The Rinehart dig at climate journalism

Key players in the resources sector, led by Gina Rinehart, are penetrating Australia’s media industry – so what does it mean for climate change journalism?

At a time when Gina Rinehart is fighting an uphill battle for control at Fairfax, looking to get the controversial Alpha Coal project to clear environmental guidelines, squabbling with her children in court and looking to open her first mine in her own right, the mining magnate has found space in her schedule to lambast climate change journalism in Australia.

In a letter responding to questions raised on the ABC’s Four Corners program earlier this week, the head of Hancock Prospecting contended the media was guilty of publishing “climate extremists’” views and ignoring facts.

“To lessen the fear the media have caused over these issues, Mrs Rinehart suggests that the media should also permit to be published that climate change has been occurring naturally since the earth began, not just the views of the climate extremists,” the letter read.

Costs are rising for miners as soft demand keeps prices in check and I can understand the Rinehart position on the carbon tax as a result – any increase in costs will be vociferously disputed by companies. What I struggle to fathom is how she can question climate change journalism in the country as being too biased toward “extremism”. Around 97 per cent of climate scientists contend humans are impacting the climate, yet the percentage of news articles that doubt the science is a lot greater than 3 per cent in this country.

The letter continues with a complaint about the carbon pricing scheme, centred on the assertion it will have a negative impact due to added costs for businesses and the public at large.

“She [Rinehart] remains concerned by the lack of understanding in the media on this issue.”

I’m pretty sure Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review and the whole News Limited newspaper stable have more than adequately dealt with these overdramatised fears.

Back to the letter, and we receive an insight into the kind of balanced reporting on climate change Gina Rinehart is seeking.

“Mrs Rinehart admires people like Ian Plimer who have independently chosen on their own accord to stand up against this tidal wave, which has caused fear, and despite substantial attacks by some of the media and extremists for so doing.”

And here we are again, back at the point where those desperately wanting to avoid action on climate change seek out their poster boy Ian Plimer, whose 2009 book, Heaven and Earth, is referred to as their bible of truth.

Plimer has been lambasted for the work amongst the scientific community for its lack of any peer reviews and countless factual errors. Actually, not quite countless – at last check the error list was approaching 400. Not being a climate scientist I will leave it to experts to debunk his theories, but given Rinehart holds him up as a beacon of all that’s right with climate debate, he deserves appropriate scrutiny.

Plimer has extensive financial interests in delaying action on dangerous climate change. His current roles include serving on the boards of Kefi Minerals, TNT Mines, coal seam methane firm Ormil Energy, the Rio Tinto-controlled Ivanhoe Australia and two Rinehart companies, most notably Queensland Coal Investments. While Plimer’s doubt around the dangers of climate change are long-running, he is hardly a symbol of financial independence on the topic.

More to the point however, Plimer’s background is in mining geology rather than atmospheric science. While knowledge of geology does provide important insights about past climatic change, he has published no peer-reviewed papers evaluating the relative importance of human activities versus natural forcings in driving recent temperature change. Plimer is most definitely an expert in how to identify and extract mineral resources but he has little scientific standing in analysing the physics of global temperature and the carbon cycle.  

Much of the focus on Rinehart has centred on her willingness, or otherwise, to sign Fairfax’s charter of editorial independence. The first response from the Rinehart team on this matter was to criticise Fairfax, again linking to a climate change topic.

“We are prepared to acknowledge the Fairfax Media Board Governance Principles (FMBGP) exist subject as they must be, to the overriding fiduciary duties of directors. We note that the FMBGP has been repeatedly overridden in the past – for example, by ordering journalists to support Earth Hour, when Fairfax was involved with part of Earth Hour…,” John Klepec, Hancock Prospecting's chief development officer, wrote.

It’s interesting that Rinehart’s team came out with this announcement on the same day a Terry McCrann article addressed the issue of Fairfax’s part-ownership of Earth Hour under the banner of editorial independence. He might as well have written it for them.

McCrann and colleague Andrew Bolt have been peddling the angle that Fairfax’s part ownership of Earth Hour calls into question all of the company’s reporting on climate change. Last time I checked, the leading scientific and meteorological bodies around the world, including our own Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, were adamant the evidence suggests climate change is real and is being impacted by human activities. Questions regarding Fairfax’s Earth Hour support should be asked from a journalistic integrity point of view, but it is irrelevant in terms of climate change science. Earth Hour is, after all, not evidence of climate change.

Rinehart, an unabashed Bolt fan, would not confirm in the letter to the ABC whether she pushed for Bolt to have his own program after claiming a significant shareholding of the Ten Network. Bolt, a Herald Sun columnist, would undoubtedly fit perfectly within the Rinehart vision for Fairfax and although he has said Ten chairman Lachlan Murdoch hired him, there has never been any denial that Rinehart was pulling the strings.

Then there was the line: “Mrs Rinehart hopes that should Mr Bolt’s time permit, that he would consider longer programmes on Channel 10.”

With digital channels popping up all over the place, perhaps we can expect a 24-hour Andrew Bolt channel in the not-too-distant future. Maybe they’ll name it ‘Bolt from the blue’. Or, if we’re really lucky, ‘Bolt Disney’.

Rinehart is not the only major player in the resources sector to be making a splash in the media sector, with former head of Woodside Petroleum Don Voelte this week being appointed chief executive of Seven West Media. It’s a shock move, given his lack of experience in the industry (Resourceful Voelte gets media throne, June 26). Clive Palmer is also on record this year as saying he is keen to have an involvement in the media sector, although he has insisted he would be committed to editorial independence.

It seems the resources sector is confident it can fix Australia’s struggling industries. Next thing you know Leigh Clifford could be at the head of Myer and Andrew Forrest might be in charge of troubled surf wear company Billabong, armed with his knowledge of, ahem, nice beaches, being a WA boy and all. Perhaps, but my hunch is the miners might just stick to the flourishing media sector.