February 8, 2012

Climate denialism

Lord Monckton and the Future of Australian Media

By Robert Manne
Lord Monckton and the Australian media. Digitally compiled from news clippings and image © 2009 Joanne Nova, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License.
Lord Monckton and the Australian media. Digitally compiled from news clippings and image © 2009 Joanne Nova, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License.

In July 2011, one of the most extreme climate change denialists, Lord Monckton, accepted an invitation to take a trip to Australia – a country that matters greatly in the struggle against global warming because of its vast deposits of coal. According to several reports, his trip was funded by Gina Rinehart, the coal and iron ore billionaire, now one of the wealthiest people on the globe and the devoted daughter of the Western Australian mining magnate, the late Lang Hancock, one of the most right-wing Australians of the postwar era. As reported recently by Jane Cadzow in the Good Weekend, Hancock once suggested enticing unemployed Aborigines, and in particular “no good half-castes”, to a central location for the collection of their welfare cheques: “And when they had gravitated there, I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future.”

In Perth, Lord Monckton delivered for Gina Rinehart the Lang Hancock Memorial Lecture. He also attended a strategy meeting of the fundamentalist free market think-tank, the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, whose Chairman, Ron Manners, was once a close friend of Lang Hancock and is now a close friend of Gina Rinehart. Monckton spoke to members of the Mannkal Foundation. His talk was filmed and, strangely enough, delivered to YouTube. Graham Readfearn, an astute student of climate change denialism, saw its significance. He provided a link to the Mannkal talk in an article he wrote on the Monckton visit for the Canadian anti-denialist website, DeSmogBlog, which was re-published by The Drum. As the meaning of the Monckton talk began to sink in – in the light of Gina Rinehart’s decision last week to raise her Fairfax stake from 4% to almost 14% – the “user”, presumably someone from the Mannkal Foundation, took the talk down. A few days ago, however, it was reinstated on YouTube by GetUp. It then went viral. As I write it has been viewed more than 80,000 times. The fitful attempt at suppression had failed.

Here is a link to the talk and here is a transcription of what Lord Monckton said:

Is there an Australian version of Fox News? No. This is the thing I’ve been looking at in the UK. Frankly whatever you do at street level, which is what you’re talking about here, is not going to have much of an impact compared with capturing an entire news media. Now you look at the effect that Andrew Bolt had had since he was rocketed to fame – and I think without giving away too many secrets that Joanne (Nova) is going to do more of that if everything goes to plan – and that is the way to do it. You have to capture the high ground of what are still the major media, and I think will remain for quite some time. And until we crack that one both in the UK and Australia, we’re going to suffer the disadvantage over against the more libertarian, right-thinking people in the United States who have got Fox News and have therefore got things like the Tea party, and have therefore at last put some lead in the pencil of the Republican Party. And it seems to me that devoting some time and effort to encouraging those we know who are super rich to invest in perhaps even establishing a new satellite TV channel – it’s not an expensive thing and then get a few Jo Novas and Andrew Bolts to go on and do the commentating every day but keep the news straight, fair and balanced, as they do on Fox, that would break through and give to Australia, as it has for America, a proper dose of free market thinking…You have the business people explaining how the free market concept in business works every day and reaching thousands of millions of people around the world on Fox News. And let’s be clear, that’s still the way to do it. I would like to suggest a modest free market solution to the problem we’ve identified this evening which is that we don’t have a TV channel of our own. I would be very happy to work with people like Jo Nova and Andrew Bolt etc. to put together a business plan for such a thing if the idea would be generally supported and then we’ll see if we can get someone to be an angel funder…

It is interesting that in this talk Monckton does not mention the cause for which he is famous – climate change denialism. He doesn’t have to. By now he can take for granted that the cause of climate change denialism and the cause of free market fundamentalism are not only totally fused in his mind but also in the minds of his listeners. In its own way this is a quite remarkable development. Free market fundamentalists are the present day disciples of the intellectually sophisticated Viennese economists, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Mises, who struggled first against the socialist economists of the 1920s and then against the Keynesians from the late 1930s and beyond. Why their disciples should now represent the intellectual avant-garde of those who repudiate the work of the climate scientists and have joined forces with the American creationist bible belt in the greatest rebellion against science and reason since the Darwin controversy, is a matter of some interest.

What is even more interesting is Lord Monckton’s clear-eyed understanding of the central importance of Fox News to contemporary politics of the United States and therefore of the world. Fox News, the brainchild of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, is now by far the biggest cable television business in the United States and the most lucrative arm of News Corporation, earning upwards of 800 million dollars each year. It is also the media operation where Rupert Murdoch has perfected the combination of his twin passions, money and power. But Fox News, as Monckton intuits, is more than all this. Fox News offers to its audience an alternative version of reality. It presents a perpetual kindergarten-level symposium on the evils of “socialism” aka the welfare state, and the virtues of the untrammelled free market. Its peculiar formula –  the perfect fusion of politics and entertainment; the complete confusion of news and opinion; the propagation of a particular, simple worldview, populist conservatism, to a sizeable audience on a daily basis; the unremitting preaching of hatred and contempt for the class of politically correct liberals who are assumed to be in control of the centres of power – represents more than just another moment in the history of the media. It represents something genuinely original and with genuinely transformative political potential.

