“This debate will go on and on. It’s been an interesting discussion and hopefully we’ll come back to it again.” [Miriam O’Callaghan, RTE’s Prime Time, 25th November 2008]
Miriam O’Callaghan concluding a recent Prime Time segment ‘Questions raised over global warming’, making the surprising claim that there exists a ‘debate’ over the science of climate change. All the more surprising given the preceding segment raised no questions about the validity of the science. It offered no new discoveries and only half heartedly revisited old criticisms.
But ‘Ireland’s flagship current affairs programme’ saw fit to hold a debate, so perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye.
Prime Time, RTE and their broadsheet counterparts consider themselves opinion leaders and shapers. They present themselves as conduits for informed analysis and claim to ask the ‘hard questions’, sometimes making for ‘tie-loosening telly’.
In this edition of Prime Time, RTE sought to satisfy ‘one of the traditional pillars of good journalism’, the need for a ‘balancing’ argument – to counteract a possible perception of bias towards coverage of climate change science. In doing so RTE have sought out ‘sceptics’, unqualified in the field and who have been in the pay of an industry whose survival depends on undermining the scientific consensus, to ‘balance’ the ‘debate’.
US media watch dog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting explained the potential pitfalls of this balancing act:
“By giving equal time to opposing views, the major mainstream newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming. Certainly there is a need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served. Meanwhile, the world dangerously warms.” [Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias, Jules Boykoff and Maxwell Boykoff, FAIR, December 2004]
A judgement reiterated by professor of Social Sciences, Media and Communication, Sharon Beder:
“In their attempts to be balanced on a scientific story, journalists may use any opposing view even when it has little scientific credibility in the wider scientific community. This can be very misleading. In the case of global warming, the fossil fuel industry has taken advantage of this convention by funding a handful of dissidents and demanding that they are given equal media coverage despite their poor standing in the scientific community.” [The Age, Caving in to ideological critics, October 18 2006]
Don’t get too technical or I’ll lose my audience
Global warming sceptics are most likely not professionals in the field of climate science. They are however suitably adept in the art of polemics. And debates lend themselves to polemics far more readily than they do to facts, making the climate expert’s task far more difficult than the sceptics.
Simply giving the appearance of wielding facts is often just as good as, and arguably far more effective than, inundating listeners with complex theories and formulae. For instance, the following exchange took place during the ‘debate’, the only discussion of climate change in the whole programme as it happens:
Dr. Kieran Hickey: “Global temperature has risen 0.2 degrees centigrade every decade since 1980, in Ireland it’s actually 0.4 degrees.”
Phelim McAleer: “But Kieran must know that in the last 13 years it has not warmed up on the earth.”
Dr. Kieran Hickey: “If you take each individual year it does show change. If you look at the underlining trend you can see clearly that that the underlying trend is upwards.”
Phelim McAleer: “Two minutes ago you said in every decade since 1980 its gone up by 0.2, you’re now agreeing that in the last thirteen years it hasn’t warmed at all.”
Dr. Kieran Hickey: “I haven’t said that at all, the warming trend is there, you can’t compare the decadal figure with the yearly annual variability.”
From this exchange it may appear to the uninitiated, and no doubt even the initiated, that Dr. Hickey was forced to concede the point to Mr. McAleer. That the sceptic had caught the climate expert out; perhaps there are some holes in the science.
But this is obviously not the case, as we’ll see in a moment. The difficulty is that science, and most scientists for that matter, are not ‘designed’ to convey complex information in sound bites – the commodity of mainstream media discourse.
This forced and unnatural succinctness is designed to maintain audience interest, as presenter Miriam O’Callaghan made abundantly clear: [to Dr. Hickey] “Don’t get too technical or I’ll lose my audience.” This imbalance of discourse lends itself to the ‘sceptic’, who need only question a certain complex part of the thesis in the knowledge that the expert will have insufficient time or audience attention to refute the claim.
A Seed of Doubt
It might be useful to address Mr McAleer’s claim to show just how complicated it can be to tackle some of the more disingenuous arguments against climate change. To do this it may be simplest to use a graph. The following graph shows the ‘Global average temperature anomaly 1975-2007‘:
As you can see from the graph the global average temperature measured on a decadal interval between 1998 and 2008, indicated by the highest blue line, shows a temperature increase of only 0.09°C. However, as Dr. Hickey says, you cannot compare the decadal figure with the yearly figure.
