A Prime lesson in how not to cover climate change

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.


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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21 Responses to A Prime lesson in how not to cover climate change

  1. Theresa says:

    Brilliant report John – pretty much sums it up

  2. Michelle says:

    Very well said John. I agree it is a step forward that RTE actually featured this subject and also that they did not focus on the “Is Climate Change Real?” angle. However I am furious they brought on Peiser and neglected to explain that he is from a very controversial AGW denialist body with suspect and secretive funding. To the casual punter, the name of the foundation sounds like they are some expert body on climate change – which of course they are not. Have you considered a formal complain via the BAI?

  3. johngibbons says:

    Thanks Theresa, just felt there were lessons to be learned – on all sides – so might be useful to have a detailed account ‘on the record’ for future reference. JG

  4. johngibbons says:

    Appreciate that, Michelle. As a fan of public service broadcasting, it’s very frustrating to figure out why they’re doing such a singularly poor job on environment and climate change reporting. Lack of true awareness, rather than malice or ideology seems to be at the nub of the problem. The BBC should also know better, but continues to pander to deniers and spoofers – Lawson was recently given a clear run on BBC Radio 4 to gish gallop his way through an interview with a top scientist, spreading confusion and disinformation at every turn. As for formal complaints, not my personal style, but that route is open to anyone who’s similarly concerned. JG

  5. Emer O'Siochru says:

    Too bad you undermined an otherwise excellent article with your throw away remark “…If this issue were about some nonsense like Wind Turbine Syndrome or the great fluoridation conspiracy”. You are not a health expert in the same way climate deniers are not climate experts. The question of wind turbine syndrome from infra sound from 2.3+ MW turbines and industrial waste flouride in drinking water is not scientifically resolved: certainly not as resolved as climate change.

  6. johngibbons says:

    “You are not a health expert in the same way climate deniers are not climate experts”. Well, I’ve worked in medical and healthcare journalism for 26 years, so that makes me, if not an expert, then at least reasonably capable as an experienced journalist of telling the difference between bona fide expertise and snake oil peddling.

    I’ve looked at the available evidence on ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ (summarised well here: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Wind_Turbine_Syndrome) and am satisfied that the evidence supporting WTS fails to pass even the most rudimentary scrutiny. I’d say the same for the (equally passionate) anti-vaccination proponents. Arm-waving is no substitute for solid evidence, openly gathered, honestly assessed, challenged and, ultimately, broadly accepted.

    I’m glad you found this article “excellent” – at least until it mentioned something with which you disagree strongly.

  7. Peter Walsh says:

    Wonderful stuff as usual John! How do you keep going?! This brings to mind your brilliant recent reprise of the ‘Partridge’ episode in Village magazine: messrs. Kenny and Lawson belong in a particular circle of Dante’s place…
    Whatever about our ‘celebrialists’ I think you’re spot on re the broader cultural problem of generalised denialism.
    Two components to this as I see it: failure to understand the nature of risk and how to evaluate it, along with a more general failure of language. Risk is assessed on 2 components: a) the probability of an event occurring and b) the consequences of this event occurring. If a self-described ‘skeptic’ is to sustain an argument they must acknowledge the reality of the risk / contrary position against which they argue. Re climate change / environmental collapse stated in purely H & S terms and using all of the peer-reviewed data available the probability of a negative outcome is broadly speaking a) 98 % definite and b) 98% cataclysmic. Accepting ‘probability’ is not ‘infallibility’ this nonetheless invites surely an urgent response??
    Re the broader question of language the (ab)use of the term ‘sceptic’ demands repudiation! Anyone who rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus re climate change must propose a similarly robustly argued case against this consensus if they are to merit the term ‘sceptic’. The media on the whole don’t get this (RTE aren’t alone in this -e.g. BBC are just as bad in my book?) hence the continued failure to identify so-called scepticism as the denialism that underpins it. To be absolutely clear (and we agreed on this point a couple of years back) scepticism properly understood is fundamental to the scientific method: denialism is a repudiation of the scientific / sceptical method
    (e.g. this abuse of language is surely not unlike our persistent misuse of the term ‘republican’?).
    Keep up the good fight John there are some of us still out here keeping the faith!

