It is a common enough for blogs, independent magazines, message boards and independent news sources to take issue with how the mainstream media reports on climate change. The argument is that mainstream media is still sending out a mixed message and is failing to provide the public with the sort of accurate information that is needed to understand the extent of what is happening.
And anthropogenic climate change is happening. There may still be some debate about whether it is possible to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 350 parts per million, or whether 450 is a more workable limit (as well as plenty of other issues), but the very fact that emissions have to be reduced and that this requires radical action on the part of everyone is clear and uncontestable. Often this understanding is reflected in newspaper reporting, and increasingly much more space is being given over to environmental issues. Indeed, newspaper editorials often dub climate change as the most important issue facing the planet.
Yet we still get newspaper articles and current affairs programs suggesting that this is not the case. That it is not clear cut, that the fact that anthropogenic climate change is a happening at all is still debatable. The latest in an Irish context surrounds the astonishing publicity that a documentary film being made by Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney has received in the last number of weeks, with articles in the Sunday Times and the Irish Times, on Today FM’s The Last Word and most recently on RTE’s Prime Time, Ireland’s ‘flagship current affairs program’. The film ‘Not Evil Just Wrong’ argues that claims that runaway climate change will have a devastating effect on the planet are ‘hysterical’ and that “dramatically altering the way we live would be a mistake until more information has been gathered.”
What is astonishing is that this level of publicity is being provided despite the fact that the film has yet to be released (in fact they’re currently looking for executive producers, aka funding from interested parties), is factually inaccurate and wildly propagandistic in its treatment of its subject, and is being made by people who have taken money from corporations that have found their documentaries favourable to their interests.
So why is this happening?
I would argue that the reason they want the keep climate change as an ‘open’ question is because it fits more neatly into a simple narrative around which a news ‘story’ can be based. In the minds of those who produce mainstream media climate change can only be a compelling story if it has two equal but opposing points of view. There are two sides to every story after all. If it accepts that climate change is happening, the story would become much more complicated. Discussing the issues involved would require a level of nuance and detail that turns a simple diametric structure (two sides) into a multifaceted one where the arguments are not clear cut and where resolution is less tangible.
In short, they want to keep the question of climate change open to prevent them ‘losing their audience’. Another myth that the mainstream media put much store by is ‘balance’ (the first cousin of ‘bias’ the notion that high quality media organizations are at pains to dissociate themselves). In order for an item to be ‘balanced’ it has to show two opposing points of view. However, it would be imagined that those opposing points of view would be informed, accurate and verifiable. It would not be of much benefit if one side spoke with authority while the other spoke with almost none at all. In that situation the person of authority would, in the context of a TV debate, spend the whole time trying to rebut the illogical and ill-informed arguments of the contrarian. If the person of authority fails to be convincing, their opponent gains authority in the eyes of the audience because their points were not adequately rebutted. In the context of a newspaper article the skeptic, for want of a better word, gains authority simply by being the subject of the article, even if the journalist writing the story appears to take them to task. Why would they bother to engage with them in the first place if they did not have a valid point of view?
So it would seem, if it is to be a worthwhile debate or article which is written in the public interest, that it best not to engage with these opponents, especially on an issue as important as climate change. However, it seems that other criteria is the forefront of the minds of those who produce current affairs programs. As far back as 2004 George Monbiot suggested the following while discussing the BBC’s use of what he calls ‘false balance’:
But these dolts [Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens] are rather less dangerous than the BBC, and its insistence on “balancing” its coverage of climate change. It appears to be incapable of running an item on the subject without inviting a sceptic to comment on it.
Usually this is either someone from a corporate-funded thinktank (who is, of course, never introduced as such) or the professional anti-environmentalist Philip Stott. Professor Stott is a retired biogeographer. Like almost all the prominent sceptics he has never published a peer-reviewed paper on climate change. But he has made himself available to dismiss climatologists’ peer-reviewed work as the “lies” of ecofundamentalists.
