How Australia’s ABC missed Climategate
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How Australia’s ABC missed Climategate

It seems like a long time ago, but if any of you can remember back as far as this time last year, you would remember that climate change was big on the political and media agenda.

Climate activists could organise half decent protests, enough people could be gathered on a beach to create a human protest sign. There were even hunger strikes.

Both political sides supported some kind of price being put on carbon and one of the most staunch supporters was Liberal Party leader, Malcolm Turnbull.

But then came the leaking of emails from the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University – the revelations from correspondence of climate scientists that came to be known as Climategate.

One consequence of Climategate is that  in late November last year, Liberal Party MP’s were being contacted en masse by (according to Tim Blair) thousands of their rank and file who were unhappy about their stance on climate change. The result was the end of Turnbull, the ascension of Tony Abbott, and the Liberal Party’s abandonment of its climate policies.

In the following five months, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd found that his popularity was in terminal decline, and in desperation, he was forced to dump his own plans for an Emissions Trading Scheme. By June, his Deputy, Julia Gillard (whose loyalty was later described by Annabel Crabb as one of her strengths) stabbed  Kevin in the back, and took over the top job.

Within 12 months of Climategate and the events that followed, both political parties effectively abandoned an Emissions Trading Scheme, and a Prime Minister and Opposition Leader had been forgotten like a cabinet Minister’s vows of fidelity at a Labor Party Conference.

In short, Climategate was quite probably the most important news story of 2009. Some journalists, it seems, are even coming around to appreciate it.

As the ABC reporter, Margot O’Neill, recently wrote, after being sent to England to study the subject:

“Many journalists say the UEA email hacking, combined with the discovery of an error regarding the melting of the Himalayan glaciers in the 2007 report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also proved they had failed to cast a critical enough eye on climate science and that they had been far too dismissive of sceptics.”

It’s a welcome admission by the British journalists – but did Australia’s journalists fair any better? The answer is a resounding no.

Margot O’Neill has previously been the target for criticism over her coverage of climate science by none other than Mark Steyn, but she was actually one of few people at the ABC who reported on the leaks when the story broke.

Fresh from a profitable turn at moderation of Carbon Expo, Tony Jones went into damage control with a very extensive interview of Geodynamics shareholder, Professor Tim Flannery.

But, astonishingly, what was quite possibly the biggest story of 2009 was not reported at all on the main 7pm bulletin of the ABC television news.

Like Charles Sturt before her, the ABC’s environment reporter, Sarah Clarke was reporting that the now-flourishing Murray Darling system was in drought, and never got around to reporting Climategate.

Environment reporters at the Sydney Morning Herald, who must have been busy preparing for the trip to Copenhagen, also missed the story of the year. Environment Editor, Marian Wilkinson, flush with $10,000 she won from the – and I’m not making this up – 2009 Australian Government Eureka Prize for Science Journalism – for her reports on climate change, was busy doing the same story as Sarah Clarke.

Finally, on December 10, Herald Environment reporter Ben Cubby had something to say about Climategate when he wrote about the intemperate correspondence he was receiving. Suddenly the story was not about the correspondence between climate scientists – which showed sceptics were being excluded from publication processes and their deaths were  being celebrated – but about the martyrdom of reporters.

The lack of reporting of Climategate was reflected not only in correspondence to journalists, but just about any place where readers had a chance to provide feedback and climate change was mentioned. The pre-eminent blog of scientific climate sceptics, Watts Up With That, which broke the story, received more than 3 million hits for the month of December, while in Australia, Andrew Bolt’s blog was experiencing similar stratospheric hit counts.

With a few notable exceptions, Climategate demonstrated  that Australia’s journalists had lost their critical faculties when it comes to reporting on climate change. Indeed, our environment reporters must be unique in Australia for their willingness to attend workshops sponsored by government departments for guidance on how to report on their beat, and then accept cash prizes from Government departments for doing a good job.

At a forum of journalists held in Sydney recently, the ABC’s Sarah Clarke said she preferred to rely on material cleared by the International Panel on Climate Change, and that the ABC and Fairfax had been the two most responsible and objective media outlets on the subject.

 In fact, Sarah and her friends at Fairfax were so careful about Climategate that they failed to report on it with, apparently, the IPCC never clearing the story.

However, it’s unlikely she will be too worried about missing what may be the biggest story of her career. Just a few months ago, like the 2009 winner, Marian Wilkinson, Sarah was given a cheque for $10,000 and awarded the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Environmental Journalism in recognition of her body of work. For some reason – I’d like to think the other environment reporters were too embarrassed – Sarah was the only nominee.

CORRECTION: A commenter says there were in fact four finalists for the 2010 Australian Government Eureka Prize for Environmental Journalism – so obviously, there was no embarrassment.