Cranking it out: NZ papers conned by denier media strategy

By Cindy Baxter 16/01/2012


My inbox in the last month has filled with emails about denier articles in leading New Zealand newspapers. It’s been a veritable crank central across the country. They include the ridiculous opinion piece by Jim Hopkins in the Herald late last year, a similar feature by Bryan Leyland  published in both the DomPost and The Press, then, last week, a piece by Chris de Freitas in the Herald, arguing that desertification in Africa isn’t caused by climate change.

Did Leyland and de Freitas, both leading lights in the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, take advantage of newspapers’ lack of feature material over the holiday break and provide some copy to fill the gap?

An insight to the strategy behind our newspapers’ fairly regular publication of our local deniers can be gained from reading a document I came across recently: the Canadian-based International Climate Science [denial] Coalition’s (ICSC) media strategy, originally posted on the front page of its website last year (pdf here).

Titled Winning Hearts and Minds to Climate and Energy Reality, the strategy is designed, apparently, to “help shift public, media and government opinion away from futile attempts to mitigate global climate change.”

How do they plan to achieve this?

“Continued provision of mass media commentary (either directly, or by assisting national CSCs and other allies) via newspaper and magazine opinion articles, letters to the editor, news releases, and radio and TV interviews, and call-ins, as well as private communication with receptive media players.”

It also aims to…

…take direct aim at dangerous attempts to replace significant amounts of conventional power with “low carbon energy.”

Their shining example of this is an article by Leyland entitled “Wind farms not everything they’re cranked up to be” published in the NZ Herald in late 2010.

They admit it will take “several years” to “completely derail climate alarmism”.

Just what is the ICSC? It is riddled with New Zealanders, who set it up after establishing the NZ Climate Science [denial] Coalition1.

Leyland is its “Energy Issues Advisor”. Its founding chairman and strategic advisor is the NZCSC’s wine expert, Terry Dunleavy. Auckland geographer Chris De Freitas is a consultant scientific advisor. Gerrit van der Lingen and Vincent Gray are on its science advisory board. Alan Gibbs and Owen McShane are on the policy advisory board and the webmaster is Allan Manson, who works for Datacom systems and owns the domain names for the NZCSC, the ICSC and the American Climate Science Coalition.

The rest are a who’s who of climate denial around the world. One member of the Policy Advisory Board is UK denier David Henderson, brought to New Zealand by the Treasury for a speaking tour in early 2007.

Canadian PR man Tom Harris runs the ICSC. Formerly associated with energy lobby groups and another group that lobbied for the tobacco industry, Harris has been a regular speaker at the Heartland international denier-fests.

The full web of connections between the Kiwi deniers, the ICSC and various US conservative think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry to run campaigns of climate denial can be seen in this ExxonSecrets map. While Exxon isn’t the only one funding these groups, it’s nevertheless a good way of showing the web of denial the Kiwis are caught up in.

Leyland has already admitted that he was funded by the Heartland Institute to go to the 2007 UN climate talks in Bali — and presumably Heartland also paid for McShane and Gray to attend. Leyland has no climate change credentials at all — he works for the power industry and lobbies against renewable energy. In short, he’s an energy industry lobbyist who hates renewables.

De Frietas is not much better: the man is teaching climate denial to first year geography students at Auckland University, a story revealed by the Herald itself and analysed by Hot-Topic. He’s also worked with think thanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute — not forgetting his stint at Climate Research where he published an inordinate number of denial papers.

So why do our newspaper editors keep publishing these lobbyists connected with a bunch of US conservative think tanks? The ISCS strategy is not new — this is the same furrow ploughed by inactivists since the early 1990’s. But which of our papers seem to have fallen for these strategies the most? I’ve done some digging back through the archives to see how they’ve been doing.

The NZ Herald is among the worst, right up there with the National Business Review. Setting aside their opinion writers Jim Hopkins and Garth George (who has finally given up this job and moved to the Bay of Plenty), the Herald has repeatedly published the deniers’ screeds.

De Freitas is probably the most-published denier in NZ. He has helpfully listed all of his publications on his website . A quick look through this list produces some interesting numbers: Since 1982, the Herald has published 36 opinion pieces by de Freitas, 12 of them in the five years since the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment in 2007, surpassing even the NBR, which published only four of his pieces in the same timeframe.

The majority of the Herald opinion pieces (24) have been published during the reign of Herald editor Tim Murphy, who took over the helm in 2001 and moved up to editor-in-chief in 2005. It appears that the strategy of pestering editors has been successful, at least with Murphy — I have been told that he publishes them to get the NZCSC off the phone. Looks like he has fallen for the ISCS’s strategy of “private communication with receptive media players”.

Perhaps the most egregious was a feature page last year, with a de Freitas piece given equal weight as one by the Vice President of the Royal Society, Dr Keith Hunter, with the headline: “The Great Climate Debate”. While there are many “great debates” in the world of climate science, the “is it happening or not” debate is only actively promoted by deniers, just as the tobacco industry ran its “doubt” campaign in the ‘60’s.

This week’s effort by de Freitas has been the first under the helm of the new editor, Shayne Currie. Will he continue in the same vein as Murphy and publish de Freitas regularly?

The Herald has also published several articles by Leyland and one by Dunleavy.

Since 1982, the National Business Review has published 35 editorials by de Freitas denying the science of climate change. In a way, you’d expect that, given the NBR’s right-leaning ideology and strong anti-climate stance. Owen McShane has 46 denier articles and Leyland four.

De Freitas has also managed to get four pieces in The Listener, but none since 2008 when his piece, co-authored by Bryan Leyland, landed the magazine in the middle of a furore over the sacking of columnist Dave Hansford after his column revealing Leyland’s payment by the Heartland Institute.

The Dominion Post has been fairly measured, publishing only two of de Freitas’ pieces, but publishing a myriad of Vincent Gray’s letters (again, a strategy pushed by the ICSC). Leylan seems to get a receptive ear in the DomPost’s business section.

The Press has published very little, apart from a few letters – but it regularly quotes Leyland talking about the power industry, with some occasional stories quoting him as an NZCSC spokesman. I strongly suspect the recent Leyland piece was published by an editor standing in for Andrew Holden while he was on holiday.

Talk to the producers of some of the country’s major radio programmes and they will tell you how reluctant they are to host climate scientists because of the wall of vitriol they get from the denier camp every time they mention anything reflecting the mainstream climate science. They, too, are targets of the ICSC’s media strategy, which urges its members and associates to call in to radio shows.

Perhaps it’s time for New Zealand’s editors and producers — and indeed journalism lecturers — to read the work of former Time, Fortune and Businessweek editor/deputy editor Eric Pooley, who authored a 2009 study on climate change reporting in the US for Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Centre on Press and Public Policy. He looks at the “balance as bias” (or “he said she said”) syndrome in reporting on climate change — “a condition in which journalists stick to the role of stenographer, recording two sides of a debate even when the two sides are not of equal merit.”

“Notions of journalistic objectivity…shouldn’t prevent reporters from recognizing consensus and making judgments based on the best available evidence. Instead, they should help the public decide who is right and who is wrong in a debate where the stakes—our economy, our planet—could not be higher.”

Climate change reporting is not simple, but publishing outright lies by deniers is not helping anyone. Time for New Zealand’s newspaper editors to face facts, and refrain from printing lobbyists fantasies.

[Updated Jan 23 2011: ICSC removed doc link from their site; now leads to copy hosted here.]

  1. I put the word “denial” in there because their science is somewhat lacking