Day 6

Amidst raging wildfires, Australian media is pushing misinformation on climate change

James Murdoch has accused News Corp, his own family's media company, of denying climate change and pushing misinformation about the causes of Australia's wildfires.

James Murdoch has accused News Corp, his own family's company, of climate change denial

A member of the specialist team of remote-area firefighters and parks staff sprays water on an area with endangered Wollemi Pines to protect them from bushfires at Wollemi National Park, New South Wales, Australia, in mid-January. (NSW NPWS/Handout via Reuters)

As fires continue to rage across Australia, the country's conservative media is facing criticism for spreading misinformation about climate change.

James Murdoch, son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, accused his own family's companies including Australia's News Corp for "ongoing denial" of climate change on Wednesday.

New York Times reporter Damien Cave says that newspapers and radio stations run by the conservative media company have fuelled "conspiracy theories" about the cause of the fires.

He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about coverage of the wildfires in the country. 

Here is part of that conversation.

Fridays for Future activists protest over Australia's bushfires crisis, in Barcelona, Spain on Jan. 17, 2020. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

In your reporting, you describe a group of firefighters who speak disparagingly about environmentalists as they're fighting fires. What did they say and what did that signal to you?

The firefighters were trying to cut a containment line in an area to prevent against this blaze coming toward them, and one of the guys shouted to me, 'Hey, don't take any photos. You know, the greenies will see it and make us stop,' was basically the gist. 

This kind of speaks to this myth that the reason that Australia's fires are burning so intensely is because people on the left prevented firefighters from doing hazard reduction burning. The Green Party has said that's simply not true. 

Firefighters at the highest levels have said actually the issue is that it's really hard logistically to do this kind of burning because of the extended fire season. So it's kind of a conspiracy theory that's become pretty popular among a large swath of Australian society, especially people on the right.

So are [conservative media outlets] promoting this idea, even as these wildfires are unprecedented, or is this a long-term project that they've had?

It's definitely been more heavily promoted since the wildfires started intensifying a few months ago. 

It's a bit of a bait and switch, or a way to hold up someone to blame and to keep people from talking about what is really the underlying force behind this, which is climate change.

Firefighters built a unique system to protect endangered dinosaur trees from Australia fires 0:41

So controlled burning, that's one of the issues that Murdoch-owned news outlets and other right-wing outlets are promoting. Can you give us a sense of the other kinds of misinformation that are being spread now?

There's two other things that are being sort of heavily publicized in that world. 

One is this idea that arson is a major factor in the fires when, in fact, there's thousands of lightning strikes, and the vast majority of these fires were started by natural causes and spread wildly because of two years of drought. 

The other thing is this idea that, 'well, these fires aren't that bad — Australia has always had fires in its history.' 

Scientists will tell you that that is just a real oversimplification. When you look at the scale of these fires, the amount that they've burned is now larger than Switzerland. It's not just one fire. It's hundreds of fires in four different states. 

The scale and intensity of the fire is unlike anything Australia has seen before, and it's exactly what climate scientists predicted about a decade ago.

Who is benefiting from these deflections? Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is facing harsh criticism over the lack of climate action and continued support for the coal industry.

Is right-wing media covering for Morrison, or does right-wing media have their own agenda here?

I think they're definitely covering for Morrison, who's their guy. He's definitely further to the right than the previous prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who they really didn't like. 

In terms of who benefits, I mean, the coal industry definitely benefits. 

I think also there's a perception that because Scott Morrison won the last election — in part, running against the projected Labour policy of a more aggressive action on climate change — that he has a mandate to kind of resist it.

A local man poses for a photo in front of the remains of his house after it was burnt in a bushfire, in the town of Cobargo, Australia, on January 13. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

And what is the reaction to those people who are now questioning — those people who now have doubts — what is their reaction when they see in their newspaper, or on their radio station, that there's false or misleading rhetoric around the disaster that Australia is facing right now? 

There are some people who look at it and just don't want to talk about it. They basically are retreating from the conversation and saying, 'Listen, I just need to deal with the house that just burned down.'

Then there's also just growing frustration, though, with politicians. And I think this is across the board. 

Australia has been going through what it calls "climate wars" for more than a decade now, and the intense frustration that the general public feels with the government is quite clear. Polls show that two-thirds of Australians want more aggressive action on climate change, even if it means sacrifices. 

So the government's inability to act is really driving people pretty crazy. And so there's either a response of anger or just disconnection and disgust because there's nothing going on.

Have you seen any evidence when you monitor conservative radio stations or read the conservative press that there's now pressure to have a different conversation, to take a different tone on climate change, than they have in the past?

There's a lot of pressure. [At] NewsCorp, which is Rupert Murdoch's company here, there was an employee who, during a campaign to raise money for bushfire victims, wrote this scathing email to her bosses and said, I'm quitting — what you're doing in terms of the way you cover climate change is dangerous for the country — and that got a lot of attention here. 

More recently, James Murdoch came out and criticized his own family's company about the way the coverage has gone. 

And just this week, I've started to see more opinion pieces and little bits of coverage that treat climate change as a clear reality. 

I don't expect there's ever going to be an apology from the conservative press. They might just shift and pretend as if this is what they've always said, that, hey, climate change is real and that we just don't want to deal with it the way those effete lefty snobs do, which is probably the direction they might go. 

So there are shifts, but they're pretty subtle and you don't see it yet trickling into the political system. There's still no real aggressive effort by Australia to be a leader on climate change and to say, 'hey, listen, we're a victim of the whole world's inaction and the whole world needs to look at this and do something about it.'

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Damien Cave, download our podcast or click Listen above.


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