And in 2001, Eric A. Davidson made a similar point about scientists like Stott being used by program makers in the context of the climate change ‘debate’:
The media likes to present both sides of any issue as if they were boxers of equal stature and strength, and so scientists with opposing points of view are interviewed as if they held equal stature and respect within the scientific community. In terms of strength of argument and credibility, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created by the United Nations] scientific consensus about the importance of global warming is a heavyweight compared to the bantam weight of the handful of dissenting scientists. Unfortunately, the well-funded and ideologically and financially motivated bantams are running circles around the pensive, cautious, lumbering heavyweight, and the impact of the bantams’ clever program of misinformation far exceeds their numbers or their scientific credentials. Their strategy has been to find little chinks in the armor of the global warming evidence, draw attention to these minor points, blow them out of proportion, and thereby gain publicity in the popular press that cases doubt on the strong mainstream scientific consensus on global warming.
Indeed, in August 2007, Newsweek’s cover story dealt with the ‘global warming denial machine’, which provided a detailed account of the concerted efforts made to muddy the waters over climate change to try and go against the notion that a scientific consensus exists.
Yet, in Ireland in 2008 these barely credible skeptics keep on appearing in print and on our TV screens. But the makers of Not Evil Just Wrong are not even scientists. Instead they are journalists who already have a rather ropey anti-environmentalist documentary under their belts.
As Harry McGee points out in his article on Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney’s new film in the Irish Times the film-makers have courted controversy before:
“This is not the first time they have courted controversy. An earlier documentary, Mine Your Own Business, contended that the actions of environmentalists were destroying communities and lives in developing countries. A screening in the US was picketed by environmental groups. And the documentary was also criticised because it was 70 per cent funded by Gabriel Resources, the Canadian mining company that wanted to develop an open pit gold mine in an impoverished village in Romania.”
He then asks: “this surely compromised the editorial objectivity of the film”. McAleer resolutely answers ‘no’, and who would blame him.
Throughout McGee’s piece he tries to contest McAleer’s arguments, adding caveats and putting things in inverted commas while at same time giving them credence.
“It’s not possible to gainsay the film. But you wonder does the logic follow all the way through. Gore still believes in a ban on DDT, says McElhinney, arguing that this compromises his views on climate change. Not necessarily.”
One wonders why he chose to write about the film in the first place and indeed why an excerpt from the film was shown on Prime Time. It is a question that some people have been asking. Ciarán O’Kelly of the Draw Breath blog takes McGee to task for not adequately challenging the DDT claim. In the film the makers argued that the popularity of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which discussed the carcinogenic effects of DDT, lead to the ban on it being used to fight against malaria because of its effect on wildlife. It was also featured in the clip shown on Prime Time. As Ciarán O’Kelly puts it:
“…what really makes my blood boil is that McGee lets them get away with the old canard about DDT. It seems McElhinney and McAleer’s film begins by covering “the widespread ban on the use of the anti-malaria pesticide DDT.” McGee tells us that “the ban was highly controversial because there was evidence that its absence actually increased the incidence of malaria in poor countries.” But there is no ban on DDT use against malaria. McGee would have known this if he had even searched Wikipedia.”
Indeed a quick look in Wikipedia reveals the following:
“In the 1970s and 1980s, agricultural use of DDT was banned in most developed countries. DDT was first banned in Hungary in 1968 then in Norway and Sweden in 1970 and the US in 1972, but was not banned in the United Kingdom until 1984. The use of DDT in vector control has not been banned, but it has been largely replaced by less persistent, and more expensive, alternative insecticides.”
Ciarán also points to John Quiggin’s suggestion first aired on Crooked Timber that the DDT campaign ‘was pitched to the tobacco industry as a diversionary attack on the World Health Organization which was playing a leading role in campaigns against smoking’.
McGee suggests that the arguments in the film are based on ‘rickety foundations’ yet by perpetuating the DDT myth (which he outlines as one of the film’s three narrative strands) he fails to acknowledge the verifiable falsehoods upon which they are actually based.
