Over the last decade and more, I’ve been in an uncomfortable position regarding RTÉ. On the one hand, I’ve long been a stout defender of public service broadcasting as a vital bulwark against total domination of our media landscape by agenda-peddling billionaires and the vagaries of advertisers.
Public funding should, at least in theory, free our state broadcaster to be able to give due attention to what is genuinely important in society, not just what is popular at a given moment. Some of its output, such as the ‘RTÉ Investigates‘ unit, fulfils this public service mandate superbly, uncovering wrong-doing and investing resources in journalism that looks past the headlines to the stories hidden from view.
On the other hand, its output over the last decade and more on climate change, biodiversity and crunch environmental issues generally has been, with one or two exceptions, abysmal. A recently published paper by DCU researchers noted the overall low amount of media coverage climate issues receive in Ireland compared to other European countries, adding: “Climate change is predominately framed as a political or ideological game, emphasising the personalities or parties involved, rather than the extent of the challenge”.
RTÉ has time and again failed utterly to discharge its public broadcasting obligation on what is demonstrably the biggest story not just of this decade but of the 21st century. For its troubles, it has shipped a fair amount of well-earned censure, here and elsewhere for platforming cranks, cynics, curmudgeons and outright deniers, while absolutely failing to grapple with the overwhelming evidence that the climate emergency poses an existential threat to human civilisation and life on Earth.
Failure on this scale makes the station’s undoubted successes in some other fields fade into irrelevance. After decades of slumber, the Montrose media giant began to finally stir fitfully earlier this year, stung into wakefulness I reckon by the extraordinary show of strength last March when thousands of students flooded the streets around Leinster House demanding radical climate action.
The station simply didn’t see it coming, and has been scrambling to play catch-up ever since. The grilling of DG Dee Forbes by the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action last January also seemed to have had an effect, but it still took heat from the street to tip the broadcaster into gear. This culminated in a week-long station-wide focus on the climate emergency, something entirely unprecedented for environmental coverage (I took part in the Late Debate Climate Special that week).
Whether Climate Week is remembered as the moment that public service broadcasting in Ireland came of age in the era of climate breakdown or as just another once-off cynical PR stunt to piggy-back on the school strike movement very much remains to be seen.
Below, my opinion article that ran in the Irish Times on November 18th on Climate Week:
WHAT WAS most remarkable about RTÉ’s Climate Week was not that the climate crisis dominated the news cycle, with relentless daily media coverage on TV and radio, backed up by documentaries, science explainers and studio discussions. No, given all that is at stake, what is truly puzzling is that this is seen as exceptional at all.
This unprecedented media blitz from the national broadcaster is as welcome as it is overdue, especially given the Cinderella status of climate as a topic for the last decade and more. The genesis of Climate Week can most likely be traced back to a dressing-down RTÉ’s director-general, Dee Forbes, received at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca) earlier this year. She promised to do better, much better, and the station has delivered.
And, whatever about saving the planet, this kind of editorial boldness may yet help save RTÉ, as it was a reminder of the unique power of public broadcasting to both challenge and shape our national dialogue.
While far from perfect, the report of the Committee on Climate Action, chaired by Hildegarde Naughton TD, had offered a genuine blueprint for strong climate action in line with the scientific evidence, and should in turn have guided the Government’s Climate Action Plan, which boasts an impressive-sounding 182 “actions”.
It was during the first update report on this action plan that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently triggered a storm of controversy when talking up the supposed “benefits” of climate change. Varadkar argued he was merely talking off the cuff, yet his gaffe betrays a worrying complacency at the highest level of Government.
Some of the so-called “actions” are anodyne in the extreme. One, relating to “the effectiveness of climate-related communications, network building and deliberative capacity”, simply re-badges the long-running EPA climate lecture series.
As RTÉ have proven this week, effective, coherent and scientifically informed climate coverage really works, but a once-off effort like this must be seen as the spark, rather than a substitute, for a coherent all-of-Government plan.
Rapid decarbonisation of all aspects of Ireland’s economy, from transport and energy to our homes, institutions and agricultural systems, is probably the biggest, most complex challenge we have faced since the foundation of the State.
Changes on this scale will inevitably encounter concerted resistance from vested interests and contrarians, and, without a coherent communications plan that wins wide public support, inertia may be impossible to overcome. After all, how can you expect people to change their lifestyles when you haven’t bothered explaining why this is even necessary or important?
The Jocca report argued that education has to be the bedrock of climate action, with a call for a full review of all primary and secondary curricula. The committee was also worried that without effective and sustained communication and education strategies in place, “the necessary policy interventions may quickly become unpopular, leading to substantial challenges in implementation”.
Well-funded, sustained public awareness campaigns such as those run by the Road Safety Authority have, on the other hand, proven to be successful, and the Jocca report argues for “a significant awareness-raising programme by Government”.
While there is no mention of any such programme in the Climate Action Plan, a spokesperson for Richard Bruton’s Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment says the Government “will design a nationwide communications campaign early next year”. No further details were forthcoming, other than to note a number of ongoing environmental initiatives also being supported.
Some 10 years ago the then-government rolled out the “Power of One” campaign, backed by a €10 million budget. Its aim was to change individual behaviour and so reduce fossil fuel usage. A follow-up study by the ESRI found it had “no persistent effect” and any behavioural changes were short-lived.
This experience is a clear warning to the Government that pushing the onus on individual behavioural shift while failing to fundamentally reform a system that locks the public into high-carbon lifestyles is again doomed to failure.
The Jocca report also urged that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland be empowered to impose climate quotas on all licensed broadcasters, as is already the case for news, current affairs and the Irish language. It further warned that advertising pressures “cannot undermine broadcasters’ obligations to climate content”. Regrettably, this advice has been ignored.
As a stark reminder of what is now on the line, President Michael D Higgins warned last week that humanity is “at the precipice of a global ecological catastrophe”. Failure to plan now means planning for the bitterest failure in the decades ahead.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
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