Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News Australia Is a Cesspit of Climate Misinformation, Study Finds

The 24-hour news channel has become a central figure in the global climate change misinformation ecosystem, according to a new report.
Rita Panahi in studio
Sky News ‘Outsiders’ host Rita Panahi. Image: YouTube

In October last year, Sky News ‘After Dark’ host Rita Panahi set her sights on Prince Charles. In Panahi’s view, the heir apparent to the British throne was guilty of being the “world’s biggest hypocrite and idiot” for calling on world leaders to take more ambitious action on climate change in the lead up to the United Nations’s COP26 summit on climate change. 

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For viewers of Panahi’s show, which reaches millions, and her near 300,000 followers on Twitter, the call was unsurprising. Panahi has turned flipping climate scepticism into a living, and antagonising proponents of climate science—“ideological crazies” who could even, somehow, be to blame for Australia’s current energy crisis—is all a part of the routine. 

Panahi’s right-wing voice, and the 24-hour news channel she calls home, have become central figures in the world’s climate misinformation ecosystem, according to a new report. At the centre of it is a small crop of climate deniers and “delayers”, who capitalise on “disproportionate” online reach and lean on the support of their colleagues at legacy print, radio and TV outlets. 

More often than not, the personalities all have one thing in common: their employer, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. 

But few have been as efficient in cultivating them as Sky News Australia, where climate denialism has been bred at an industrial scale, for decades, and hosts like Panahi have been given carte blanche to run riot on the issue ad nauseum. 

In a new set of analysis conducted by the British think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), Sky News Australia was described as a “content hub” for right-wing influencers, climate “sceptics” and other climate-delaying/denying media outlets around the world. The news channel, according to ISD, has become a sort of “ground zero” for climate science antagonists around the world. 

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Throughout the course of the UN’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow late last year, ISD found, some of the content that saw the highest traction could be traced back to Sky News Australia, and was regularly used as a source citation among some of the world’s loudest climate deniers as well as other, more rogue ultra-right-wing provocateurs. 

Among the most prominent denialists to have cited the channel on climate include Patrick Moore (a rogue, former Greenpeace executive who calls the wind and solar industries a “parasite”), the Norwegian climate denier Per Strandberg, and the British, self-described “libertarian” Richard Delingpole, who in 2020 spruiked “The Great Reset” conspiracy theory, and often enjoys signal boosts from his brother, James, who is a contributor to the populist right-wing content farm, Breitbart. 

It doesn’t end there, though. 

Nigel Farage, the prolific, anti-Europe, climate-denying former UKIP leader, has also used Sky News Australia’s content to leverage any number of questionable ideals, while locals and frequent guests, Pauline Hanson and Matt Canavan, have done the same in Australia.

Posts sowing doubt over climate science across all platforms through the UN’s COP26 summit on climate change last year came to form more than 14,400 tweets and 855 Facebook posts throughout the summit.

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Of the top three climate-sceptic posts on Facebook, two were related to Sky News Australia. The top-performing post on the platform was a 1,000 word post, shared by former Sky News Australia host Alan Jones, about the “rewiring of the financial system” to achieve net zero. With 1,200 shares and about 3,300 reactions, the post repeated various false claims about the reality and impacts of climate change, ISD found, falsely claiming that “low wind speeds” meant coal-fired power stations were paid to “keep the lights on” in Europe.

The third-best performing post on Facebook belonged to Pauline Hanson.

ISD’s analysis said the content, and the way it’s leveraged among News Corp’s subsidiaries, forms part of a “broader system” of content production and distribution used to promote scepticism of climate science and “fear or confusion” around climate mitigation efforts. 

“In many of its ‘After Dark’ panel shows, climate denial also segues into segments promoting other far-right tropes such as transphobia, or racial scapegoating,” the report said. 

The position taken by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp subsidiaries, which include outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, The Sun, the New York Post, and The Australian, run squarely at odds with the position taken by that of News Corp’s executive board. To them, climate change is not only seen as a threat, but also as one that corporations should be held accountable for contributing to.

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In September last year, VICE News reported that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has thought that carbon pricing—an economic mechanism that forces companies to pay for the carbon they release into the atmosphere—is a good idea, since 2006. 

According to the news behemoth’s submissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a non-profit which catalogues and rates environmental reporting from more than 300 of the world’s largest companies, News Corp has been advocating for “market-based mechanisms to support carbon reductions” both in the US and other places, for the better part of two decades.

Australians will know well that the same “market-based” mechanism is what rained hell on former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s leadership, in the wake of a brutal, anti-Labor—or, anti-climate—News Corp media campaign which eventually saw him ejected from office in 2013. The attacks were so relentless, Rudd told VICE last year, that he’d wake up “every morning” and wonder “how they would seek to crucify” them that day.

As COP26 drew to a close last year, the same newspapers that were at the centre of the campaign that would spell Rudd’s demise more than a decade earlier, changed tack. 

In late-October, Rupert Murdoch’s Australian executives announced a new project that would look to ease its climate denial through a run of features and editorials across the parent company’s newspapers—which along with the national broadsheet, The Australian, include the Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail, among others—and its 24-hour news service, Sky News Australia. 

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Days after the campaign was announced, Sky News Australia’s chief executive, Paul Whittaker, appeared in the Australian Senate to answer questions about the company’s role in spreading misinformation. When asked about News Corp’s new, friendlier position on climate change, Whittaker said he “wouldn’t describe it as a campaign”. 

Instead, he said, he would describe it as “an exploration of what are very complex issues”. 

When ISD’s analysis was released this month, Sky News Australia rejected the findings of the report, saying it would “continue to encourage debate” on climate change in its programs.

Panahi and her colleagues will no doubt relish the opportunity.

Follow John on Twitter.

Read more from VICE Australia.