On Tuesday of last week, PrimeTime did something extremely unusual – at least for RTÉ. It had a programme on climate change. Well, ok, that’s not strictly true; the one-hour show actually carried three items, so climate change was wedged in between a piece on surrogacy and an unintentionally ironic item about… living on a houseboat.
First off, what’s so unusual about this? Well, from what we can work out, the last time Ireland’s premier current affairs programme deigned to do a feature on climate change was all the way back to the eve of the ill-starred Copenhagen COP conference – in December 2009. PrimeTime airs three nights a week, and carries on average, three items per show. That’s nine slots a week, over a four year period, and yet still no room for an item to discuss or analyse the greatest crisis the world has probably ever faced.
We’ve had a few close calls along the way, mind. Back in February, as the flooding crisis reached its peak, the programme invited junior minister Brian Hayes, the IFA president and climatologist, Dr Kieran Hickey into studio. As a climatologist, Hickey was left baffled. “I thought the first question I would be asked on the programme was ‘is this weather linked to climate change?’ And I would have said ‘definitely yes, there is a pattern’. But I wasn’t asked”, he told the Sunday Times.
It could of course, have just been the way the programme panned out. Hickey himself identified a clear flaw in RTÉ’s entire organisational approach: “I think lacking an environment correspondent has been a disaster when we are facing the consequences of climate change”. He is referring to the fact that when its correspondent left the post in early 2011, our national broadcaster chose to eradicate the position of Environment Correspondent.
This was a quite extraordinary decision, one that runs to the very heart of station’s gross derogation of duty on environmental reporting. Consider the 2012 UN climate conference in Durban. Not alone did RTÉ have no reporter to cover the event, the COP 17 conference didn’t even make any of the TV bulletins. RTÉ levies some €180 million in compulsory taxation from the Irish public in the form of the TV licence. On top of that, it brings in another €120 million or so in commercial revenue, largely thanks to its dominant position in our media landscape.
No one begrudges a national broadcaster being freed from the tyranny of chasing ratings and mollifying advertisers if it then discharges its ‘public service’ remit to inform the Irish public and to offer meaningful coverage and context for the critical national and global issues of the day.
Yet on climate change its performance has been abysmal right across the board. It is clear that some individual journalists within the station – Philip Boucher Hayes, Ella McSweeney and Cathal McCoille spring to mind – are fully au fait with the reality of climate change and the extraordinary gravity of the existential threat it poses to us all, yet clearly the people at the controls, the senior management and top editors and producers, appear to be collectively out to lunch.
The most clear-cut evidence to support this view actually comes from the RTÉ’s own Audience Council, which comprises 15 members independent of the station with the remit of “providing a voice for viewers and listeners of the broadcaster”. The Audience Council recently produced a report (Executive Summary of RTE Audience Council Climate Change Research) written by Clare Watson and Mark Cullinane on RTÉ’s performance on covering climate change, and it found that over a two year period, just one in 10 of the 285 news reports on RTÉ Six One that could have mentioned climate change actually did. And even when it was mentioned, it was constantly framed as an ‘international’ story of little relevance to Ireland.
As the Sunday Times report pointed out, “30 major climate-related stories carried by other media between January 2012 and April 2013 were ‘entirely absent’ from Six One News, Prime Time and RTE News online. This is said to demonstrate “a series of significant silences that reflect major gaps in coverage”.
Back in 2008, PrimeTime served up an appalling ‘debate’ between climatologist Kieran Hickey and a climate denier with zero qualifications who tours the US Tea Party anti-science circuit, one Phelim McAleer. It was a toe-curling piece, representing a total abdication of journalistic duty of care, swapping a fact-led analysis and discussion for an ugly brawl, to the obvious delight of McAleer and his energy industry friends.
But now it’s 2014. Things have moved on a long, long way in the last six years. Hell, even the World Bank, the US military, the International Energy agency and the IMF are all saying precisely the same thing the scientific community has been shouting for years: climate change is here, it’s real and we must act decisively or face certain disaster.
