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Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Is this the real climate swindle?

A chilly response to a programme on global warming prompts Bob Ward to throw his remote control at the TV

Is "The Great Global Warming Swindle" an outstanding example of investigative journalism that uncovered the truth about climate change science, or a pernicious piece of propaganda that systematically misrepresents the evidence about global warming?

Let me declare my hand at the outset: I believe that the latter is true. But while no doubt some ABSW members might think that “you would say that, wouldn’t you,” I have to admit some surprise at the way in which the programme has been promoted, or excused, by some journalists in the past couple of months as if it they believed the former.

Lying at the heart of some of the support for the programme (and the ABSW’s chair even called for the programme to be nominated for an award), I suggest, are misguided concerns about the freedom of speech and the right to report, which actually trivialise an important principle.

The first thing to note of course is that the programme was broadcast on Channel Four on 8 March (and later repeated on More 4) and as such is subject to Ofcom’s ‘Broadcasting Code’, the production of which was required by the Communications Act 2003.

Ofcom has received more than 200 complaints about the programme, alleging breaches of many parts of the Code. Some of these complaints are, I believe, unjustified. Certainly the programme gave great prominence to the views held by a minority of researchers, but it would be unhealthy to insist that the media only cover mainstream views. However, the programme also included demonstrable misrepresentations of the scientific evidence (such as false statements and obsolete observations) about climate change and the interpretations made of it by some researchers. Should such misrepresentations be allowed to preserve the freedom of the media?

The Broadcasting Code says not. The Code has 10 sections, and Section 5 deals with ‘Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions’. Rule 5.7, under the sub-heading of ‘The preservation of due impartiality’ applies to television programme services, teletext services, national radio and national digital sound programme services, and states: “Views and facts must not be misrepresented. Views must also be presented with due weight over appropriate timeframes.”

Does this provision within the Code place an undue restriction on journalists’ freedom to report? I think not. ‘The Legislative Background to the Code’ explains that it has been “drafted in light of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights”. In particular, the Code “encompasses the audience’s right to receive creative material, information and ideas without interference but subject to restrictions proscribed by law and necessary in a democratic society”.

The importance of the media accurately representing the facts was emphasised by the philosopher Onora O’Neill in her lecture on ‘Rethinking freedom of the press’ to the Royal Irish Academy in 2003. She pointed out that “Democracy requires not merely that the media be free to express views, but that they actually and accurately inform citizens”. Baroness O’Neill went on to conclude: “Inadequate reporting, commentary and programming may marginalize important issues or voices, may circulate inaccurate or manipulated ‘information’, and may suppress or distort material that is relevant to its own assessment. It damages democracy by making it hard, even impossible, for citizens to judge for themselves.”

It seems clear to me that the ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ systematically breaches the Broadcasting Code in order to promote its central premise that solar activity, rather than greenhouse gas emissions, has been driving the recent rise global average temperature. In doing so, it damages rather than enhances democratic debate about climate change.

The distribution of the DVD of the programme, while not subject to the terms of the Broadcasting Code, would similarly be bad news for public debate about this issue. For this reason, I and 36 scientists wrote to Martin Durkin, the producer of ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, to ask him to remove the many major misrepresentations in his programme before distributing it on DVD. Our request appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Durkin has recently taken to describing himself as a science journalist. I believe this brings the profession of science journalism into disrepute, as does the support that some ABSW members have given to his programme. In particular, claiming that Durkin has an absolute right to mislead the public with his programme, under the freedom of speech, trivializes and diminishes an important principle that should be properly used to protect courageous (and accurate) investigative science journalism that is truly worthy of recognition through the ABSW awards.

Bob Ward is Director of Global Science Networks at Risk Management Solutions and formerly Senior Manager for Policy Communication at the Royal Society. The views expressed here are his own.