Image courtesy 350.org

The Australian Financial Review thinks the biggest financial story of the last month was the decision of one investor — the Australian National University — to sell $16 million in mining shares. At least, you’d think that judging by their coverage.

A content analysis using the Factiva database (full methodology available here) shows the AFR gave far more coverage to the ANU decision than other major financial events and trends involving much larger sums — including the fast moving areas of carbon risk and clean energy.

The AFR first covered the ANU’s divestment decision in a modest story on page 5. Over the following weeks (until November 5) the paper ran no less than 53 stories over 300 words long covering ANU’s decision, with mentions on 12 front pages.

Ben Potter, one of the AFR‘s senior reporters, wrote about little else. Of 20 stories Potter wrote for the AFR during this period, 19 were about the ANU’s decision, or referred to it as part of a story on fossil fuel divestment.

And yes, the AFR’s campaign was overwhelmingly negative. The Canberra Times said it “verged on the hysterical”. Giles Parkinson, who held senior roles at the AFR for nine years and now edits RenewEconomy, said it was as though “someone had committed treason against Team Australia”. Both comments came after week one; three more weeks of such coverage were to follow.

The following shows how the ANU decision measured against other stories of the period, according to the AFR:

  • ANU’s divestment decision: 53 articles
  • Glencore/Rio merger plan: 31 articles
  • China’s coal tariff: 19 articles
  • Solar panels: 7 articles
  • Anglican funds and the Glasgow University’s divestment from fossil fuels: 5 articles
  • Any mention of carbon bubble or fossil fuels as stranded assets: 2 articles
  • Low carbon indexes performing well: 2 articles

Over the same period, divestment decisions by numerous investment bodies around the world were not covered. You can see the full list of things not considered newsworthy by the AFR here.

What about the AFR’s coverage of energy poverty? The coal lobby has taken to arguing that “coal solves energy poverty”. The numbers show the AFR has reported this line, largely without criticism.

On his trip to Australia last month, Indian environmentalist  Debi Goenka argued power from Australian coal will not help India’s poor. Debi argued coal is not affordable for India’s impoverished and has enormous negative impacts on local health and livelihoods. Solar is a better option, a point made clearly in a recent report from the International Energy Agency. What’s more, in a recent auction in India, solar beat the cost of power from Australian coal. But there was no coverage of any of this in the AFR.

But the really big financial story missing in action is fossil fuel risk. Avoiding catastrophic risks for the global economy means abandoning fossil fuel reserves. This message has now come from the United Nations, the OECD, the International Energy Agency, the IMF, the World Bank, the Bank of England, HSBC, Citi, Standard and Poors, Bush-era US treasury secretary Hank Paulson, and former Liberal leader Professor John Hewson.

Yet rather than focus on this building risk, and the tools available to manage it, a recent article in the AFR canvassed the views of Alan Oxley, RMIT academic and ex-diplomat, who argues funds cannot get competitive returns in Australia without investing in fossil fuels. The AFR didn’t disclose Oxley was recently commissioned by the Minerals Council to, as Climate Spectator put it, “kill off fossil fuel divestment”.

By comparison, the AFR spent many articles impugning the consultants behind the ANU’s decision. One article declared ANU was “embedded in the green-left” and drew a diagram linking various groups and people, including myself, claiming it raised unspecified “doubts” about the ANU’s divestment decision.

One FTSE director recently called carbon risk one of the fastest moving debates in markets in 30 years, but if you want to follow both sides of that debate, you probably shouldn’t rely on the current incarnation of the AFR.

Tom Swann is a research assistant at the Australia Institute and spokesperson for the Fossil Free ANU campaign. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the AFR didn’t cover the decision of the Rockefeller’s fund to divest from fossil fuels. The AFR actually published 9 articles on the decision – these were not picked up due to a misspelling of search terms in Factiva. The article above has been corrected. 

Peter Fray

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