  8. Lucy Weir says:

    Funnily enough I think the most fundamental problem the ‘Green’ movement faces is illustrated in this response to Emer. I’m not suggesting that people who are strongly committed to thinking about, discussing and making observations on anthropogenic impact all sing from one hymn sheet. However, I do think that people like Emer (who I may have met once about fourteen years ago but certainly don’t ‘know’ in any meaningful sense, personally, but whose work with FEASTA I’m somewhat familiar with) deserve better treatment than this. As part of the movement to radically change how political discussion takes place, why not try focussing on the manner of engagement as much as the attempt to communicate the content of your message? This would mean that, instead of the ‘Green’ movement fragmenting into increasingly disempowered factions, there was a sense of appreciation of those areas where there is agreement. Oh, and finally, a question: was Paul Cunningham the last RTE environment correspondent, and when he left, did he do so voluntarily or because they decided they didn’t need an environment correspondent but could do with someone in Brussels? Good, interesting and informative article, by the way.

  9. johngibbons says:

    Many thanks for the very kind words and well argued points Peter. To be fair to all concerned in PrimeTime, I really wouldn’t put them in the same league as their former colleague Pat ‘The Partridge’, a hard-core denier with a chip on his shoulder the size of Dalkey head. Your risk management analogy rings true, as do your 98%–98% odds.

    Quite how anyone claiming a shred of intellectual integrity could stand over blundering into that level of Double Jeopardy is beyond imagining….which of course simply confirms the point that there is precious little integrity involved in the sceptic/denier camp. Strange, this, considering they too will have to live with the consequences.

    Meanwhile, what choice have those of us who have chosen to understand this issue but to fight on as best we can, however poor the odds.

  10. johngibbons says:

    Hi Lucy, thanks for commenting. Yes, the manner in which all of us, myself and Emer included, engage is important. I stick to the peer-reviewed science, but oftentimes, many in the traditional environmental movement are deeply uncomfortable about what the science tells us about, for example, risk/benefits of nuclear energy, GM crops or mystery syndromes such as WTS.

    I don’t actively seek disagreement, but will certainly push back if I think someone is manifestly wrong, as I believe Emer is on her campaign against wind turbines which has been long on shrill rhetoric (using Twitter hashtags such as #windlies to infer than anyone who disagrees with her is a liar, for instance).

    This article wasn’t about wind, turbines or syndromes, my comment was a throwaway about the difference between real and urgent problems (eg. climate change, it’s absolutely real, it’s huge and it’s urgent) versus problems that may not even exist (WTS), are hardly urgent and, if ever proven, don’t exactly pose an existential threat to humanity.

    Finally, I’m not privvy to why Paul C. left that RTE post, but I suspect the general lack of support within the organisation can hardly have encouraged Paul to stick with it if he felt he was on a hiding to nothing. That is, I stress, purely a personal opinion.

    Glad you enjoyed the article overall, by the way, and do post again. I’m always open to feedback and don’t claim a monopoly on either knowledge or wisdom! JG

  11. Lucy Weir says:

    Good answer, John. I’m really interested in seeing if we can learn to ‘step back’ from the narratives and ideological commitments that condition our responses, particularly when we are interpreting scientific evidence, even if it’s not what we expect/ hoped for. If the ‘Green’ movement could learn this as a technique, it would be a much more coherent force. On the other hand, perhaps the ‘Green’ movement doesn’t have to be a ‘coherent force’. Better to be a wide spectrum of disparate views critically analysing, questioning and being prepared to take on new evidence, than an unthinking mob swallowing half-truths whole.

  12. Peter Walsh says:

    Great work again on The Late Debate.
    In case you missed it there was a report from the ‘Commons Science and
    Technology Committee’ during the week critical of the failure to get across the
    message of climate change to the public by government and media. There’s a short
    report of it in Wednesday’s Guardian on page 11 and here:


    There was also a short interview on BBC’s Today programme on Wednesday, in
    an apparent attempt by the BBC to address the criticism. Programme playback is
    available for about 6 days here:


    -interview starts at 02:35:47 –about 5 minutes long.

    Brief summary:

    Evan Davis interviews Andrew Miller MP who helped draft the
    Report from the Commons Science and Technology Committee (Westminster) which as
    he says ‘..is very critical of the efforts of Government and Media to explain
    climate change to the public at large…critical too of the Royal Society and
    the Met Office’. Also interviewed is Dave Jordan from BBC.
    Focusing on the media Miller says:
    ‘..why is it that you get this false balance in the way in which climate
    change sceptics are given equal timeɉ۪ and he cites February interview with
    Nigel Lawson and Sir Brian Hoskins (Hoskins was the realist..) and then cites the
    interview ‘earlier this week’ with –guess who? -that Zelig of our time Richard
    Tol! I heard it at the time on Monday morning on Today –Tol seemed to get more
    attention than the Climate Change report itself; really bizarre. Continuing his main point of the
    failure of media (esp. BBC) to identify the interests of climate change deniers
    Miller went on re Tol ‘…it wasn’t spelt out that he was an advisor ….’ cue fast
    interruption from Davis, who then managed to convey the impression the interview
    had been on World at One. Most of the rest of the time (it seemed to me) was
    taken over by BBC man (Jordan) talking out the clock with platitudes?

