The awkward snub of climate change by Ampol-sponsored Walkley Awards

A decision by the Walkley Foundation concerning its prestigious annual awards will leave it with an awkward legacy, former journalist and Comms Declare founder Belinda Noble writes.

Out of the ruins of the World Wars, two fledgling industries sprouted, grew and took over the world: petroleum and public relations.

In Australia, there are few better examples of this than Ampol’s founder, Sir William Gaston Walkley, and his head of PR, Terry Southwell-Keely.

Together they established the public affairs playbook that big oil still uses today and that has put Australia’s most prestigious journalism awards in a bit of a pickle… because the Walkley Awards is sponsored by Ampol and just decided against recognising the climate reporting that embarrasses companies… like Ampol.

Walkley was never shy of wielding political and cultural power.

In 1947, he won the first (exclusive) oil exploration rights over Western Australia’s Exmouth Gulf near the prized Ningaloo Reef. He then managed to have the State Petroleum Act changed so he could pay fewer royalties and later secured tax breaks to make exploration even cheaper.

Walkley’s attention later turned to developing oil in northern Australia, where Southwell-Keely helped set up the ‘People of the North Committee’ and the ‘North Queensland Development League’ as a tactic to lobby for a federal northern development authority.

The oil baron bolstered his argument for development by appealing to national security and straight-up racism, writing: “Today Australians are but a drop of White in a sea of colour that teems with more than 1,200 million land-hungry Asiatics”.

Sport was another weapon of clout, and Ampol sponsored everything from polocrosse to fishing, golf, rally driving, soccer, indoor bowling and surf lifesaving. Walkley was president of the Australian Soccer Federation and even the inaugural President of the Oceania Confederation of F.I.F.A.

But, of course, influence can’t exist without media support. A former newspaper correspondent, Southwell-Keely, had the genius idea of forming a national journalism award and, in 1956, the Walkley’s was born. Sir Walkley himself would present the awards until he was stopped by ill health.

Now, amid its $156 million re-brand as a hokey Aussie icon, Ampol is again sponsoring the Walkley awards. Its logo is projected on stage as the prestigious ‘Gold Walkley’ is announced and the Foundation’s website has a glowing article about its deep connections with the oil brand.

Except, unlike in the fifties, we now know the devastating environmental, health and social impacts of burning fossil fuels. Climate change should be the most-reported issue of our time, as it changes everything from our food supply to travel plans and cost of living.

But, to the disappointment of many, the Walkley’s has ignored climate in its major shake-up of award categories.

Journalists can be awarded in ‘innovation’, ‘opinion’ and ‘sports’ but not climate. This is unfortunately a reflection of the importance generally given to climate reporting in Australia.

Unlike the US, Europe, the UK and Asia, there’s scant dedicated climate reporters. The exhausted environment reporters are often expected to fit climate into broader rounds, along with science and technology.

Commercial TV news still treats grim climate trajectories as a niche scientific curiosity to be quickly dismissed between car crashes and wayward footy players.

What the Walkley Foundation needs to realise as it reviews its sponsorship policy this year is that its entanglement with big oil exposes it as a tool of the old power structures that are fuelling global warming and frustrating climate reporting.

Ampol is using it, just like it is using the rugby league State of Origin, Red Bull racing and the Smith Family. It’s not charity or philanthropy, it’s influence peddling. A truth that journalists, more than any of us, need to face.

Belinda Noble is the founder of Comms Declare and a former journalist.


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