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Blurring the line between ads and editorial

Scrolling through the social media platform formerly known as Twitter afforded an unexpectedly localised laugh the other night.

An interview posted on X by US cable channel Fox News, which used to describe itself as “fair and balanced” with a commendably straight face, featured Judith Curry, a highly credentialed climatologist whose research into how global warming appeared to be increasing the strength of hurricanes saw her celebrated by climate change activists earlier this millennium.

Until, that is, prompted by criticism of her paper by other scientists, she did what she describes as her job and “continued to reevaluate the evidence, question the assumptions, and challenge the conclusions” – modifying her views in the process.

Now her position on climate change bucks against ‘the consensus’, and she’s seen as a contrarian thanks to her contention that, although the Earth is certainly warming, in part due to human activity, there is also a great deal of uncertainty that’s not being adequately dealt with or communicated by the most vocal proponents of the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis.

The interview – largely an occasion to promote her new book, Climate Uncertainty and Risk: Rethinking Our Response – was very much in that vein. Which is why the advertisement that automatically played out before it provided cause to chuckle.

That’s because the advert was for Gen Less, an NZ government agency that describes itself as being “dedicated to mobilising New Zealanders to be world leaders in clean and clever energy use” because “climate change is real. It’s directly caused by carbon emissions. And a large portion of those comes from the energy we use every day – especially fossil fuels.”

The agency had presumably placed an order for its video advert to be played in front of any content accessed in NZ about climate change, and the interview was certainly on topic. However, given Curry opined that “made up targets … are leading us to make hasty decisions that are bad – for example, wind and solar are very bad solutions for our energy supply”, Gen Les probably couldn’t have found a less sympathetic ‘editorial environment’ for its pitch if it had tried.

That said, one can at least argue this is a refreshingly transparent example of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in action, with Gen Les staking out its position in a paid-for spot prior to content that provided a markedly different take.

It’s certainly infinitely preferable to the approach the agency took last year when, as recently reported by the NZ Herald, it paid TVNZ to produce a range of editorial content that pushed its climate action agenda.

For the relatively cheap-as-chips cost of $300,000, the state broadcaster provided, among other things, a one-hour primetime TV climate special, online articles, and five interviews across one week on the ‘Breakfast’ show.

The ‘Breakfast’ interviews were especially egregious because it appears there was no acknowledgement that they were the result of a commercial arrangement.

At a time of plummeting trust in media, this was a shocking own goal by TVNZ. It was also spectacularly stupid by Gen Les, because the now-uncovered undeclared nature of the interviews only gives those already ‘questioning the narrative’ more reasons to be sceptical about climate aims and asks.

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