John Gibbon’s McGee’s colleague in the Irish Times (he writes a weekly column on the environment) also has a blog Think or Swim, and wrote about McAleer and Ann McElhinney when the Sunday Times article appeared:
McAleer described environmentalism as something middle-class people did to keep poorer members of society in their place and said their documentary shows the true cost of “global warming hysteria”. They quote McAleer as sagely observing about his mockumentary: “It asks: is there a disease and is the cure worse than the disease? The science isn’t settled. Global warming was invented five or 10 years ago.”
So much for TWENTY years of intense investigation by the IPCC since its foundation in 1988, over the course of these two decades the work of the Panel has involved collating and reviewing the work of literally tens of thousands of experts in a range of relevant scientific fields, from botany to geology, ecology, climatology and many more besides.
Gibbons has actually confronted McAleer before, when he went head to head with him in a ‘debate’ on Today FM’s The Last Word with Anton Savage. Here’s how he describes that experience:
“The bait was tempting, and yes, I admit, I took it. When Phelim’s opening line was “I intend to tell the truth”, I was immediately reminded of Richard Nixon gazing into the camera lens to assure the public that “I am not a crook”. It went downhill from there, with nearly 17 minutes of bare-knuckle “debate”. But there’s the rub: McAleer wears his ignorance of climate science like a badge of honour. His debating rhetoric is a slightly refined version of the schoolyard taunt that “you’re smelly”.
Nailing him down an any one specific lie proved elusive, since his entire project is a confection to begin with. He expressed total and I believe entirely genuine surprise that the IPCC is a panel comprising not just scientists, but also policymakers, politicians and planners. But rather than being mortified at his own astonishing lack of basic knowledge about an organisation his entire mockumentary is dedicated to discrediting, instead he goes the “you’re smelly!” route by saying how this ‘proves’ his argument. Jeeze.”
You can listen to the full debate here:
So, McAleer is barely credible, and anyone who is involved in journalism knows that he and his wife lack all authority on the topic of climate change. And yet his film, with its DDT claim was made the basis of a discussion on Prime Time.
This is also covered entertainingly by Gibbon, but a more thorough analysis of it is provided in the companion piece to this article by MediaBite’s David Manning.
In that piece, the RTE Editor of Current Affairs Ken O’Shea argued that:
“…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.”
How can this possibly be the case when one side of the ‘argument’ is based on falsehood? Why is there a need for this ‘false balance’, as Monbiot has put it.
“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.”
But O’Shea is again being disingenuous here, in that McAleer, as a ‘dissenting voice’, was not given a ‘little room’. He was given equal billing with an internationally renowned scientist and with the result that he had an equal status in the eyes of the audience. It was then up to the scientist to appear convincing enough to the audience, and that itself was always going to be limited by the structure and format of the program.
David quotes Miriam O’Callaghan at one point saying to Dr. Hickey:
“Don’t get too technical or I’ll lose my audience.”
Which is pretty much the same thing as O’Shea’s point that they need to “retain the option of bringing the odd contrarian on, to keep things interesting.”
This suggests that the issue is not interesting by itself, and instead a clown is required to keep the audience amused. This is nothing more than infotainment posing as serious current affairs.
Infotainment that uses the structure of a ‘story’, which always has two sides: one that is right, and one that is wrong. And never mind that this blunts the impetus required to change our lives radically in order to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change. While the world burns, they’ll still have their audience.
Latest posts by Donagh (see all)
- The policy of transferring incomes to capital and the rich - September 6, 2012
- ILR Will Not Blink While Facing Down the Jaws of Excessive CPU Usage - September 6, 2012
- Dan Froomkin | The Jobs Crisis Obama, Romney and the Low-Wage Future of America - August 29, 2012
- Money as a Social Construct – Talk Given by Mary Mellor - August 27, 2012
- - August 23, 2012