So, given the feedback from its own Audience Council and given the overwhelming international consensus for action that stretches far beyond the traditional boundaries of science, how does RTÉ go about putting together a programme on climate change? First, you need to select a panel of four. RTÉ’s first choice for the panel were climatologist Prof John Sweeney (representing the “97% scientific mainstream” science view”), then the IFA president, then a sports psychologist from a London-based climate denier institute with secret funding links to the energy industry.
And finally, Prof Ray Bates of UCD, a bona fide scientist but one with a long track record in ‘low balling’ the risks and talking up the ‘benefits’ of climate change. Bates is perfectly entitled to his views, which are no doubt earnestly held; it just needs to be pointed out that his views are his own, but would place him in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science.
That would have left RTÉ’s initial panel with one voice representing the “97% consensus view” on climate change, facing three people representing a 3% view. This plan was, however, scuttled when, in an almost unprecedented move, Prof Sweeny contacted PrimeTime and told them he was not prepared to participate in such a lop-sided “debate”.
(To put this in context, PrimeTime had invited a number of people – including this writer – from the ‘environmental’ field into its audience the previous week to have input into what transpired to be a farcical spat between book-promoting Eddie Hobbs and energy minister, Pat Rabbitte. We attended, having been assured that the opportunity would be given to pose the question that, given that 80% of the world’s known fossil reserves can never be burned, is it really a great idea to be spending billions looking for yet more unburnable oil? The ‘climate change’ question was conveniently swept under the editorial carpet that night, much to the disgust of those of us present).
Sweeney is a low-key scientist, not an attention-seeker or rabble-rouser, and so the decision to boycott RTÉ’s flagship TV programme must have been extremely difficult for him. An Taisce (of which Sweeney is president) issued a press statement condemning PrimeTime’s proposed ‘Punch and Judy show’:
An Taisce is asking the Director General and the Programme’s Producers to explain if they understand ‘Climate Science’ and the difference between scientific balance and journalistic balance. Is PrimeTime fulfilling its ‘Public Service Broadcasting’ remit? We are sure that it would be possible to find some expert that does not agree that smoking causes cancer but would RTE put them on a panel to discuss lung cancer?
This put the cat among the editorial pigeons at Montrose. I was contacted by a researcher a few days ahead of the programme, and was happy to spend 45 minutes on the phone explaining the rudiments of climate science and what the various organisations were saying about climate change, but when I tried to enquire as to the likely shape of the panel for the programme, zero information was forthcoming (which is, I assume, standard editorial policy).
The figure on PrimeTime’s panel who had caused such consternation is one Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy (sic) Foundation, a lobby group fronted by Nigella Lawson’s octogenarian dad that, apart from systematically distorting the fundamentals of climate science and routinely claiming that climate scientist are corrupt and secretive, is entirely coy about explaining the source of around 95% of its own funding, and has refused numerous FOI requests for disclosure.
The vague ‘Irish’ connection to this rum lot of spoofers, deniers and ideologues is that Richard Tol, formerly of the ESRI, is on the GWPF’s ‘Academic Advisory Council’. Tol is a paradox, being both a talented scholar and a skilled peddler of fudge and ambiguity – no more so than in his infamous little ESRI document, ‘Why worry about climate change?’
Depressingly, he has been the go-to guy for many’s the researcher, and, sure enough, we understand Tol was first invited on by RTÉ, but was unavailable and offered his GWPF buddy Peiser instead. While Tol, as a published researcher has some credentials in this field, Peiser has none (Click here for a full unpicking of Tol and his strongly idiosyncratic views, e.g. “In the case of climate change, economists have shown that climate change is not the biggest environmental problem in the world, denying people the catastrophe that they crave…”).
