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Climate sceptics steal the big tobacco playbook: create doubt, cause delay

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch says a price on carbon is a good idea. AAP

How interesting to see Rupert Murdoch’s mother, Dame Elisabeth, gracing the front pages of Fairfax papers, signing a letter supporting putting a price on carbon.

Her son, Rupert Murdoch has also stated he supports tackling climate change. Yet, this stance is at odds with the headlines of his flagship newspapers.

My research project - looking at the impact of declining newspaper revenues on investigative journalism - has had me trawling through hundreds of newspaper pages from 1971. And in looking for the one thing, I have found another: a striking parallel between the smoking lobby then, and lobbyists opposing climate change action now.

Among the dozens of stories from these old newspapers about the perils of smoking, is one about doctors travelling to Canberra with the mission of urging the McMahon Government to take action. They wanted Australians to understand the dangers of cigarette smoking.

Forty years later, it is climate scientists trying to get politicians to take action to help Australians understand the dangers to the environment of excessive carbon dioxide emissions.

But there is a point of difference between the anti-lobbyists efforts then to now. Then, the lobbyists were multinational tobacco companies, raising doubts about the now established link between smoking-related diseases and cigarette smoking.

Today, the anti-lobbyists are from multiple sectors, not just one. Their arguments are varied and nuanced. But the modus operandi remains the same - create doubt to get delay.

These sectors’ concern is about profits if a carbon tax is introduced. Among them are traditional energy suppliers, heavy manufacturers, and mining companies. But, also curiously, it seems is Australia’s News Limited.

Most days the Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun or The Australian publish headlines that collectively look like an anti-action campaign on climate change.

Genuine debate is a bedrock for democracy. But here it seems corporations, including Murdoch, are using their strength to dominate democratic politics. In the case of Murdoch, the motive may be less environmental than political.

Entrepreneur Dick Smith said recently of News Limited’s coverage of climate change: “In their editorials they say they accept that human-induced climate change is a real danger … yet their news pages and opinion pieces are full of endless attacks on politicians and others who support putting a price on carbon.”

Australia was one of the first nations to articulate the phenomenon of climate more than 20 years ago; and yet, doubt lingers. The latest Lowy Institute poll shows that, on the need for action, the urgency of public opinion has waned over the last three years.

By comparison, the European Union has led the world in tackling the adverse impacts of climate change through regulatory measures. Europeans had the climate change debate and decided in favor of action.

So why is Australia doubting? Despite the plethora of nascent news sources in the digital age, part of the answer is the influence from conservative elements of the established media. It results from structural changes that have altered audiences and media ownership levels over recent decades.

News audiences have fragmented. We have many choices about how we consume news. The digital age means we have more channels, web pages, blogs and radio than before.

But audience fragmentation, which started before the rise of the internet, has also caused falling advertising revenues resulting in cost cutting, and closures – such as the loss of evening papers in the 1980s.

Audience splintering also poses difficulties for mass communication about complex topics, such as the environmental impacts of climate change. Reaching a national audience through a single press conference is no longer a reliable technique to transcend the constant noise and traffic of information in the global public sphere.

To be proficient at conveying a message, particularly one that has hostile opposition, multiple media must be engaged to reach a mass audience. This includes all platforms such as the old media of newspapers – which traditionally sets the agenda – and television and radio.

It also requires proficiency using new media, such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and the myriad of other microblogging and social sharing sites, all gaining audiences exponentially. Note Barack Obama: the first politician to capture the power of Twitter and gather an online audience of millions.

But it is with old media that the problems for the Gillard government’s climate tax message are most pressing. News Limited makes up 70% of the nations’ daily newspapers. Even with fragmentation, that is a large share of the print audience. Currently, Australia has the most concentrated media ownership in the developed world.

The denigration of actor Cate Blanchett’s support for a carbon tax through the moniker “Climate Cate” was one example of the appearance of a hostile anti-carbon tax campaign.

Further, other than for breaking news, most radio and television stations still read the mornings’ papers to decide what stories to pursue for the day. This means that “Climate Cate” is picked up as a news report, and by breakfast disseminated throughout the nation via the broadcast media and online.

Online is adept at breaking and spreading news, but less so at originating it.

Information overload is a common experience in today’s world. Media theorist Brian McNair says that in an era of declining print circulations, the journalists of the old media can have an enhanced role as “gatekeepers and sense-makers”.

This is because the globalised public sphere becomes so noisy and diverse that it is the established media that carves a channel of influence through the cacophony. Take the sheer number of blogs, tweets, status updates, radio and TV news bulletins that serve us information non-stop.

As one senior Age newspaper journalist described it at a public forum recently: “Following Twitter to get news information is like drinking water from a fire hydrant, there’s plenty of it, but you don’t get much”.

In this environment of constant information churn, it is easy for issues and policies to get lost, unless bigger media organisations seize upon them. Former federal Finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, expresses concern about the 24-hour news cycle in his latest book Sideshow. The climate change debate is a working example of the difficulty of cutting through the churn.

But, this is just one element of the media landscape. Australian media companies are now mostly made up of consortiums. Some consist of influential shareholders – some are big businesses that oppose a carbon tax.

Mining magnate, Gina Rinehart who is opposed to the mining tax (now Australia’s wealthiest citizen) has acquired a share and board position in Network Ten; and a five per cent shareholding in Fairfax Media – owner of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

It is an unlikely coincidence that Ten recently commissioned the Bolt Report, and put one of the most vocal voices opposing action on climate change at the helm. This Sunday TV show is essentially a pastiche of Andrew Bolt’s views and interests, which mostly coincide with those of his masters.

Bolt is claimed to be the most read blogger in the nation, and his newspaper columns are syndicated across the nation through Australia’s dominant newspaper chain, thereby widening his audience reach, and the influence of his personal views.

In Robert Manne’s latest book Making Trouble he describes Bolt and others as the “attack dogs of the right”. He also notes that Fairfax’s spoiling role against the Murdoch papers has diminished.

But let’s return to 1971. Long after the medical science became public, doubt lingered and smokers still suffered. It may not be a perfect parallel, but then, as now, science is battling doubts – some fostered by forces of self-interest.

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