Rupert Murdoch's climate crusade
News Corp.'s campaign against global warming includes free light bulbs, subsidized hybrids and babes in green, reports Fortune's Marc Gunther.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Readers of the The Sun, a British tabloid best known for its bare-breasted Page Three girls, opened their newspapers to see a young woman named Keeley Hazell wearing only green paint. Ms. Hazell is the face - well, not just the face - of the paper's campaign against global warming.
When subscribers to the British satellite TV provider BSkyB order new set-top boxes, some installers now also deliver, at no additional charge, three energy-efficient light bulbs and a low-flow shower head.
Viewers of Fox-owned TV stations in the United States, meanwhile, are urged in news stories to join the FOX-e (pronounced foxy) energy team, to save money and the environment. ("Switch off lights and turn off basic appliances when you're not using them...")
What all these audiences are witnessing is a major media company tackling the problem of climate change. The surprise is that the initiative - which is sweeping and serious - comes from Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of News Corp. (Charts, Fortune 500) and purveyor of Fox News, The New York Post and The Weekly Standard, none of which are generally regarded as friends of the earth. Soon Murdoch will own The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages rarely find much to admire about the likes of Al Gore.
Then again, maybe it makes sense that Murdoch's ahead of the other media barons on the climate change issue. Historically, he has proven willing to imbue his media properties with his conservative politics. Other CEOs - say, at Disney (Charts, Fortune 500) and Time Warner (Charts, Fortune 500) (parent of Fortune and CNNMoney.com), which have their own smaller-scale green projects underway - are either reluctant or unwilling to rule by fiat.
By contrast, Murdoch has boldly promised to make News Corp. carbon neutral by 2010 and to weave environmental issues and themes into his newspapers, TV shows, movies and online properties - a tricky business, particularly when it comes to news.
"Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats," Murdoch said last spring, in a speech webcast to all News Corp. employees (and available here.) "We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can't afford the risk of inaction."
He went on to say, "Our audience's carbon footprint is 10,000 times bigger than ours. That's the carbon footprint we want to conquer."
So it may not be coincidental that in "The Simpsons Movie," Homer dumps pig manure into a lake, with dire consequences. But News Corp. executives hasten to say that they won't force global warming stories into programming in heavy-handed ways.
"Jack Bauer's not going to be driving a Prius," says Roy Bahat, the News Corp. executive who has led the efforts on energy use and climate change. Behind the scenes, though, the Fox drama "24" will use biodiesel fuel to power generators, purchase "green power," and integrate hybrids into its production fleet. You can read a ponderous press release about the show's climate change efforts here.)
Murdoch's evolution into a climate change crusader took time. Australia, where he grew up and still owns newspapers, has been experiencing its worst drought in a century. Closer to home, his son James Murdoch, who drives a Prius to work and a hybrid SUV on weekends, has been influential. James is the chief executive of BSkyB, which became carbon neutral in 2006. "This had enormous appeal to their subscribers and employees," Bahat said.
About a year ago, Murdoch hosted an all-star team of environmental leaders at a News Corp. management conference in Pebble Beach, Ca. They included then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Al Gore, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, energy strategist Amory Lovins and solar power evangelist Bill Gross.
News Corp. hired a consultant and learned that its own carbon emissions amounted to 641,150 tons. It has promised to reduce that by 10 percent by 2012, mostly through energy efficiency measures and by buying renewable power. It will offset the rest by investing in projects to reduce emissions elsewhere; this year, News Corp. purchased its first offsets, which ended up helping to finance a wind energy project in the state of Maharashtra, India.
The climate change initiative is being felt in many corners of the Murdoch empire. Working with Wal-Mart (Charts, Fortune 500), Fox's home video unit has reduced the cardboard used in packaging DVDs. HarperCollins UK replaced its car service provider with one that uses only hybrids. Fox employees are getting incentives to buy hybrid vehicles. A MySpace channel called OurPlanet has about 120,000 "friends."
This internal work will be easier than selling the company's mission to Hollywood writers, who can be an independent lot. (As Samuel Goldwyn reportedly said, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union.") Fox made a successful movie about a global warming catastrophe called "The Day After Tomorrow" in 2004, but there are only so many times you can go to that well.
Still, Murdoch should not be underestimated. He's the most powerful media mogul in the world, with big broadcast properties in India and China as well as Britain and the United States. If you think "An Inconvenient Truth" helped shift the debate, just wait to see what Rupert can do.