From Climate Week to ‘climate weak’, RTÉ coverage falters

Here we go again, slagging off the national broadcaster. What about the independent broadcasters, why not go after them? Well, in short, we expect more, much more, from RTÉ as our public service broadcaster, heavily subsidised by the licence fee and mandated to cover stories based on their actual importance, as opposed to their appeal to advertisers. This article, which appeared in the February 2021 edition of Village magazine, is informed by my strong desire, not to knock RTÉ, but to see it live up to its role as a truly ‘public service’ broadcaster, especially when it comes to reporting the biggest story of the 21st century. They have shown they can do it. So, what are we waiting for?

IN NOVEMBER 2019, RTÉ unveiled its first ever ‘Climate Week’, an intensive blitz of broadcasting across its TV, radio and online divisions drawing attention to the deepening climate crisis.

The station’s current affairs team swept into action, with reporters dispatched as far afield as the ice sheets of Greenland to report on all aspects of this global emergency.

Announcing the initiative, RTÉ Director General, Dee Forbes said: “The world is rising to the burning issue of climate change, and here in Ireland our young people have been especially moved by the climate crisis. This special week reflects the growing concern, globally and here at home…RTÉ On Climate is our contribution to framing, explaining and, ultimately, moving us all one step closer to solving the problem”.

Meanwhile, 15 months later, the climate emergency has measurably deepened. All 10 hottest years globally since instrumental records began in the 1880s have occurred since 2005, with last year, covid-related economic slump notwithstanding, tied with 2016 as the two hottest years ever.

Perhaps even more worryingly, upper ocean temperatures hit new record highs in 2020. The real impact of greenhouse gases (GHGs) occurs in the world’s oceans, as they absorb around 93% of the total heat trapped, with only the remaining 7% warming the atmosphere.

So, while temperatures continue to climb off the charts, Irish media coverage has yet again fallen off a cliff. And nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in the national broadcaster, the one media outlet specifically funded to ensure it is empowered to fulfil its public service mandate to cover stories that are important, as opposed to being caught on the commercial broadcasting treadmill of constantly chasing ratings and ad revenue.

What has happened to RTÉ’s new-found commitment on covering what Dee Forbes movingly described as the ‘burning issue’ of climate change? Its ‘Climate Week’ in 2019 was replaced with Science Week 2020 featuring not a solitary mention of ‘climate’ or ‘environment’. So much for RTÉ’s fleeting commitment to “framing, explaining and solving the problem”.

RTÉ’s website has channels for Sport, Entertainment, Business, Lifestyle, Culture etc. but no discrete area for environment or climate. In order to find any climate-related content, you would have to know to use the pathway: rte.ie/news/climate.

On arriving at this sub-section in mid-February, you find that the last story RTÉ tagged under ‘climate’ was an AFP wire-service report filed on November 4th last, announcing the US’s short-lived withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

Prior to that, there was a piece filed nearly a month earlier, on October 7th, by Fran McNulty, reporting on motor industry complaints about proposed VTR changes designed to reward less polluting vehicles. This would, McNulty reported, “cripple the (motor) sector and cost thousands of jobs.”

What is truly startling is that, in the entirety of 2020, RTÉ tagged a total of 12 stories under ‘climate’ (including industry special pleading, as in McNulty’s piece above) for the whole of 2020. The RTÉ website does include a channel called ‘Brainstorm‘ which, oddly, is only open to academic contributors. This sub-channel does include a few interesting web-only articles of relevance (‘Human dominance of Earth has come at a steep cost to our planet‘ for example), this is a long, long way from being an integral part of the public-facing function of RTÉ, ie. its output on radio and television.

The last time RTÉ’s ‘Science and Environment’ Correspondent, George Lee, filed a report relating to climate or environment was November 25th last. Prior to that, Lee filed just a solitary article – on the Climate Bill and motor vehicles – in October and one piece in September 2020.

When I asked Lee in January what was going on, he replied that while he is still covering the Environment brief, the ‘Science’ part of his job has come to dominate. “The covid-19 science story has been the constant story throughout the pandemic”, he explained, adding that the newsdesk “has been assigning other reporters on an ongoing basis to cover the environment and climate stories…there has not been any one specified reporter covering”.

George Lee is in no way to blame for this staggering lacuna in coverage. Clearly, these key decisions are made at the highest editorial management level in the organisation. And, as 2020 has so vividly illustrated, the station’s heart simply isn’t in it.

There are of course long-running shows such as the well-regarded ‘Eco Eye’ (an independent production that is saddled with a 7-7.30pm off-peak time slot) and ‘Ear to the Ground’, a show ostensibly about agriculture but which has produced some excellent environmental coverage. These remain small oases of green in an editorial desert dominated by programmes such as ‘Pulling with my parents’, ‘Celebrity Bainisteoir’ and ‘Ireland’s fittest family’.

Addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca) in January 2019, Dee Forbes stated: “The coverage of climate change, and other sustainability topics, are a matter of ongoing review in terms of our editorial activities, and we have renewed ambition in this regard for 2019”. This was duly delivered with a high-impact and critically acclaimed Climate Week in November of that year.

However, Forbes also noted that, notwithstanding RTÉ’s ability to reach a mass audience, “there is no substitute for bespoke public information campaigns… which are essential in bringing about the broad understanding critical to changing behaviour”.

This point is reiterated by the Jocca report, which urged “a significant awareness-raising programme by Government”. That report also urged a review of all primary and secondary curricula, warning that without an effective and persistent public awareness programme in place, “the necessary policy interventions may quickly become unpopular, leading to substantial challenges in implementation”.

The Jocca report noted that there was “a substantial communication effort required” if the public are to accept the need for changes to lifestyles. “It is essential to communicate why this is necessary and the ways in which it is beneficial to all of us. The inertia represented by the status quo is hard to overcome”.

Given how dependent many households and businesses are on fossil fuels, “it is clear that this is not an easy task”, the report added. What it could also have pointed out is that vested interests, from the motor industry lobbyists to livestock agriculture pressure groups, will fight tooth and nail to paint climate action, however modest or progressive, in the worst possible light.

And in many cases, they will find elements within the media more than happy to stoke up real or imaginary controversy.

While then Climate Minister, Richard Bruton promised in late 2019 that the government would design “a nationwide communications campaign early next year”, no action whatever has since been taken on this promise.

The Jocca report went so far as proposing that quotas of climate-related content be imposed on all licensed broadcasters (as currently applies for news, current affairs and the Irish language), to ensure the subject was given the consistent editorial attention that has been sorely lacking in the past.

Reviewing the testimony it had received from RTÉ, Jocca said it “remains concerned by the relative lack of climate change content and dedicated programming on RTÉ”. The committee also noted the problem of false balance “that has been a negative feature of broadcast media in many countries and specific examples in the national context were raised by members of the Committee.”

Village has previously highlighted how RTÉ’s flagship current affairs programme, PrimeTime, lurched for years from completely ignoring climate change to presenting some of the worst imaginable ‘debates’ that gave entirely unwarranted editorial credence to climate deniers and fringe contrarian scientists, presenting a faux ‘balance’ to viewers and in the process, completely misrepresenting the true state of the science.

However, rather than accept reasonable criticism of its abysmal performance, RTÉ and PrimeTime in particular, doubled down on aggressively defending the indefensible and stymied and browbeat complainants.

Going back to the heyday of Pat Kenny, who took anti-environmental contrarianism to new lows, RTÉ has had a recurring problem with its environment and climate coverage. This was studied in a 2017 EPA report by Trish Morgan which delivered a damning indictment of the station’s overall performance.

It noted that, astonishingly, the station completely neglected to treat the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports as “stories suitable for thematic coverage”. The report identified a key deficiency in RTÉ’s coverage being that the station was operating without an environment correspondent for much of the timeframe of release of the IPCC’s 5thAssessment Report.

This was supposed to have been remedied by the appointment of George Lee, but his environment brief was initially paired with agriculture, leaving Lee in an impossible poacher-cum-gamekeeper conundrum. This was, after several years, updated to pair environment with science.

This too crumbled as soon as covid-19 arrived, and RTÉ senior management decided to jettison their short-lived climate crusade in favour of obsessive, wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic.

That the coronavirus pandemic is a huge story is not in doubt. What is far more questionable is when a public service broadcaster abdicates its duty to cover equally important topics in favour of slavish, highly repetitive around-the-clock coverage of the pandemic while completely abandoning climate and environmental reportage.

The fact that covid has its roots in environmental destruction and has likely been at least in part fuelled by disruption to animal habitats arising from climate change has gone largely unreported in Montrose, since there is literally no one responsible for joining the dots.

Today, despite the Green Party being part of government, there is still no indication in the recently published Climate Action Bill that any of the steps recommended either by the Citizens’ Assembly or Jocca have been taken or are even contemplated to copper-fasten climate awareness.

The purpose of such safeguards is to ensure that, in the stampede to cover the most topical stories, profoundly important topics are not pushed aside. The understandable media focus since March 2020 on covid-19 has drained media coverage in general and RTÉ’s output in particular of climate content.

Ignoring the unfolding climate and biodiversity emergencies while focusing solely on the Covid-19 crisis is a literal case of failing to see the wood for the trees.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer 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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