Welcome to Quadrant Online | Login/ Register Cart (0) $0 View Cart
Menu
November 07th 2013 print

Tony Thomas

Wendy Bacon’s Warmist Wonderland

The UTS academic's 222-page study of Australian newspapers' treatment of climate change is far worse than silly. It is more than a bit sinister

melting worldProfessorial Fellow Wendy Bacon says her 222-page  study of Australian newspapers’ coverage of climate change  is the largest Australian research project of its kind. I’d add that it’s also the worst of its kind, filled with so much junk that choosing the worst element is invidious.

Her “Sceptical Science Part 2” report is from the Australian  Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney.  It found that a third of 602 climate-change articles in ten Australian newspapers between February-April, 2011, and the corresponding period in 2012, did not go along with “the consensus”  about human causation.  “Given the extremely strong consensus about this [climate] evidence, this finding presents a major challenge for media accountability in Australia,” she concludes, pointing the finger at News Corp.

Bacon is miffed that only 65% of her article sample backs the so-called consensus. She says that “this under-represents the agreement amongst more than 97% of scientists that human activity is a causal factor in climate change.” One can only comment, as per George Orwell: “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

Recall that the Gillard government this year sought but failed to muzzle the News Corp press by putting it under the control of the “Public Interest Media Advocate”.  In the final paragraph of Bacon’s report she presents one of the most worrying results of her research:

“…an information gulf between different audiences and regions is widening in Australia. The resolution of that problem will have to address the concentration of media ownership in this country, a concentration that is largely responsible for the active production of ignorance and confusion on one of the most important issues confronting Australia [climate change].”

Bacon seems also to be pining for Labor Senator Conroy’s  “public interest test”, which would have vetoed politically unpalatable media mergers.  Wake up, Wendy, there’s a new sheriff in town.

The Bacon  research claims,

“News Corp controls 65% of daily and national newspaper circulation. In the state capitals of Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin and Hobart, it controls the only newspaper. ..Nearly all of the sceptic articles in this study were published by News Corp. So it seems safe to argue that News Corp’s dominance is a major reason why the Australian press is a world leader in the promotion of scepticism.”  (My emphasis).

Newspapers “controlling” their readerships might have applied to the Soviet Union’s Pravda and Isvestia, but no-one in Australia is forced to buy or read The Australian or the Herald Sun. To my simple mind, people buy those newspapers because they like the contents. One can imagine, however, that Bacon would very much like to “control” people from buying News Corp papers.

Her previous report, Sceptical Climate, last year also bashed News Corp on its climate coverage. That report was part-funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, an odd alliance for something that bills itself  as the Australian Centre for “Independent” Journalism. The Centre says it only takes such money for research that ‘does not conflict with the Centre’s mission’,  and I’d agree that ACF and ACIJ are definitely not in any conflict. The latest Bacon research was not funded by ACF, according to the Centre.

In her new report, she frets that while (according to her) there is increasing certainty about humans causing climate change, the Australian press grew more critical about it between 2011 and 2012. This coincided with a diminished interest in the topic, with coverage declining.

Who is Wendy Bacon? She’s a Professorial Fellow at ACIJ and a freelance journalist for New Matilda, Crikey.com, The Conversation, The Guardian and Fairfax.  Her own website says she’s a “professor of journalism” at ACIJ, which has been incorrect since she retired a year ago. Most journalists can at least get their CVs correct.

She is also a self-confessed News Corp hater and Greens lover. Just imagine her struggle to retain objectivity in her latest report. This is how she put it last September 6 :

“I’m voting Green because I disagree with News Corp. At this turning point in our history, we desperately need a voice for progressive policies.

“After the last election, News Corp’s The Australian declared that The Greens are ‘bad for the nation’…   News Corp’s aim since the Greens did well in 2010 has been to see them ‘destroyed at the ballot box’…

“For decades I have watched both Labor and Liberal National parties allow Rupert Murdoch, talkback radio hosts and commercial television companies to  become increasingly unaccountable and abuse their power.

“The Greens have used their voice in parliament to speak out for media freedom and diversity and against these abuses of power…

“And then there are my other reasons. At the forefront is climate change. It is indeed ‘the moral challenge’ for our generation…Now millions of humans and entire species and ecosystems are threatened by changes to our climate which 97.2% of climate scientists say are caused by humans. “Yet as an ACIJ report soon to be published will demonstrate, advocacy of climate scepticism forms the majority of climate change coverage in some of News Corp’s biggest publications and right wing talkback radio programs. You can call it propaganda – or you can call it the production of ignorance…”

Bacon led a team of about 15 researchers to produce her report. Those hoping to compare The Australian’s coverage with that of, say, The Age, will be disappointed. All 16 on the team failed to notice that  The Age’s total of climate articles is mis-stated as 50, rather than summing to 77 (though 77 is also wrong, the correct figure is 71). The Age articles’ stated breakdown in terms of sceptic doubt and rejection is 18% and 10% respectively, somehow identical with those of the Advertiser, run by the reviled Rupert. The percent of all The Age’s climate article stances add to 119%, instead of the required 100%. Four of the table’s five grand totals are also wrong.