Depending on the interval you choose to measure, be it 10 year, 8 year or 2 year the trend may change. If you were to take a 2 year interval you may find global temperatures decreasing in some of the two year periods, but it would be impossible to say on the basis of this that the underlying trend has not been upwards. This trend, indicated by the red line, shows that the climate has been warming consistently since the 1980’s.
This assertion is supported by the vast majority of climate experts:
The fact that “over the last ten years, global temperatures have warmed more slowly than the long-term trend…does not mean that global warming has slowed down or even stopped. It is entirely consistent with our understanding of natural fluctuations of the climate within a trend of continued long-term warming.” [Met Office, Global warming goes on, 23 September 2008]
Unfortunately for the scientist, he is bound by certain terms of reference and modes of discourse that the polemicist or sceptic is not. Dr. Hickey is compelled to concede that the decadal figure does not reflect the magnitude of warming in the underlying trend.
However, this is no way concedes support for Mr. McAleer’s contention, it is simply to say that if you isolate smaller arbitrary parts of a systematic analysis you can find data which conflicts with the underlying trend.
As Harry McGee commented in his article on Mr. McAleer’s forthcoming film “None of these arguments are new.” And yet for some reason the serious, ‘quality’, liberal media, which provide the ‘best journalism in Ireland‘, seem inclined to continually entertain them. [Film-makers taking on our ‘global warming hysteria’, The Irish Times, 15th November 2008]
A Contrarian Policy
We wrote to RTE to question their judgment in hosting this debate:
Dear Sir/Madam, [sent to email@example.com]
The segment titled ‘Questions raised over global warming’ on the Tuesday 25th November edition of Prime Time, including excerpts from the as yet unreleased documentary ‘Not Evil Just Wrong’ and discussion between Dr Kieran Hickey and Phelim McAleer, was designed to lead viewers to believe there is an ongoing ‘debate’ over the validity of the science underpinning the theory of Global Warming.
Presenter Miriam O’Callaghan concluded the segment commenting: “This debate will go on and on. It’s been an interesting discussion and hopefully we’ll come back to it again.”
The programme was misleading in that, despite what the title of the segment suggested, the former corporate documentary maker Phelim McAleer [Mine Your Own Business, Phelim McAleer’s last documentary was funded by Canadian mining company, Gabriel Resources] did not raise any valid questions over the science of global warming. He simply reverted to a fundamentally flawed and reductionist line of reasoning which alleges that since the proposed solution to global warming is a decrease in carbon emissions, moves by environmentalists to encourage that necessity evidenced an anti-development, anti-capitalist motivation and in his view demonstrated a preference for animals over humans.
On the contrary, George Monbiot, a popular and respected figure in the environmental movement (there is obviously no real cohesive movement called the ‘environmental movement’, there are simply millions possibly billions of unconnected or loosely connected people that recognise the negative impact on health and the economy that degradation of the environment will likely have) recently wrote: “Forget the sodding polar bears: this is about all of us.”*
When all the experts agree that urgent, costly and potentially unpopular action is required to combat global warming how can RTE justify presenting discredited opinions as informed debate?
Ken O’Shea, RTE Editor of Current Affairs, responded the next day:
Thank you for your email re: Tuesday night’s programme. I’m sorry you disagreed with our choice of story on the night in relation to climate change. However, I disagree with some of the points you raise. First of all, it was made abundantly clear in the studio introduction to the piece that we were intentionally going to hear the other, “controversial”, side of the climate change debate. We made it very, very clear that the vast majority of international scientific opinion believes that climate chance/global warming is a deeply serious reality.
But we also said that there are some people who believe the gravity of the situation may have been overstated. Although you may not agree with that, there are a substantial number of scientific and non-scientific individuals who do not agree with the current consensus on climate change.
We said we were going to show excerpts from a controversial – and we stressed that – documentary which challenged the consensus. Throughout the excerpt, we ran a caption which made it clear that it was not a Prime Time report, but a cut-down of somebody else’s documentary.
And after that, we had a debate with an internationally known Irish scientist who vigorously and coherently challenged all aspects of the filmmakers thesis.