The PrimeTime team were, apparently, extremely unhappy, both with John Sweeney’s decision to boycott their programme, and also press statements by, among others, the Environmental Pillar and An Taisce, with RTÉ believing that such statements were premature and pre-judged the matter. Of course, none of us likes to feel we’re being told how to do our job, but is this a fair criticism? Below is part of an email sent out by RTÉ researchers ahead of the programme (my emphasis):
“We will be discussing ‘Climate Change’ and we will be asking whether our recent weather is a result of climate change? Is the climate change man made? Is it the world’s biggest crises (sic)? Has Ireland’s climate changed?”
If you are told that a professional climate denial lobbyist is on the show, and that RTÉ is still asking questions like “Is the climate change man made?” then, to be fair, the producers of the programme can hardly be surprised if people from the ‘environmental area’ are just a little concerned about what you might be cooking.
RTÉ then invited Prof Barry McMullin, chair of An Taisce’s newly formed climate change committee* to replace John Sweeney. Barry, an engineer, also declined, and explained his rationale in a very polite letter to PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond.
In essence, climate change is too serious an issue to allow people on who, in his words, “wilfully deny the scientific realities and abuse the public trust”. Peiser & Co, in other words, simply have no business sitting on the panel of an RTÉ current affairs programme, any more than RTÉ would invite on a Holocaust denier to “debate” the reality of the concentration camps with survivors.
Nor would RTÉ get away with having a spokesman for the tobacco industry come on to PrimeTime and diss the mountains of scientific evidence linking tobacco use and conditions such as lung cancer and heart disease. And, if they tried, there would be public outrage and demands for resignations. Yet, when it comes to climate change, when not simply ignoring the issue, RTÉ turns instead into little more than a fact-free undergraduate debating society.
If, at this point, you are saying, hang on a minute, I watched the debate last week, and it was nothing at all like this, that’s because RTÉ back-pedalled from their original 3:1 line up in favour of deniers/skeptics when the heat was applied by the various protests and boycotts. They re-shuffled the deck to replace Sweeney with Joe Curtin, an articulate climate policy researcher with the IIEA, while the IFA ‘slot’ was demoted to the audience and replaced with Eamon Meehan of Trocaire.
This left Curtin pitted directly (and very effectively) against Peiser, with Ray Bates pursuing his own idiosyncratic take on climate science and Meehan making some useful comments about the wider issue of climate impacts in the developing world. The panel debate was preambled by a VT report presented by Robert Short. This was no-nonsense journalism, seeking out expert views and assembling them in a short video format, and steering clear of oddballs and hired guns.
When the debate began, presenter Claire Byrne took the quite unusual step of pretty much insisting that everyone on the panel agree that climate change is real and is man-made. Much as we now know that the Earth is indeed round. Yes, it might sound bleedin’ obvious, but by RTÉ standards, this is a breakthrough – just a shame it took such a bare-knuckled confrontation to get them to apply the absolute minimum of journalistic criteria that we take for granted in so many other walks of life (too bad also that the presenter neglected to challenge Peiser on who secretly funds him to say what he says).
Peiser performed so poorly in the debate – partly because the presenter appeared to be keeping him at arms’ length – that it’s difficult to say what exact point he was trying to make, other than something along the lines that, whether climate change is too small a problem to be bothered with, or too vast a problem to even attempt to tackle, the key is to do nothing – the favourite line of the energy industry worldwide.
No doubt RTÉ will point out that Peiser’s ‘acceptance’ of the basics of climate change proves he was entitled to be involved in the debate. This move was, I would suggest, tactical, given the GWPF’s routine dismissal of mainstream scientific evidence in favour of ‘industry-friendly’ pseudo-science gobbledygook.
Peiser’s boss, Nigel Lawson, is a flat-out Flat Earth-style climate denier, he too represents the GWPF and its barmy ‘policies’, so why should we expect Peiser to be a paragon of reasonableness when Lawson is barking and picks fights with actual experts about rudimentary physics facts he clearly doesn’t understand. It would be downright odd if Peiser disagrees with Lawson when Lawson denies, for instance, copious instrumental measurements showing how heat is transferring into the oceans.