Searching around to discover The Age’s real position, one can find another table based on word count rather than articles. This shows The Age wordage rejecting the consensus ran to 2%, with 10% throwing doubt on it and 83% supporting it. The Australian’s equivalent percentages were 5%, 45% and 49%, meaning that even The Australian hadn’t defied the ‘climate consensus’.

Bacon seems to think that any reporting of sceptic views is unprofessional, since sceptics by definition are flat-earther equivalents. She writes:

“…Arguments that favour the use of climate sceptic sources in order to achieve ‘balance’ can arguably be seen as demonstrating an ideologically motivated lack of professionalism in failing to ‘compare like with like’ in the supposed balance.”

But her test results for the Murdoch press, to any normal person, suggest the coverage is pretty balanced. Articles supporting the (Bacon-defined) consensus were 52% of The Australian ’s coverage; 64% of The Advertiser’s coverage; 91% of The Courier Mail’s; 89% of the Hobart Mercury’s; and 58% of the NT News ’. The only Murdoch paper weighted towards the sceptics was the Daily Telegraph, with 37% of pieces orthodox, 31% suggesting doubt and 32% rejecting  the (Bacon) consensus.

Bacon has to pretend, implausibly in the internet era, that News Corp has some form of information monopoly:

“This issue is not one of free speech or the right of a few individuals to push their ideas, but of the market power of a dominant company to build support for particular policies and ideas.” 

As for methodology, Bacon sprawls at the first hurdle.  She has to distinguish between orthodox climate scientists pushing the dangerous global warming hypothesis, and sceptics claiming … what, exactly? A reasonable answer is that sceptics dispute that climate sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 is between two and six degrees, the latter the supposed upper range and potentially disastrous for the planet). Well-informed sceptics would plump for a sensitivity number in the 0.5degC  to, maybe, 1.5degC, and they would argue that such modest warming is likely to be beneficial.

Sceptics also put much greater weight on natural climate variability, which could well swamp any man-made effects of CO2. Doubters continue to ask for empirical proof that most of the 0.8degC warming in the past century is “extremely likely” due to man-made factors, which is the latest claim of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Bacon, however, galumphs in with ludicrous definitions of “the consensus” and sceptics’ position against it. She writes:

“Scientists (over 97%) overwhelmingly agree that the activities of human beings cause climate change. This is referred to as the consensus position. The term ‘climate sceptic’ refers to those who do not accept this consensus position. Articles were coded according to whether they ‘accepted’ the consensus position; ‘suggested doubt’ about it; or outright ‘rejected’ it. The latter two positions are both sceptical of the consensus position.”

Dear Ms Bacon, be advised that no sane person disputes that “humans cause climate change”.  If I turn on my hi-fi, I am causing climate change (other things being equal). No wonder the fabled 97% of scientists agree about human causation. The real issue is, “How much change?” So all the Bacon team’s laborious coding of articles according to “accepting”, “rejecting” or “doubting” that the Pope is a Catholic, doesn’t make sense.

Adding to the confusion, a few pages later we read,

 “The number of articles about climate science fell between 2011 and 2012 but the number not accepting the scientific consensus that human beings are causing dangerous climate change grew.
” (My emphasis).

There she introduces the key term “dangerous” to her definition. For a moment, rationality appears. Warmists and sceptics can have an objective disagreement about the degree of danger. But for the entirety of the rest of the report’s 220 pages, “dangerous” climate change is never again mentioned. However, right at the end of her report, her definition of the “consensus” changes again, this time to signify that human beings are “the main” contributors to global warming.

Given that Bacon now has three seriously different definitions of “consensus”, how did her dozen junior assistants manage to code 602 articles into “accepters”, “doubters” and “rejecters” of “the consensus”?

Bacon’s first task as a climate crusader is to demonstrate that sceptics are on the wrong side of  “climate science” –- whatever that is — since thousands of peer-reviewed science papers contradict the orthodox views. One example of dodgy “climate science” is the Michael Mann hockey-stick claim of  unprecedented warming in the 20th Century, compared with the past 1000 years. Disputed by hundreds of studies, even the IPCC in September conceded it was at least partially wrong.

These subtleties elude Bacon, who thinks she can prove the warmist hypothesis by citing laughably flawed, but peer reviewed, studies asserting that 97% of scientists back the orthodoxy. Cognitive psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky, who thinks he’s proved that sceptics also believe NASA faked the moon landing, gets five citations on the so-called ‘consensus’.

We find Bacon citing Naomi Oreskes (2004) that 75% of abstracts “accepted the scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change”. Sure, it’s real, but how important? Just as silly is the Doran & Zimmerman study-count, of 96-98% of papers agreeing that the globe has warmed since 1800 (well, duh), and humans have been a ‘significant’ contributor (whatever ‘significant’ might mean).

And of course she cites the notoriously flawed paper this year by John Cook et al that 97.1% of abstracts agree about human-caused warming. The reality is that Cook’s paper showed only 0.3% of 11,944 abstracts tested, endorsed the Cook-specified  IPCC view “that human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW)”.

