Authored by Stephan Lewandowsky. This post originally appeared at The Guardian. Re-printed here with permission.
Australia has unwittingly become a social experiment. A ruthless experiment on the fate of a society when a single media conglomerate, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, owns 167 newspapers and controls around 70% of the printed media market.
After the phone-hacking scandal rocked Britain, News Corp officials in Australia struggled to put some daylight between its local operations and the rest of the empire, assuring the public that the country was spared phone hacking and other unethical practices. It is perhaps unlikely that wire tapping or phone hacking was practiced in Australia, simply because the local specialty of the Murdoch organs and their shock-jock allies has been a fairly low-tech reliance on outrageous spin.
Nowhere has the reliance on spin been more apparent than during the coverage of the climate “debate” by the Murdoch media and allied shock jocks.
The Australian government is currently seeking to introduce a rather modest tax on carbon, which will have little effect on low-to-moderate income earners, but which will nonetheless help cut emissions, thus finally getting Australia to live up to its historical responsibilities as one of the world's largest per capita carbon emitters and one of the dirtiest producers of power.
The resultant “debate” about the carbon tax has turned into a fact-free brawl that is sufficiently devoid of ethics to make football hooligans blush. Segments of the media, alas, do not blush.
During the recent truck “convoy” that descended upon Parliament Hill in Canberra to protest against the carbon tax, faint memories of Allende's Chile were quickly overpowered by the raging tirade of the presiding shock jock, Alan Jones, who whipped his crowd of truckwits into a frenzy when journalists asked whether he had been paid for his engagement. Not a silly question, given that this individual has been involved in a cash-for-comment scandal before.
And despite the robustness of its editorial, the Australian appears remarkably thin-skinned. Its editor-in-chef threatened to sue a former reporter for defamation because she reportedly said writing about climate change at the paper was “absolutely excruciating. It was torture.”
In response to all this, and in the absence of politicians with sufficient courage to take on the hate-mongers, some Australian academics have started to provide a platform for accountability by shining a light on the media's practices.
Using the Conversation, the world's first daily paper written primarily by academics in co-operation with journalists, academics are beginning to catalogue the excruciating and tortuous daily distortions of climate science by various papers, especially by the Australian, Murdoch's flagship publication.
This catalogue reveals much that is humorous, albeit involuntarily so.
According to the Australian's front page, a picture of an aged and bronzed Aussie swimmer on an iconic beach is evidence against the threat of sea level rises. Why? Because if 80-year-old Kevin Court hasn't noticed the sea rising, then why bother with satellite data? And because that was so much fun, let's do it again and put the 53-year-old veteran swimmer Lee Boman on the front page a few months later. Two nice blokes in trunks allay all our fears about rising sea levels and prove that climate change is a hoax. Or something like that.
When the technical difficulties and expenditures associated with the procurement of photos become prohibitive, the Australian will happily resort to an internet chain email to present “facts” about CO2 emissions. Flagship journalism at its best.
On the odd occasions that practicing scientists are contacted, their statements either disappear without a trace or are distorted beyond recognition. Two months ago, an article on “a deluge of news” jubilantly declared that the “first solid rains for two years have all but broken the drought that has crippled the West Australian grain industry.”
The journalist should have been in possession of information from climatologists that autumn rains had been far below average and drier than last year – which had ended up being the driest on record. Somehow that information was exchanged for the obligatory soothing quote from farmer Brian Cusack in Narembeen, who talked of a “normal year.”
Since then, inflow into Perth reservoirs has remained frighteningly minimal and total winter rain has been significantly below average, as explained and predicted by the climatologists months ago.
And all this deluge of spin and misinformation before we even get to the opinion pages of Murdoch's flagship paper. Those opinion pages, offering a smorgasbord of denialist talking points, resemble the event horizon of a black hole.
And all this before we descend into the netherworld of the gutter press and shock jocks.
It must also be noted that the editor-in-chief of the Australian, Chris Mitchell, received the “JN Pierce award for media excellence for leading the newspaper's coverage of climate change policy” in 2009. This annual award is presented by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.
More recently, the Australian used its considerable moral weight to vow that they would help destroy the Greens at the ballot box. The Greens are the party whose politicians, according to recent research, exclusively rely on scientists to shape their views on climate. In contrast, only 44% of conservative opposition politicians relied on scientists, with the remainder seeking information from other sources – perhaps the cat palmist who opines on climate on TV.
A vow to destroy the party that relies on scientists for scientific advice – how extreme! how radical! – is what many people would call an agenda.
And it is pursuit of that agenda which has arguably contributed to the increasingly fact-free state of Australian public life, in which eruptions of populist rage trump peer-reviewed science, in which climate scientists receive death threats, and in which reporters who practice actual journalism are subject to legal threats.
That is what happens when a media conglomerate and their allies go out of control and escape accountability. The result is a society poised to embark on a Stanford prison experiment.
• Stephan Lewandowsky is a Winthrop professor and Australian professorial fellow at the University of Western Australia. His research addresses the distinction between scepticism and denial and how people respond to misinformation.
This post originally appeared at The Guardian. Re-printed here with permission.