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.