Regular viewers will know that we have extensively covered the climate change issue in recent years, investing considerable resources both and home and abroad in telling what we know to be a vital, urgent and serious issue. We have had many scientific experts – national and international – on our show talking about the gravity of the situation. For instance, a few months back we paid for a ferry (!) ticket for George Monbiot to come over from London to talk about his work.
But one of the major functions of any current affairs operation is to examine all sides of an argument and I think we should always have a little room for dissenting voices on every issue. That feeds and informs the debate. And, crucially, it allows people to make up their own minds, once they are presented with both sides of the argument.
Thanks for taking the time to write to us, audience feedback is critical to what we do.
Thanks for taking the time to respond, it’s much appreciated.
At no point was the documentary ‘Not Evil Just Wrong’ described as controversial, in fact the introduction to the programme claimed the documentary makers had ‘dared’ to challenge ‘these kind of scares’, framing them as courageous mavericks tackling a ‘scare’*.
Assuming though that the intention was to paint Mr. McAleer’s stance as controversial, the expectation of an informed debate on global warming was not forthcoming, at least on one side. Mr. McAleer was actually unwilling to discuss global warming at all. When asked by Dr. Hickey to focus on the issue Mr. McAleer replied “Let’s not talk about climate change” and this was his position throughout the programme, where he discussed everything from BSE and DDT to former US Vice President Al Gore.
When he did refer to climate change he did so only in dismissive terms, such as ‘global warming hysteria’ and ‘flawed science’. At no point did he challenge the science. And since the documentary has not been released, viewers are none the wiser as to whether there’s any actual evidence in the documentary.
The underlying purpose of Mr. McAleer’s appearance was to demonise and ridicule ‘anti-development’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ environmentalists, who see ‘poverty as a lifestyle choice’ – a platform he has been offered by RTE on several occasions, when he has a film to promote. On the eve of the release of his last documentary ‘Mine Your Own Business’ RTE spliced clips of his film with footage of the Corrib protests. So it would seem that to some extent at least RTE and Mr. McAleer have similar positions.
My complaint is not that there shouldn’t be debate over the science of global warming if there is a serious debate to be had, and which I don’t believe there currently is, but that there is little value in the spectacle of a scientist forced to defend the environmental movement against charges of wanting to keep the poor poor – other than to cause confusion and sow doubt over the issue.
The implementation of ‘balance’ in this instance, required that climate ‘sceptics’ be consulted on issues they have demonstrated no authority on, and even when they are quite obviously compromised by financial links to the carbon industry.
I appreciate the fact you brought George Monbiot over by ferry, but to watch this programme on RTE.ie viewers have to watch an advertisement for the Opel Insignia, repeatedly, depending on the quality of your connection, so perhaps there’s somewhat of a contradiction in RTE’s environmental policy.
And Ken then closed the feedback loop:
I don’t agree with all your points there David (and I’m not responsible for the ads on the website) but I’ll take your views on board. Remember though, Prime Time is a forum for topical debate and different ideas. I think any reasonable person watching that item would be well able to make their own mind out about the merits of the arguments being put forward. And we will always retain the option of bringing the odd contrarian on, to keep things interesting.
While this may not answer all our questions we greatly appreciate RTE’s honest attempt to engage with viewers. Institutions such as the Irish Times and the Irish Independent have no such relationship with their readers. While they often print critical letters in the back pages, they are entirely unwilling to have their own reporting held to account.
This Prime Time debate obviously had little to do with climate change. It did however allow thinly disguised space for another debate. This debate centres on the intentions and motivations of the ‘environmental movement’.
As in 2006, when RTE invited Mr. McAleer to promote his documentary supporting the exploitation of mining resources in northern Romania (and funded by the mining company positioned to exploit those resources) the agenda was one of demonising environmentalists. Mr. McAleer’s claim that he is a ‘reformed’ environmentalist makes his scepticism all the more intriguing for a media obsessed with ‘balance’.
American political scientist Norman Finkelstein commented on this phenomenon of the apostate, or ideological turncoat:
“Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated, apostates almost always make their corrective leap in that direction, discovering the virtues of the status quo…If apostasy weren’t conditioned by power considerations, one would anticipate roughly equal movements in both directions. But that’s never been the case. The would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power’s magnetic field, rarely away.” [On Christopher Hitchens, The Rise and Fall of Palestine]
And so it is exactly the case with Phelim McAleer. He is now consulted as an authority precisely because he has turned his back on a position unpopular with industry, to one where industry finances his projects.
