(Image: AAP/Kelly Barnes)

The climate denialism that has peppered the coverage of the summer bushfire crisis has exposed an uncomfortable truth about what passes for opinion writing in traditional media: it’s floated free from any factual tethering.

Opinion pieces are no longer designed to make the reader smarter. They’re designed to reinforce existing views and to feed the supporting trolls and sock-puppets that make-up the biomass of social media.

News Corp has led the way as its editors seem happy to see their writers shake off any facts that might get in the way of generating the audience outrage that drives the modern mass media economy.

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It’s a global trend, at least across the English-speaking world. As a result, traditional media op-eds are now rarely the shared journey of discovery between writer and reader that was once the hallmark of the best of the genre.

Now, op-eds are more a mish-mash of debating points that track a well-worn path from grievance through fabrication to diversion (as British writer Nesrine Malik examined in her 2019 book We Need New Stories).

Facts exist only to be marshalled in support of an outcome determined long before the first words are on the screen. And where real-world facts don’t fit snugly into the thread of the argument, they have to be wrenched out of context, exaggerated or, simply, made up out of whole cloth.

Take the so-called “arson emergency”, launched by reporting from the Seven network and News Corp’s mastheads before being brought in to serve the argument in Maurice Newman’s denialist op-ed in The Australian last Thursday. The conspiracy was amplified across the global right by tweet from Donald Trump Jr.

Journalists (along with police, fire fighters and experts in academia) were diverted to fact-checking, although the meme continues to twist and turn through the knotted undergrowth of denialism.

Or take another talking point in denialist circles that keeps emerging on Facebook: that global heating is a statistical error that ignores 19th century temperature records (“to fit a global warming agenda” say the more conspiratorially-minded deniers, like Queensland Liberal Senator Gerard Rennick). Although this was fact-checked as false over five years ago (by The Conversation among others), a version also turned up in the Newman op-ed as “no drying trend in 100 years of Australian data”.

Journalist members of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) are bound to “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts”. This applies equally to op-ed writers and to news reporters. There’s real anger (including within News Corp) about the infestation of denialism, although it was a leaked email from a non-journalist employee that put the internal angst into the public arena last week.

However, opinion writers are increasingly not drawn from journalism and, where they are at News Corp, they may not be MEAA members. That leaves the editors beholden to the much weaker approach in the statement of principles of the Australian Press Council, the industry’s regulatory body.

Here, there’s a get out: “accuracy and clarity” is a must for news reports. The test for op-eds requires publishers to simply ensure that “writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts”.

In a weekend “cool heads needed” editorial, The Australian adopted the “no climate change deniers around here” line from the top of the company, conceding only that the company hosts “debates reflecting the political division in Australia about how to address climate change without destroying our economy”.

These “debates” are built around a stubborn resistance to fact-based discovery. Rather than News Corp’s “cool heads”, op-ed writing needs hard heads, prepared to let the facts drive the opinion where it may.

What would it take for News Corp to face the facts on the bushfire crisis and climate change? Let us know your thoughts at [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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