, they might just be embarrassed.

  8. Reechard

    I think deny listers are ignorant, brain-dead morons, who know nothing about the most basic of scientific principles. They should at least have to show a pass in Kindie School Science 101, before being allowed to comment, or better still, in this case of this particular (Switzer) and likely recipient of Koch’s funds, draw breath.

  9. Roy Inglis

    It’s opinion. Let us see if Fairfax counters this erroneous rubbish with scientific facts and explains who McLean is along the lines of The Guardian. Observers of this ongoing ‘debate’ won’t be swayed by censoring the likes of McLean & Switzer. They will be swayed by countering them and their arguments. And, it will sell copy which is what commercial media is about.

  10. MJPC

    This is not the first article by Switzer, there was one in the SMH a couple of weeks ago with the same BS as this weeks. When I saw the first I read it (not knowing the dreds of the author), the second I passed and was very disappointed as a long time buyer of the smh (some 38 years) to be reading crap that I would expect to read in the Daily Telegraph that wrapped my fish and chips (If I lowered my intellect to read such dross).
    If these half wits understood the science of the whys and wherefores of Meteorology and climate science then they would see the lies being fostered by the Switzers of this world are as loyal foorsoldiers of energy corporations and capitalism.
    Alas, when climate change really bites (the world is seeing but a glimpse at present) it will hit rich and poor equally, I am hoping the Switzers are here to see it and explain their lies then; till then Revolution now!