This corrective leap towards the considerations of power is deemed by the mainstream media as a virtue – though it’s “hard to figure why an acknowledgment of former errors should enhance one’s current credibility.” Apostates are nonetheless highly regarded when they revert from positions unpopular with the mainstream to ones that defend the status quo.
Environmentalism, the new religion
“Is it just selfishness on the part of a few people?” [Miriam O’Callahan, Prime Time, 5th October 2006]
In October 2006 RTE Prime Time presenter Miriam O’Callahan asked this question of Dr. Mark Garavan, the Shell to Sea campaign spokesperson, referring to their six year protest against Shell’s planned construction of an onshore high pressure gas pipeline in the north west of Ireland.
In November 2006 a Prime Time segment titled ‘Environmentalism in Irish Life’ reported on Phelim McAleer’s recently released documentary ‘Mine Your Own Business’ (the film was also reviewed by the Irish Times and very favourably so by the Irish independent).
The film claimed to expose what it called the ‘dark side of environmentalism’ and the ‘campaigns that want to keep people in poverty’. The RTE report appeared to uncritically accept the thesis, implying that the Shell to Sea campaign provided an ‘echo of the film’s theme’. Prime Time correspondent Donagh Diamond suggested that in their Celtic Tiger affluence campaigners have failed to realize the benefits of the project to others and “don’t require anything as basic as jobs.” [Donagh Diamond, Prime Time 2 November 2006]
In the following studio discussion Phelim McAleer referred to the ‘new religion of environmentalism’ and to co-panellist and current Minister for Communications, Energy & Natural Resources Eamon Ryan (at the time an objector to Shell’s gas project) as its new ‘high priest’.
He said environmentalists are ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-jobs’, they would ‘ban the car’ and ‘they are killing children by opposing development’. Fundamentally he charged: ‘they don’t want humanity to advance’.
Presenter Mark Little attempted to make the argument locally relevant, suggesting that the Corrib gas campaigners ignore the “energy needs of the country,” thereby reinforcing the frame that environmentalists are not concerned about the needs of people.
Now two years later RTE and the Irish Times are promoting Phelim McAleer’s latest documentary, in which he again refers disparagingly to what he calls ‘neo-colonialist’ environmental campaigners:
“Who anointed free earth, save the earth, global warming crowd, anti-DDT crowd, that the blacks and other third world people suffer with malaria and mosquitoes and so we can save birds, I can’t believe Al Gore has greater regard for people, real people.” [Quoted interviewee, Not Evil Just Wrong, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]
“There is a lot of anti-capitalism, anti-development people behind this global warming hysteria, they don’t like industrialisation, they don’t like capitalism, they don’t like people of the third world getting developed.” [Phelim McAleer, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]
And again Miriam O’Callaghan plays devils advocate:
“There is a perception that environmentalists care more about fish eggs than children and the lives of children. That doesn’t mean the science is wrong.” [Miriam O’Callaghan, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]
It is hard to imagine an RTE presenter commenting to a representative of the oil industry: “There is a perception that Big Oil cares more about crude than children and the lives of children”, even though it would be much closer to the truth.
The ‘other side of the story’
Whether it is climate change, nuclear proliferation or the case for war, the fundamental flaw in the implementation of ‘balance’ is that where the consensus fails to support the dominant power structure, the mainstream media often search for some mitigating argument or point of view, however unconvincing.
So accusations of nuclear proliferation are resurrected to balance statements of compliance by international authorities, allegations of clandestine warfare are echoed uncritically to balance military reports that weapons are not linked to enemy states and industry funded experts are consulted to balance evidence that urgent action is needed to stop the earth dangerously warming.
Whether this is a susceptibility to the PR tactics of government and big business or simply an alignment of common interests is difficult to say. But one thing is not in doubt; this ‘traditional pillar of good journalism’ supports the already disproportionate balance of power and does a disservice to readers expecting reporting that is “fair, impartial, accurate and challenging.”
* George Monbiot’s point is that projections which suggest the Arctic’s late-summer sea ice is likely to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century is not just a concern for polar bears, it “is about all of us.”
This article was originally published on Media Bite.
The image of Al Gore was taken from the website for Not Evil Just Wrong.
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