A distinction between 97.1% and 0.3% was too subtle for Bacon and her large team to notice.

Bacon consistently kicks own-goals. For example:

“Concern that the media is failing the Australian people in its coverage of climate science is not new but never has it been as high on the news agenda as now in late October, 2013.”

This is true for concern about coverage by the Fairfax papers and the ABC, which have tightly excluded sceptic material and don’t want to know about the 15-year warming halt. In contrast, all of the News Corp papers, on Bacon’s own data, have been more willing than Fairfax to run arguments from each side of the debate. All but one of the News Corp newspapers have favored orthodoxy.

Bacon’s paper makes 157 references to Andrew Bolt in its 222 pages, perhaps indicating a need for some counselling. In her worldview, Mr Bolt is a simulacrum of Austin Power’s Dr Evil, single-handedly destroying the planet with his super-weapon of…well, what? Bolt is just a commentator. If he’s influential, why would that be? Something to do with a large and existing body of sceptical opinion perhaps?

Bacon’s describes Bolt’s style as being of personal abuse, cherry-picked science, insults to orthodox scientists and journalists (whom he calls ideological, totalitarian, elitists, left-wing etc), and discloser of alleged warmist conspiracies. “Once the ‘facts’ are established a triumphal, mocking tone is adopted,” she whines. Bacon surrounds the Bolt name with conspiracies.

“Bolt’s approach needs to be considered in the context of a broader international game played out with other media, politicians, climate sceptics and audiences… News Corp has selected Bolt to play a powerful strategic role in the communication of climate change to Australian audiences. He plays this role in coalition with other climate sceptics … Through all these strategies, the findings of climate scientists are rendered almost invisible in the media sphere inhabited by large sections of the Australian community… His individual role and that of other sceptic columnists should not distract from the decisions of corporate managers and editors who hire and heavily promote these columnists. While some of these editors claim to accept the consensus position, they accord him the power to promote scathing critiques of climate scientists and other media that accept the consensus position.”

Nice try, but even Anne Summers has reported Bolt defying, not supporting, News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch’s pro-orthodox climate views:

“ ‘He (Bolt) took on the chairman (Murdoch) about climate change during a Murdoch visit to Melbourne,” says Bruce Guthrie… “They ended up agreeing to differ. ‘In some ways he is quite brave to take on the Murdochs on that issue,’ says Stephen Mayne… ‘It is very unusual for a News person to take on management.’”

Bolt is a villain to Bacon when he fails to cite peer-reviewed research, but also when he does. For example, when he cited a peer-reviewed piece by Knox & Douglass (2010) saying there had been no significant warming of the oceans since 2003, Bacon hoes into him for not also reporting an alleged comment (not peer reviewed) by scientist Kevin Trenberth saying the paper was “rubbish”. This is the same Trenberth who in the Climategate emails confessed, ‘The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.’

Bacon’s other intended demolition of Bolt also backfires. Bolt picked up on the London Daily Mail report of January, 2012, showing British Met Office data demonstrating no planetary warming for 15 years. The MET then issued a denial along the lines of, “we were taken out of context”. Bacon considers the denial satisfactory, case closed.

Alas for Bacon and the Met, the 2013 IPCC report acknowledged the 15-year pause and claimed it to be somewhere been 0.05deg per decade cooling and 0.15degC warming, with a mid-point estimate of a negligible 0.05degC. (Such precision about a wobbly number like ‘global temperature’!).

Detecting Bacon’s green credentials is not difficult in the Sherlock Holmes sense. Bacon asserts  that some people “blame ‘alarmism’ for turning audiences off climate change reporting. While ‘alarmism’ is a theme in climate scepticism, no reports that could be called exaggerated or alarmist were found in this sample.”

What! She’s just cited Greens MP Adam Bandt blaming bushfires on Abbott’s (planned) scrapping of the carbon dioxide tax. But this isn’t alarmism because, Bacon says, Bandt got some support for his claim. From whom? An Age feature writer named Agnes Nieuwenhuizen , not exactly a peer-reviewed IPCC lead author but, according to The Age,   “a writer, reviewer and grandparent living in the fire-prone Macedon Ranges in Victoria.”

Bacon portrays the Murdoch press as villainously prejudiced against the carbon dioxide tax, which Bacon fastidiously calls the Gillard “carbon policy”.  She cannot bring herself to mention that Labor ex-icon Kevin Rudd “terminated” the carbon (dioxide) tax last July. In fact, she can’t bring herself to mention Rudd at all in this research, although Gillard gets 16 guernseys.

Like all academics, Bacon puts in a whole page of ideas for “Further Research”, such as “on the interaction between sceptic sources and sceptic journalists.” Even though there is a new sheriff in town, she’s bound to gets buckets more uni money for bilge.

Tony Thomas, who wrote for Fairfax for 30 years, would be suitable as a Professor of Journalism somewhere, e.g. Melbourne University, except that reading Bacon’s output has damaged his brain. He blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com