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News Corporation, the Murdochs and Climate Change

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The Wall Street Journal last month published the latest in a series of inaccurate and misleading articles about climate change in the form of a lengthy editorial by 16 'sceptics', led by former French Education Minister Claude Allègre.

It represented the newspaper's attempt to draw a line under an exchange between mainstream scientists and the fringe group of 16 activist 'sceptics' who have been seeking to sway the views of Republican hopefuls for the presidency of the United States.

The exchange began on 27 January when the Wall Street Journal published an article by the 16 'sceptics', describing themselves as "concerned scientists", which urged each "candidate for public office" to "understand that the oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true". The article disputed the evidence for man-made climate change, highlighting "the lack of global warming for well over 10 years now". It also told the political candidates that "aggressive greenhouse-gas control policies are not justified economically".

Following complaints about the numerous errors in the article, including its meaningless assertion about recent trends in global average temperature, the newspaper agreed to publish on 1 February a short letter of response from 37 scientists, led by Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

This was followed by a devastating critique in The New York Review of Books by Professor William Nordhaus, a distinguished economist at Yale University, debunking the claims of the 16 'sceptics' and pointing out that they had misrepresented his work in their article.

But the Wall Street Journal deprived the mainstream scientists of having the last word by publishing on 21 February the lengthy rebuttal from the 16 activist 'sceptics', again making numerous inaccurate and misleading claims about the evidence for man-made climate change.

This episode is perhaps not surprising. The Wall Street Journal has a well-established reputation for promoting unscientific denial of climate change, a manifestation of its dogmatic adherence to an editorial line that champions an extreme 'free market' ideology and opposes environmental regulation.

In this respect, the Wall Street Journal is closely aligned with the unscientific stance adopted by other media outlets, such as Fox News and The Australian newspaper, which are operated by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

However, the climate change denial of these newspapers appears to be the product of their editors' own disregard for, or ignorance of, the scientific evidence, rather than the result of a top-down company policy.

In May 2007, News Corporation launched a global energy initiative, including the ambition to become "carbon neutral" by 2010.

At the media launch, Rupert Murdoch said: "Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats. We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can't afford the risk of inaction."

While such explicit statements about climate change cannot now be found on the pages on the News Corporation website that are dedicated to the Global Energy Initiative, the "long-term vision" includes a commitment to "engage our readers, viewers and customers on sustainability issues through partnerships and content of the highest caliber".

The failure by the Wall Street Journal the fulfil News Corporation's pledge to provide its readers with "content of the highest caliber" about climate change is similar to the behaviour shown by a UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, which also subjects its readers to unscientific denial of global warming, even though its owners appear to take the issue seriously.

However, News Corporation's UK papers do appear largely to have taken heed of the commitment to provide its readers with high quality information about climate change.

Rupert Murdoch's son, James, assumed control of the UK titles in December 2007 when he became Executive Chairman of News International. He is married to Kathryn Hufschmid, who works for the Clinton Climate Initiative, a charitable foundation set up by former President Clinton in 2006. Asked about his views on climate change denial during an interview with The Observer newspaper (which is not owned by News International) in June 2009, James Murdoch replied:

"How we deal with climate change deniers depends on who they are. If they run energy policy for large governments, then they're a problem. If it's a random columnist, ignore them for a while. If they're in my paper? Well, I don't tell people what to write."

In early 2008, shortly after James Murdoch took the helm at News International, the company's most profitable tabloid newspaper, The Sun, appointed its first environment correspondent, Ben Jackson. The newspaper has sought to report environmental issues, including climate change, more prominently, as did its now-defunct Sunday stablemate, the News of the World, which carried out a very successful 'Go Green and Save' campaign in February 2009.

However, the reputation of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal for subjecting their audiences to misreporting of climate change has led some to assume that unscientific denial is hard-wired into all News Corporation media businesses, including its UK newspapers.

Indeed some have made the extraordinary allegation that News Corporation may have been involved in the hacking of the so-called 'Climategate' e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

This far-fetched notion apparently stemmed from the arrest in July 2011 of Neil Wallis, the former executive editor of the News of the World, in connection with the phone-hacking scandal.

Wallis had left the News of the World in August 2009, and his departure, at that time, was not being publicly linked to the phone-hacking scandal.

Wallis joined the Outside Organisation as a freelance consultant. According to the Eastern Daily Press, the University of East Anglia contacted the Outside Organisation for public relations help during the 'Climategate' crisis. Wallis was at least partly responsible for arranging a sympathetic feature in The Sunday Times (also owned by News International) about Professor Phil Jones, the climate scientist at the centre of the controversy.

Given that Wallis had just started to try to make his living from public relations, it is a little far-fetched to suggest that he would have been trying his best to fail, rather than succeed, in countering the negative publicity for University of East Anglia.

With last week's news that James Murdoch is stepping down as executive chairman of News International, there perhaps should be concern that News Corporation's UK media outlets will start to downplay climate change, if not embrace outright denial. The Times has yet to replace Ben Webster, its excellent environment correspondent, who has been re-assigned to report on the phone hacking scandal.

And it remains to be seen how much longer the Wall Street Journal and other News Corporation media outlets will blatantly disregard the company's commitment to provide audiences with "content of the highest caliber" about climate change.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.