Feeling the heat, then seeing the light

The story of RTÉ’s Damascene conversion on climate coverage has continued to gather pace. Below is a piece I wrote for the Business Post in early August explaining the background and context.

AS THE STATE broadcaster, RTÉ occupies a special niche in Irish life. It can also function as a sort of national Rorschach test, onto which people from all walks of life project their grievances, desires and demands.

RTÉ is routinely under fire from individuals and groups pushing agendas, from pro-lifers to anti-vaxxers and many more besides. By and large, this animus is unwarranted. By international standards, RTÉ is well regarded, employing some of our most talented journalists and creatives, and is widely, if often grudgingly, respected.

Senior RTÉ staff are used to scrolling wearily through thickets of social media posts excoriating the broadcaster for its perceived bias, prejudice or alleged corruption. Such scrutiny, fair or not, goes with the territory.

In recent weeks, however, some cracks in RTÉ’s Teflon coating have begun to emerge, centering around its perceived ongoing chronic “problem” with climate change. RTÉ’s managing director of news, Jon Williams took to social media recently in a bid to scotch what he clearly saw as unwarranted attacks on the professionalism of his news team on this subject. It did not quite go to plan.

As reported in the Business Post two weeks ago, when I challenged Williams in May on why RTÉ had no one in the role of environment correspondent, his reply was: “if everyone paid their TV licence fee”, then RTÉ could afford to fill this post.

This comment provoked a furious online backlash. Nor was it a case of one badly worded tweet. Williams used essentially the same response in another tweet in April, where he argued that in order for RTÉ to emulate Sky News’ excellent Daily Climate Show, “all it needs is for everyone who is supposed to pay TV licence to do so”. To add some salt, he included the hashtag #JournalismMatters.

This summer, as the thermometers soared in Ireland and globally, the pressure continued to mount, with media articles as well as climate scientists joining in to criticise RTÉ’s patchy and incoherent approach to covering the unfolding climate emergency.

This is most notable in its tendency to ignore or underplay the links between the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the underlying climate signal. Defending this, Williams invoked a statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that it was “difficult, if not impossible” to determine whether specific, single extreme weather events are due to climate change.

Rather than damping down criticism, these remarks, drawn from a long-outdated 2007 report, further inflamed the situation. At this point, most observers expected RTÉ to simply pull up the drawbridge, hunker down and wait for the unruly mob to disperse.

The story took a dramatic turn last Tuesday night, when Williams tweeted an unambiguous apology. “We were wrong not to make clear connection between recent extreme weather events and climate change”, he wrote, adding that it was a “sin of omission and reported in good faith. But truth matters. So when we get it wrong, we should say so. Lesson learned. Work to do.”

The tweet accompanied an article by Williams on the RTÉ website which accepted that attribution science has made it clear that climate change is indeed making extreme weather events worse, a fact “we should regularly remind our audience of”.

While Williams has been the lightning rod for some sustained criticism, in fact this is a problem he inherited, rather than created. Indeed, his statement this week is the first time in over a decade that RTÉ has taken it on the chin and accepted they have got this entirely wrong. And, more importantly, set out a clear path to fix the problem.

Its commitment to create a team across its news and current affairs division “dedicated to reporting the climate crisis” is genuinely ground-breaking. A rolling story of this magnitude, gravity and complexity warrants such a holistic response, rather than expecting any one reporter to undertake the Sisyphean task of covering this vast subject alone.

It is astonishing to consider that, since Paul Cunningham stood down as the station’s environment correspondent in 2010, the network has effectively scrapped this post, at exactly the time the global climate crisis was heating up. In most organisations, failure on this scale would lead to hard questions being asked of the board as well as senior management.

The fruits of this week’s about-turn were surprisingly quick to ripen. Within 24 hours of Williams’ statement, RTÉ’s PrimeTime addressed the climate emergency for the first time in around two years – an astonishing lacuna which included the catastrophic heatwaves and record-smashing wildfires of 2020, none of which piqued the interest of the show’s editors.

What was notable about this week’s PrimeTime report was that it completed a seven-minute segment, including an interview with a climate scientist, without hauling in a lobbyist or contrarian to “balance” the piece. This is a standard template for political journalism that, when applied to science reporting, can leave viewers confused and disengaged (It followed this up a week or so later with another climate report, featuring yours truly explaining the acute flooding risks Ireland faces in the years ahead).

This format, known as bias-in-balance, has bedevilled the station’s already-sparse environmental reporting for years. If this shift in editorial tone is as a result of Williams’ intervention, then he has truly done the station some service.

Heretofore, RTÉ has been notably prickly and defensive when challenged, for instance, on its constant framing of climate change in terms of the economic costs of taking action, with little or no commensurate focus on the far greater costs of inaction.

RTÉ’s tendency to reach to the fringes for ‘contrarian’ viewpoints, including those of a cohort of mostly rural TDs openly hostile to climate action may be entertaining, but it hardly advances public understanding of the issues.

The apparent eagerness of editors to allow sectoral interest groups to crowd out news reports on proposed climate initiatives, combined with an often testy relationship with the environmental NGO sector (and a reflex journalistic suspicion of “activists”) have been further contributing factors to a deeply dysfunctional response.

RTÉ is by no means alone among Irish media in failing the public on the climate emergency, but its unique public service mandate and matching reach and resources have made this failure particularly hard to either fathom or excuse.

It is said that change comes not when people see the light, but rather, when they feel the heat. If so, RTÉs reckoning on climate may be one good thing to emerge from the cruel summer of 2021.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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