Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (Image: EPA/Valerie Blum)

If there’s one thing that has distinguished the Australian conservative media over the past week, it’s been the ferocity of its willingness to speak truth to power — when that power is a 16-year-old Swedish school girl, and that “truth” comes from climate denial talking points.

In the US, the Fox network had to walk back the claim by one of its guest commentators that Greta Thunberg was “mentally ill”, but News Corp’s Australian cadres have refused to allow their freedom of speech to be so constrained.

The hysteria of Australia’s conservative media attacks on Thunberg and the school strikers is a clear signal of the power of the students’ message. But it also demonstrates the rapid spread of global talking points within the right-wing media-sphere and the osmosis of those points across traditional media.

For Andrew Bolt, Thunberg is “disturbed” with “many mental problems”; for Miranda Devine, she’s a victim of child abuse; for The Australian’s Graham Lloyd, her words demanded “deciphering Greta’s gobful”. Alan Jones (fresh from his final warning) read an anonymous Facebook post (last seen on Pauline Hanson’s page last December) calling the striking school students “virtue-signalling turds”. In a recognition of the role of Australia in climate denial, his crack led a recent New York Times op-ed titled “How the climate kids are short-circuiting right-wing media“.

Though US Fox have let a recent crack from Laura Ingraham stand, the US right-wing media attack has been more subdued. Most right-wing US media figures have just been tut-tutting about needless anxiety and concern.

This talking point was picked up by Morrison in advance of his stiff-necked defence of Australia’s record of climate inaction at the United Nations. In response to Thunberg’s speech, he called for “context and perspective”, saying: “I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues”.

With the prime minister taking the moderate line in the anti-Thunberg crusade, it’s no wonder that Australian conservative crusaders felt liberated to go full frenzy. As so often happens, the sheer volume of noise out of the country’s largest media organisation set the agenda with other organisations later piling in.

Over at Nine, broadcast personalities had already been getting stuck into Thunberg — most notoriously, Jones, but also Sam Newman and recently appointed 4BC presenter Karl Stefanovic. At the Nine mastheads, the “Independent. Always.” signage was just back from the panel beaters after the denting it was given by their CEO-hosted Liberal Party fundraiser. What better time to jump in, with former Liberal minister Amanda Vanstone’s Thursday op-ed mourning the death of civilised conversation with a deeply personal attack on Thunberg.

The ABC was more cautious, with News Breakfast presenter Michael Rowland criticising the pile-on early in the week. By Friday morning, the media noise led the organisation to stumble when Rowland invited the trolls out from under the bridge, tweeting: “Did she go over the top or was she unfairly maligned? Let us know.”

It suggests that the continued deterioration of the News Corp mastheads, particularly The Australian (“Breitbart in Garamond” as Benjamin Law tweeted) is dragging the traditional media down with it.

Much of the response has been to dismiss these attacks as the grumpy old man worldview that distorts so much public debate, as the ABC did in its Thursday evening satire (a clip retweeted by Thunberg, herself). But there’s a greater concern here.

As Teen Vogue — the Trump era’s equivalent of Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post — published, these talking points don’t come fully-formed out of the fevered imaginings of aging broadcasters and columnists. Rather, the magazine said that “a large subsection of the commentariat driving the abuse of Greta is part of an established network of radical free-marketeer lobby groups — a network that has firm ties to the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science denial”.

The Australian conservative media is deeply enmeshed in this network. It’s domination of Australian traditional media, and the rhetorical support it receives from the federal government, means they can not only operate at peak denialist hysteria — they can, unlike in the US, do so unapologetically.

Is Australia trumping the US in denialist hysteria? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey