In the beginning: The National Post, Terence Corcoran and Tom Harris

Those who follow various media battles about climate science and policy are undoubtedly familiar with the nonsensical and scurrilous commentary to be found in the Wall Street Journal, and even in major dailies like the Washington Post. But no other North American daily newspaper can come close to the Canadian contrarian newspaper of record for intellectual dishonesty, factual distortion and sheer volume of misinformation.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Toronto-based National Post, which provides a home to such climate “experts” as  Lorne Gunter, Peter Foster and Terence Corcoran, as well as a platform for notable Canadian contrarians such as faux-environmentalist Lawrence Solomon (of “The Deniers” fame) and economist and climate gadfly Ross McKitrick.

As the Post spews forth ever-mounting volleys of falsehoods on its FP Comment page in its shrieking campaign against the “Copenhagen Catastrophe”, it is worth reviewing the history of the Post’s climate hysteria, whose roots go right back to the newspaper’s founding in 1998.

The story involves three notorious figures with a common, if less than lofty, agenda. The first of course, is newspaper magnate and convicted felon Conrad Black who took over the Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Southam, in 1996 and founded the National Post as its flagship national newspaper in 1998:

Black established the Post to provide a voice for Canadian conservatives and to combat what he and many Canadian conservatives considered to be a liberal bias in Canadian newspapers. Black built the new paper around the Financial Post, an established financial newspaper in Toronto … Financial Post was retained as the name of the new paper’s business section.

In order to put the requisite ideological stamp on the Financial Post section, Black hired away veteran columnist Terence Corcoran from the Globe and Mail and installed him as editor. (Today Corcoran oversees the execrable FP Comment pages and writes about three columns a week). The Ryerson Review of Journalism described Corcoran’s long career back to 1971:

All that time, he’s been one of the country’s most prominent libertarians, advocating for the abolition of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), criticizing government policies that tried to make Nortel a “national champion,” attacking dairy price supports as a “heist” and famously denouncing both scientists and policy makers as a skeptic of climate change.

Or as Richard Littlemore at DesmogBlog put it:

As a business columnist in the Globe and Mail in the 1990s, Corcoran was reported to run shrieking into the managing editor’s office any time a (well-documented) science story crept into the pages of what was then the nation’s only national newspaper. As a result, the mid-level editors lived in fear and the environment reporters threw up their hands when asked why the Globe wasn’t covering the story.

Curiously for someone given to pompous verbosity on any number of subjects, Conrad Black himself has been largely silent on climate science. Until a week or so ago, that is:

Till now, I have avoided more than very limited comment on the whole global-warming-carbon emissions controversy. But now that colossal spending and regulating programs impend on these issues, I must say that the Al Gore-David Suzuki conventional-wisdom hysteria is an insane scam.

“Hysteria”. “Insane scam”. Well, that certainly clears up a lot.

With the freedom afforded by a sympathetic owner, Corcoran turned to the remaining member of our story’s triumverate: an obscure engineer and space technology analyst turned freelance writer named Tom Harris.

In this early period, Harris teamed up with Carleton University geology professor Tim Patterson in a series of articles published in the Post, and other Black properties like the Ottawa Citizen and the Hamilton Spectator, as seen at Harris’s early web page. (Patterson is a charter member of the Freinds of Science advisory board, and is now chairman for Harris’s latest creation, the International Climate Science Coalition).

Sure enough, early efforts shared Black’s animus towards Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. A typical example is this early tirade from April 1998 in the Post:

David Suzuki’s new film, Turning Down the Heat, was aired on CBC-TV last night. This government-sponsored video explains how alternative, non-fossil fuel technologies can provide solutions to what Dr. Suzuki calls “the greatest threat to humanity in the modern era” — the climate crisis.

After smearing the CBC as if it were a government propaganda arm, the duo moved on to a depressingly familiar litany of contrarian talking points:

Suzuki seems to be relying far too much on predictions made by global warming theorists who work with computer models of the future but use little actual data. With the support of biologists, who generally lack a proper understanding of long-term climate dynamics, environmental groups, mass media and government have treated these theoretical scenarios as credible indicators of future environmental change …

Despite a 0.6-degree warming that has occurred over the past century (most of which was in the early 1900s before worldwide industrialization and the period of greatest carbon dioxide buildup), overall, temperatures have dropped about three degrees in the past 5,000 years. Whether short-term global warming is occurring or not (the data are not clear), another ice age will definitely begin within the next few thousand years. While this is no excuse for continuing to foul our own nest, a gradual greenhouse gas buildup may be a blessing, something that could delay the onset of the next glacial period, or at least reduce its severity.

Shorter Harris: Global warming may or may not be happening, and greenhouse gas emissions may or may not be causing it, but we should worry more about the coming Ice Age in any case.

In 2000, the Post and Black’s other dailies, now under the Hollinger imprimatur,  were sold to the Asper family (where they remain today as part of the troubled CanWest media empire). But Harris continued on much as before through to the beginning of 2002.

In 2002, Harris parlayed his freelance career into a new political role as aide to Canadian Alliance environment critic Bob Mills under then opposition leader Stephen Harper. In a few short months, Harris left an indelible stamp on the Canadian Alliance policy, moving it to a more explicit “skeptic” position. A key press release written and issued by Harris on Mills’s behalf complained bitterly thet “skeptics” were being shut out of the Kyoto process by Liberal environment minister David Anderson:

“David Anderson has just circulated an e-mail to every MP and Senator in the House of Commons debunking the research findings of one of the world’s leading climate specialists, MIT’s Professor Richard Lindzen,” said Bob Mills, Senior Environment Critic for the Canadian Alliance….

“Similarly, his Climate Change Secretariat would not allow Kyoto science skeptics such as Professor Tim Patterson, a leading paleo-climatoligist, into the Kyoto public consultations sessions held in June… How can we possibly make good decisions on Kyoto when the Minister of the Environment hides the full scope of the climate change debate from Canadians?”

Later in 2002, Harris moved on to become a public relations consultant, specializing in the deceptive practices pioneered by APCO Worldwide on behalf of the tobacco industry. And where better to practice that black art, but in the Ottawa office of APCO.

In this period, Harris still wrote from time to time. But his attention turned increasingly to the role of behind-the-scenes fixer; production and follow up promotion of the Friends of Science video kept him quite busy in 2004-5. Terence Corcoran’s Financial Post section continued to give ample space for the Harris stable of hacks associated with the Friends of Science and other groups.

And Harris honed a new technique: the open letter or petition, signed by the usual reliable climate “experts”. No fewer than three of these were run in the Post over the years:

Over time, the rest of the CanWest newspapers distanced themselves from the Post’s hardline skeptic stance. For instance, several of the newspapers ran Mike de Souza’s hard-hitting series on Friends of Science, which extended SourceWatch research on FOS to lay bare the dubious activities of University of Calgary political science professor Barry Cooper. Along the way, de Souza revealed the key role of APCO Worldwide in the “research” projects,  and the use of  the funds by Conservative activist and lobbyist Morten Paulsen to produce and run targeted anti-Kyoto ads in the 2005-6 federal election. And most of the newspapers, with the notable exception of the Calgary Herald, have moved from “balanced” agnosticism to some appreciation of the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Meanwhile, Corcoran’s FP Comment, serves up ever more copious amounts of anti-scientific drivel, necessitating a growung cast of regular columnists and rotating guests. We’ve only scratched the surface by cataloguing some of Lorne Gunter’s endless supply of howlers and falsehoods.

Of late, the large volume of climate nonsense resembles ignorant schoolboys cribbing from each other – the same mistakes get repeated by one columnist after another. For example, both Lawrence Solomon and Ross McKitrick repeated the canard  that the slapdash Wegman panel on the “hockey stick” controversy had some official connection to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, implying equivalence to the official NAS/NRC comprehensive report and panel led by Gerald North. Solomon referred to two “NAS Panels”, while McKitrick wrote of “[t]wo expert panels involving the U.S. National Academy of Sciences”.

Still, for sheer abdication of journalistic ethics, it’s hard to beat the collaboration of Corcoran and Harris, especially on the Bali open letter project.  Although much of that story can be found at SourceWatch, full details have yet to be released. It’s a timely story, too, one that unfolded exactly two years ago during the Bali climate conference. And a similar story appears about to play out once again in Copenhagen, even as I write these words.

Stay tuned; you won’t have long to wait.

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10 responses to “In the beginning: The National Post, Terence Corcoran and Tom Harris

  1. Well the one thing you can say about this collection of rogues is that nothing embarrasses them!

  2. Tom Harris used to show up at Free Dominion pretty often. It’s a rightwing forum very much into climate change denial and all the other rightwing extremist views that they consider to be Candian conservatism these days; many of them think Harper is far too Liberal. I’m sure it was useful for Harris to spread his messages through them. I haven’t been there for a while; I got tired of my IQ sinking while reading it.

  3. Wonder who supplies Corcoran and Gunter with their “information”? Hmmm…

  4. Useful record of the Southam chain’s involvement in Denialism in Canada – thanks.

    Something else worth mentioning is the hammerlock that many of these Southam papers have on their local markets. Here in Calgary we have the Herald and the Sun (Dumb and Dumber), and this pretty-much closes out any sort of accurate coverage on the issue. Most Calgonites don’t want to know anyway, but the same sort of situation applies elsewhere.

    The Globe and Mail still has Rex Murphy blowing smoke whenever possible and that fatuous glibertarian Neil Reynolds (amazing man – he has been wrong about every scientific issue he discusses, a real triumph of ideology over reality), but even between them, they can’t stink out the place the way that Corcoran could. It was a real relief to see him leave the Globe, although it left only Dilbert to laugh at on the Commentary page.

    [DC: I should mention that the Southam name was phased out and became Hollinger under Conrad Black (took a couple of years, though); now, of course, the papers are under CanWest Media.

    You are right to point out that the the Globe and Mail has its own collection of science-challenged columnists. Let's not forget Margaret Wente, who recently wrote a fawning tribute to Steve McIntyre, who told Wente that he is not to in "either camp". Oh, yes, a regular honest broker is our Steve - does Roger Pielke Jr know about this? The depressing commentary on Saturday was somewhat redeemed by Jeffrey Simpson today, however.

    Indeed, as far as I can tell, Calgary is something of a wasteland for journalism, unfortunately. You might consider getting the Edmonton Journal if you are tired of cheerleading and shilling for the oil industry.]

  5. We are lucky to have the Internet for coverage by the Guardian and other international media, as well as many good local and international blogs. One I ran across recently has several good posts about the oilsands, the question of cancer at Fort Chip, a letter by Andrew Nikiforuk, etc.:

    http://straightouttaedmonton.blogspot.com/

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  7. Thanks for the blog reference, Holly, worth a look.

    You’re right about Calgary, DC, but with the Internet available, you can still keep up on the news if you really want to. Another problem with a local press prostrate to provincial deep-pocket interests and unwilling to challenge its readership’s prejudices is that people tend to tune out. Another way of vitiating communities, I guess – no cross-communication.

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