As Monckton understands, Fox News has drawn political discourse in the United States, on certain questions, very far to the right. Even George W Bush Republicans, like David Frum, have begun to understand that it is not Fox News that works for the Republican Party but the Republican Party for Fox News. Because of the kind of discourse Fox News has helped create, this year’s Republican race turned into a demeaning circus with a comical set of characters. Because of the influence of Fox News, most ominously of all so far as I am concerned, all Republicans contenders for the Presidency are presently obliged to regard advocacy of action against climate change as a species of left-wing madness. As a consequence, serious action on climate change has, for some time at least, become politically unthinkable in the United States and therefore, probably, in the world.

As Monckton understands, for the libertarian Right and for climate change denialists, there could be no cause more worthwhile than the replication of Fox News-style television channels beyond the United States to the other countries of the Anglosphere. The reason is straightforward. Some time ago the fossil fuel corporations and the denialist think tanks realised that in order to delay action they did not need to prove that the near-unanimous opinion of the climate scientists was wrong. All they needed to do was to sow in citizens’ minds and then cultivate the seeds of doubt. This is what the daily propaganda of Fox News, the most important media outlet for the denialist “echo chamber” that operates now throughout the Anglosphere, has managed to achieve. Whether for both cultural and commercial reasons a stand-alone television station like Fox News is viable in Australia and the UK is of course an open question. Yet even if it is not, what Monckton correctly grasps is the malleability of public opinion in the face of daily, entertaining, populist, libertarian-conservative propaganda. If a stand-alone television station is in fact unviable beyond the United States, what the libertarian Right and climate change denialists might aim for are several media outlets – programs on television and radio, columns in newspapers – all modelled in the rough style of Fox News.

Monckton also knows that such outlets rely on the willingness of those he calls the super rich to invest in causes that serve their interests and, as he would see it, therefore the interests of their societies. In speaking about an Australian super rich angel to invest in a Fox News-like enterprise, Monckton could not have had Rupert Murdoch in mind. Murdoch presently owns newspapers that account for 70% of national and statewide circulation in Australia. Australia’s media laws are aimed at preventing cross-media ownership. Rather, the kind of super-rich individual he must have had in mind was someone like the person who had paid for his trip to Australia and for whom he was delivering the Lang Hancock Memorial Lecture – Gina Rinehart.

God only knows what conversations took place between Lord Monckton or others and Gina Rinehart following his talk to the Mannkal Foundation. All one knows is that in recent times Gina Rinehart seems to have become the super rich angel Monckton had in mind, having taken a 10% stake in Channel Ten, which has established a program on that channel for Andrew Bolt; having now taken a 14% stake in the ailing Fairfax corporation, obviously in the hope of influencing its political direction and of being able to throw her weight around. Her friend, John Singleton, who is responsible for 2UE, the radio station that broadcasts Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, told the Good Weekend that he and Gina Rinehart are involved in a common political enterprise. Their common cause is the war against Labor and the Greens; the fight against the mining and carbon tax; more broadly the struggle against serious action to combat climate change; and if it ever proved to be necessary securing the future of King Coal.

None of this is difficult to understand. Gina Rinehart is an ultra-conservative whose political opinions are close to those of her late father. She is a convinced global warming denialist. Because of a vast inheritance and very shrewd business decisions of her own, she is one of the wealthiest people on the globe and likely to become even wealthier in the future. She is part of a political network that understands the role played by populist conservative commentators. Although reclusive by instinct, Gina Rinehart was involved in a campaign where, with almost clinical precision, the astonishingly profitable mining interests, in collaboration with News Limited, destroyed the credibility of a Prime Minister who had the temerity to float the idea of a new mining tax suggested by a committee headed by that well-known Bolshevik, the Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry. She also now began to invest heavily, self-evidently for political and not directly commercial reasons, in opinion-shaping parts of the media.

There is no way at present of preventing the penetration of mainstream media by those, like Gina Rinehart, who want to fight against global warming action and safeguard the fossil fuel corporation’s interests. Rinehart’s bid to increase her Fairfax holding is not only entirely lawful. She is not even likely to face serious political opposition. Nor is there even, in contemporary Australia, any political will to weaken the power of the Murdoch press. When the Finkelstein inquiry reports, it is certain that there will be no recommendation requiring News Limited to relinquish any part of its 70% cross-Australia press assets. Even if that were to be advocated, which it will not, there would be nothing to prevent mining magnates like Gina Rinehart from buying up what News Limited was required to sell. In time, in addition, it is believed by many commentators that the existing restrictions on cross-media ownership will be diluted.

If all this is roughly accurate, a paradoxical situation will arise. Because of the internet, politically-engaged citizens will have access to an almost unlimited variety of diverse and often intelligent and sophisticated sources of information and analysis. On the other hand, the politically disengaged citizenry in this country will come more and more to rely on a limited number of politically biased sources of news and analysis. Many of the newspapers will remain in the hands of News Limited. Increasingly, as the global warming crisis deepens, the opinion-shaping parts of the remaining newspapers and both mainstream commercial radio and television may come under the control of interested corporations and come to imitate the anti-liberal, news-as-opinion, politics-as-entertainment, populist-conservative style pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck but especially Fox News.  

There are moments in the life of contemporary Australia reminiscent of a Max Gillies/Guy Rundle sketch or a Bertolt Brecht play. Shortly after Gina Rinehart increased her Fairfax shareholding, the jovial and genial Queensland coal magnate, Clive Palmer, was interviewed on television by Tony Jones. Jones asked him whether he had considered following Rinehart and moving into media ownership. “Well that looks attractive, Fairfax, doesn’t it? Fairfax looks very exciting. You could have an east-west play with Fairfax. Gina could come from the west and buy 15% and we could buy 30% from the eastern side and really get the place humming again.” Was Palmer joking? Was he serious? It was impossible to be sure. 

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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