Hackgate: good news or bad for the climate?

Given how fully the phone hacking scandal has been dominating the news, I’m surprised that, so far, there’s been very little discussion in the environment sphere of what any of it might mean in terms of climate change. The indefatigable James Murray at Business Green made the good point that anyone who cares about the planet should probably be grasping the opportunity of impending regulatory reform of the media to call for stronger obligations on news outlets to publish prominent corrections following factually dodgy reporting. So far, however, I haven’t seen anything about the other obvious aspect of all this: how changes to the media landscape resulting from this debacle may affect mainstream reporting of environmental issues.

It’s hardly surprising that most greens are, as George Monbiot tweeted it, “dancing a jig around their desks” as they watch the most powerful media empire of our age crumble under the weight of its own corruption. That’s not just because people who care about climate change happen to find Murdoch vile on issues ranging from the Iraq war to the demonisation of refugees; it’s also because News Corp has put out lots of disinformation on climate change.

In the US, News Corp owns Fox News, which has a long record of dodgy reporting on climate change – including a time last year when the station’s Washington bureau chief demanded that sceptic views featured within minutes of a science story about record high temperatures. In a very different corner of Murdoch’s US operations, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has for years given a platform to lobbyists seeking, as Jeffery Sachs put it, to “confuse the public and discredit the scientists whose insights are helping to save the world from unintended environmental harm”.

Over in Australia, too, where News Corp controls a large slice of the news media, the company has often taken a climate-sceptic stance – so much so that some commentators believe that it has been highly significant in slowing political progress on climate protection. Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens, recently described some Murdoch papers as “hate media” over their irresponsible treatment of issues such as global warming.

With all this in mind, a full-on collapse of News Corp, which is something that looks increasingly plausible as the scandal continues to run, could potentially be extremely good news for the planet. But what’s notable, when you stop to think about it, is that the company’s UK operations don’t score so badly on the environment front.

True, News International gives space to a few anti-green commentators – not least petrolhead and Chipping Norton Set member Jeremy Clarkson. Overall, though, it’s probably fair to say that News International titles are better, or at least less bad, on the environment than most of their competitors.

It’s the Mail, not the Sun, that seems to have made it a mission to sink any hope of solving climate change. The two papers’ respective stances on light bulbs is just one of many possible examples: the Sun distributed millions of low-energy bulbs to readers in a single day and ran accompanying editorial on energy saving at home; by contrast, the Mail campaigned to block the phase out of inefficient bulbs, pushed dodgy science about the risks of low-energy alternatives (see here for a flavour of their coverage) and even offered readers sets of old-fashioned bulbs via its hotline.

Further up the market, it’s the Telegraph, not the Times, that laps up the traffic from the endless stream of falsehoods put out by Christopher Booker and James Delingpole. And, further down the market, it’s the Express, not the deceased News of the World, that’s known for running splashes such as “100 reasons why climate change is natural” (a story, incidentally, that was also deemed worthy of mention by the Telegraph).

Last week, when I searched the now-defunct NotW website for the phrase “climate change”, most of the results pointed to the paper’s campaign to persuade readers to Go Green And Save. (At the time of writing you can still search the NotW via Google like this). Search the Express or Mail for comparison and you’ll find endless drivel about climate change being a global conspiracy or (the Mail’s current favourite angle) the terrifying threat of green taxes.

Thinking about all this reminded me that, a couple of years ago, the Sun was even all set to be an official partner of the 10:10 carbon-cutting campaign, in an unlikely marriage with the Guardian. We held joint events in summer 2009 to help persuade businesses and other groups to sign up to the campaign and rapidly cut their emissions. In the event, though, the Sun dropped out just before launch – around the same time, we couldn’t help noticing, that the Guardian started turning up the heat on phone-hacking at a certain Sunday tabloid.

So why would the Murdoch empire have pale tints of green in its UK outlets but take a climate sceptic stance in Australia and the US? If, as one media commentator said last week, the Murdoch media tends simply to reflect the mood of a nation back to that nation, perhaps the discrepancy can be explained by the UK being a little further ahead in terms of environmental awareness than the US or Australia.

Another plausible explanation, however, is that UK is the territory of James Murdoch, who, unlike his father, has a reputation for being green-minded. James is credited with driving the environment agenda at BSkyB, which was one of the first big companies to publicly announce its aim to become carbon neutral back in 2006 – around the same time that it starting running a Green Week of environment coverage and even gave every staff member a mini book (which I wrote) on climate change and carbon cutting. When James took over control of News International a few years ago, he stressed his ambitions to improve that company’s environmental standards, too.

I have no idea whether James’s interest in climate change stems from a deeply held concern or simply a keenness to add a veneer of ethical credibility to his various companies. Certainly it would be foolish to think that he’s some kind of crusading environmentalist who has been chomping at the bit to inherit and green-up Fox News and the other unenlightened outposts of the family empire. Whatever the truth, in between dancing jigs around our desks, anyone concerned about the climate should probably pause for a moment to consider the potential downside of the phone-hacking story: millions of NotW readers getting picked up by the fervently anti-green Mail or Express, and a News International that could live another day under the leadership of a freshly imposed News Corp executive much less sympathetic to environmental issues than James Murdoch. In other words, a Sun that looks more like Fox News on climate change, and a Times that looks more like the Wall Street Journal.

Not that I want to spoil anyone’s fun, though. I did only say a pause. Now back to that jig …

 

Posted by Duncan Clark, @theduncanclark. This post can be reproduced elsewhere, provided it appears with a byline and a link back to this page.

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12 Responses to Hackgate: good news or bad for the climate?

  1. Neal says:

    A very interesting angle on the story, Duncan. Thanks for sharing these views. I think with the current focus on the domino of events in this story it may be some time before other commentators begin to formulate their thoughts on the full implications of the potential weakening of News Corporation. I had some brief thoughts on the confidence and heart that environmental campaigners may be able to take from this series of events: http://smartergreenerliving.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/environmental-lessons-from-the-phone-hacking-scandal/

  2. Thanks for post – great summary of the potential media fallout.

    From a policy perspective, Cameron has seemed like one of the climate agenda’s few friends in government over last year, after he apparently rescued CCC’s carbon budgets from the death grips of HMT and BIS.

    While it seems highly unlikely he’ll resign, how much political capital will Cameron be prepared to spend on this issue in the future in the face of sceptical cabinet members, very sceptical backbenchers and ‘green stealth tax’ headlines…?

  3. Great post Duncan. Love that you brought up the fact that major news publications have no commitment to the truth. I’d believe a tweet from the street over their processed hyperbole any day.

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