    Postscript: I agree I was a bit harsh on RTE -some great reporters there.

  13. Paula Downey says:

    Hello John

    Excellent as always. You and your readers might be interested in this recent contribution by Medialens, which also provides an always-compelling and thoughtful analysis of the ways in which our media and our professionals are part of the ‘problem’ rather than part of the ‘solution’ on crucial issues such as climate change.


    This contribution mirrors your own, exactly: among other things, it unpacks an edition of the BBC News featuring non other than Richard Tol (whom you met in last night’s The Late Debate) and explores precisely the same issue: why broadcast journalists are ignoring the substance of the IPCC report and setting up a false sense of so-called ‘balance’ by giving equal space to go-to contrarians such as Richard Tol, creating the illusion that the jury is still ‘out’ on this crucial issue, thus squandering valuable time and slowing down a meaningful social and political response.
    Wouldn’t it be a valuable use of licence fee income if Prime Time were to investigate one of the crucial issues of our generation – the way in which power has shifted from politics to business and economic interests, the funding and agenda of these so-called ‘think-tanks’ and the process by which doubt is sewn in the public consciousness by people like Nigel Lawson, Richard Tol et al, aided and abetted by people like Donagh Diamond, Cormac O’hEadhra et al who are simply not informed enough to know better. Of course, their reputations as journalists and broadcasters will stand or fall on their capacity to deal intelligently with such issues. Meanwhile RTE’s reputation and, crucially, the long term trust of its audience, will be strengthened or eroded by such things as the quality of the thinking that underpins the reporting on its most resourced investigative programme. Public trust and the public licence fee – RTE has to earn both. I wonder if Donagh Diamond and his colleagues are conscious of this?

  14. johngibbons says:

    Hello Paula, and thanks for your thoughtful comment. The MediaLens article is spot-on. The goldfish bowl springs to mind every time a new climate report comes out: big rush of media interest – then, 15 minutes later, the slate is wiped clean like the ‘story’ never happened. I can’t say for certain, but when Cormac asked us, more or less, what is the IPCC report about and it is important or just overhyped, that reflects his own lack of knowledge of the topic, beyond flicking through the 15-minute researchers’ notes ahead of going on air. So, when Cormac asked if it’s serious or hype, he broke the cardinal rule: never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer. As already covered, there is a staggering lack of ‘institutional’ interest within RTE (or any other major media outlet in this country) about climate change. The occasional ‘we must do something’ editorial might make them feel like they’re discharging their responsibility to readers, but the audience can read between the lines, and realises that there is no passion, no commitment and no follow-through once the story completes its transit through that day’s news cycle.

    I had thought about challenging RTE for having Tol on as an “expert” but chose instead (wisely or not) to challenge his own record of scholarship. RTE are very very touchy about ‘outsiders’ like me or you telling them how to do their job (understandably, which of us likes being corrected?). But climate change is just too serious, too urgent to be left to the vagaries of whether or not an editor or senior producer somewhere has even a rudimentary understanding of the topic. Agree entirely that public trust is a vital covenant; once broken, it’s not easily mended. For a public service broadcaster, trust is its raison d’être. If this is not discharged responsibly, we may as well scrap the licence fee and switch over to TV3 or the Wrestling Channel.

  15. johngibbons says:

    I share your sense of despair at the vacuous nature of much of what passes for ‘news’ – in reality it’s 95% comment, conjecture and talking heads sounding off from pre-rehearsed positions. It’s from this journalistic wilderness that the “debate” springs. And when it comes to climate change, this is rudderless, with media outlets unable or uninterested in distinguishing between a scientific consensus report and the money-tainted PR outpourings from ‘think tanks’ like the Global Warming Policy Foundation (of which Tol is an advisor). Very sad, and very serious.

  16. johngibbons says:

    Thanks again David. I have mixed feelings about that Late Debate and my own contribution. I tried to make it clear that I believe Tol is not a good faith contributor to the climate change debate, and in trying to make it clear that as an economist, he brings a set of assumptions to bear that, strangely, appear to correlate very closely with his preexisting ideological position (as an advisor to the denialist Global Warming Policy Foundation, for example).

    In so doing, I lost opportunities to communicate key messaging on climate change, and this in turn plays into the delay-and-deny set, including Tol. My irritation with the oxygen of publicity being given to fringe figures like him also coloured my performance, and that’s something I regret. Great however to see the UK House of Commons report putting the boot into sloppy, slovenly science journalism, and would love to think this might have a positive impact here too. JG

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