I should interject here to say that I’m a fan of public broadcasting. The odious Fox ‘News’ network is what happens when you hand journalism over to the private sector plutocrats. The criticisms here of RTÉ are based on my expecting better, much better, from them. Some of the best journalists in the country work in RTÉ, many doing a fine job, but the station has this extraordinary blind spot when it comes to the environment.
Having left the Environment Corr. position in abeyance for three years, the station recently filled the slot by comically tagging it on the new ‘Agriculture & Environment Corr’ post, and then filling that post with an economist (again, a decent journalist in his own right, but with zero track record or known expertise or background in environmental science or reporting).
PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond was not best pleased with the stance taken by An Taisce, and he expressed it clearly to McMullin:
We were disappointed that you, among others, chose to decline our invitation to take part in last night’s discussion on Climate Change based, it seems, on the fact that we had one person on the panel who did not share your analysis of the problem… As campaigners, if you feel that it is in your interests, you may, of course, choose to ignore a particular strand of opinion, but as journalists and public service broadcasters, we do not feel ourselves free to do so. We must always reserve the right to choose our panel using our best judgement, and taking into account the state of scientific knowledge on a particular subject, rather than doing so based on the pressure exerted by any campaigning group.
Diamond is of course correct. Journalists can’t have lobby groups telling them what to write and who to interview and who not to. If PrimeTime had truly “taken into account the state of scientific knowledge”, they might have based their entire editorial premise around solid foundations such as the recent AAAS report, What we know. This synthesises the expert views of the world’s leading climate specialists. Even a cursory reading of it would confirm just how far off the mark they were.
But who exactly in the PrimeTime team is equipped to make these calls? If they were preparing a story on some aspect of legislation, they could call on their own legal affairs correspondent to give them a steer as to what way the wind is blowing. Ditto for a crime, health, farming or pretty much any other specialist story you care to mention.
Not having a single solitary reporter among a staff of almost 2,000 whose sole or even main job is to track what happens on the climate and environmental ‘beat’ leaves PrimeTime relying on loose cannons for ‘guidance’, and then blundering into fiascos like Benny Peiser.
If this issue were about some nonsense like Wind Turbine Syndrome or the great fluoridation conspiracy, RTÉ’s lack of interest and expertise would, frankly, be neither here nor there. But it’s not. This is instead about the future of humanity and the biosphere; in truth, it’s about assessing if humanity has a future at all.
And in case anyone from PrimeTime is reading, a reality check: your goose as well as mine is well and truly cooked in the 4C world that we are collectively barrelling swiftly towards. Forget about the economy and the Garda Commissioner for a minute. Forget about your pension or the future you imagined for your children or grandchildren. Climate change, uniquely, is not just a ‘story’ that affects other people, one you can file-and-forget once the show is over and the studio lights have been turned down.
This is not a drill. Climate change is on track to plunge us into a new medieval era of collapse and chaos, if not wiping us clean off the map. World Bank president, President Dr Jim Yong Kim acknowledged that the looming 4ºC degree world was, quite simply a “doomsday scenario”. Pause for a moment and read that phrase again. Now, which part of “doomsday scenario” are you still unclear about?
RTÉ’s performance in terms of environmental and climate change coverage over the last three years, and specifically, over the last two weeks, brings to mind the observation of academic and author, Prof Justin Lewis. In failing to address the reality of climate change, the media, he argues, is engaged in “one of the most obstinate displays of inertia in human history, a time when, like latter-day Neros, we fiddle while our planet burns”.
*Disclosure: (a) I am a member of An Taisce’s climate change committee.
(b) I too was asked by PrimeTime to participate, but in the audience only. Two hours before the show aired, I was contacted again and given a promise that I’d be allowed to ‘ask the panel a question’. I judged this to be too little, too late, and politely declined this last-minute offer.