Sky News Australia’s Outsiders breached industry code for accuracy on climate science, media watchdog finds
Four segments on a Sky News Australia show that tried to undermine climate science and play down the threat of global heating on the Great Barrier Reef breached industry codes, an investigation by Australia’s media watchdog has found.
Segments fronted by presenter Rowan Dean – who has described climate change as a “fraudulent and dangerous cult” – breached codes for fairness and for failing to distinguish opinion from fact.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority investigated the complaints from campaign group Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission which, at the time of the complaints, was chaired by former prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Current co-chair, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, said Acma’s finding was “significant” and that Sky News Australia, together with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, had been “systematically spreading lies and disinformation” that was damaging democracies and “in this case, the climate”.
“At long last they are being held to account,” he said.
Foxtel, the licensee that broadcasts Sky News Australia, will have to report back to Acma within four months on steps it is taking to avoid further breaches, including carrying out staff training.
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Three of the four Outsiders segments were part of a running series called Weather and the Sceptics Ice-Age Watch presented by Dean, the editor of the Australian edition of conservative magazine the Spectator, between October and December 2021.
In one instance, Dean said carbon dioxide trapped in ice cores showed that “the temperature drives carbon dioxide, not the other way around” – a common argument put by climate science deniers.
“So if global warming comes before carbon dioxide increases, then reducing carbon dioxide to net-zero is as pointless as it is laughable,” Dean told viewers.
Foxtel attempted to argue that viewers would have clearly understood Dean’s statement as an opinion, but Acma disagreed, saying it breached the code that asks broadcasters to clearly distinguish factual material from commentary.
On another broadcast, Dean claimed the UK’s then prime minister Boris Johnson was “mandating that everyone in Britain get rid of their perfectly good gas heaters and replace them with desperately inefficient eco heat pumps at around 10 to 20 thousand pounds a pop”.
Acma found that no actual mandate existed, and so the segment breached its code for accuracy in news reporting.
In another segment, Dean showed charts of temperature in selected locations in Japan which, he said, “shows no warming in 30 years”.
“Clearly if the planet was warming to the dire extent that we are being told, it would show up in the data, wouldn’t it?” said Dean.
Acma said while the data had been presented accurately, further data was available from Japan’s weather agency but was not shown.
Acma said it was “misleading to audiences to set up a hypothesis and then present only the subset of available data that supported the view that the host wanted the audience to form”.
In a news segment on Outsiders, viewers were told the Great Barrier Reef was “looking fantastic” and that the “Australian Maritime Institute [sic]” had said “there’s never been so much coral”.
The segment referred to a report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which Acma said had found an increase in coral cover but reported any recovery was fragile and at risk.
This, Acma said, gave “a false impression about the AIMS report” and so breached its news code covering accuracy and fairness.
Nerida O’Loughlin, Acma chair, said Australians should expect factual material to be accurate.
She said: “The program has an obligation to its audience to clearly separate fact from comment. Across a number of its episodes Outsiders failed to do so and did not present news content either accurately or fairly.”
Acma found regional broadcasters WIN and SCA had also breached the commercial TV code of practice because they had aired the Outsiders programs.
WIN and SCA will report to Acma within four months on steps taken to comply with the code in relation to programs supplied by third parties.
In a separate investigation, Acma looked at claims on Foxtel’s evangelical Christian Daystar channel made during two programmes called Ministry Now and Joni Table Talk.
During the shows, viewers heard numerous claims about Covid-19 – which Acma found to be false – including that vaccines would lead to infertility and had caused a “400% rise in miscarriages”.
Acma said Foxtel had claimed it had limited control over broadcasts distributed by third-party providers in relation to both Outsiders and the Daystar channel.
But O’Loughlin said: “Broadcasters cannot outsource their compliance responsibilities to a third party. It is important that Australian audiences are able to trust that the information presented in current affairs programs is accurate and factual, particularly when national health issues are concerned.”
Last year a report from a UK thinktank identified Sky News Australia as a global hub for climate misinformation.
Rudd founded the campaign group Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission, which has 40,000 members, but cut ties before being appointed to his current US ambassador role.
Turnbull, current co-chair of the group, said: “This is a significant finding from Acma about Sky’s false and inaccurate climate change coverage.
“Sky will be required to report on the actions it has taken in response to the findings, including training for its staff.
“The Murdoch media, from Fox in the US to Sky in Australia have been systematically spreading lies and disinformation with terrible consequences for our democracies and in this case the climate. At long last they are being held to account.”
In a statement regarding the Outsiders program, Sky News said: “We would like to assure Sky News Australia viewers of our ongoing commitment to broad discussion and debate on the issues they care about. We will not shy away from exploring a wide range of viewpoints.
“Sky News takes its obligations under the broadcasting codes of practice seriously.”