90 Minutes of TV; 16 Months of Handwaving…

by | Jul 22, 2008

…and counting…

Every day in the UK, £millions are spent on making sure that national and local government departments do not produce too much CO2. Business, schools and hospitals have to make sure they are complying with regulations that require them to reduce their environmental impact – rather than doing business, teaching, and making people well. Commuters across the country face increasing fuel taxes and rising costs of public and private transport. Children are taught to fear for the security of their future, and their parents are scolded for the selfish act of reproducing in the face of over-population. House-builders are forced to meet new ‘environmental standards’, and architects design homes not for their intended occupants’ comfort and quality of life, but to make sure that their living standards are not ‘unsustainable’. Across the media, countless programs, news items, articles, and lifestyle guides instruct us on how we can – and must – change the way we live our lives in a constant barrage of environmental propaganda. Politicians battle about what percentage cuts of CO2 emissions by when will save the planet, and whether the carrot or the stick is the best way to induce behavioural change. NGOs and supra-national organisations dictate policy to democratic governments. ‘Environmental psychologists’ theorise as to what it is about ‘human nature’ which prevents us from obeying environmental diktats. Climate change is the defining issue of our time – not because of incontrovertible scientific fact, but because it has become the organising principle of public and private life.

A mere 90 minutes of programming on Channel 4, nearly a year and half ago, challenged this orthodoxy’s influence. And those behind the orthodoxy have been spitting feathers ever since. It has raised more green bile than almost any other commentary, and has become the scapegoat for the environmental movement’s failure to connect with the public. Accordingly, the environmentalists’ fragile claim to legitimacy means that its first response is to spit invective at its detractors, the second is to run to the censor. What it has not tried is to engage in debate. To do so would be to appear to concede that, in fact, the debate is not over, the science is not ‘in’, and there are various approaches that can be taken in response to climate change, regardless of whether or not humans are causing it.

“It’s not fair!” scream the complaints to OFCOM, that just 90 minutes of program have been so influential, amidst, literally, months of airtime given over to proclaiming that we are doomed, that we face imminent destruction, that unless we change our lifestyles, millions, maybe billions of people will die from plague, pestilence, drought and famine. Never mind that these prophecies themselves lack a scientific basis; you can say whatever you like about the future, just so long as you don’t make the claim that it is not dominated by catastrophe. The most lurid imaginations can project into the future to paint the kind of picture that would have Hieronymus Bosch screaming for mercy, without ever risking OFCOM’s censure. You can make stuff up, providing it will contribute to the legitimacy of this new form of authoritarianism.

The OFCOM ruling on Martin Durkin’s polemic, The Great Global Warming Swindle, was published yesterday. Its findings are that there were problems; that comments attributed to David King – the UK’s chief scientific advisor at the time – were not made by him, even though they were; that the IPCC had not been given sufficient time to respond to comments made about it, even though it had been; and that Professor Carl Wunsch had been misled as to the nature of the program, even though he hadn’t (and isn’t that what investigative journalists are supposed to do?). On the matter of misleading the public, Ofcom found that it had not been offended, harmed, nor materially misled. A mixed review, then, saying, in summary, that Channel 4 were right to broadcast the polemic, but should have paid more attention to the rights of the injured parties. You’d have thought that would be the end of it. But now Ofcom itself is facing criticism from the eco-inquisition, and their decision is to be appealed by Bob Ward, former communications director of the UK’s Royal Society, on the basis that inaccuracies in the program were harmful to the public. Here he is on BBC Radio 4’s PM show:

Eddie Mair: What got you so cross?

Bob Ward: Well, what’s made me angry is the suggestion by Channel 4 that they have been found by the OFCOM ruling not to have misled the audience. And that is not what the ruling says. The ruling says that there were clearly inaccuracies in the programme and that these were admitted by Channel 4, many of them, but, in the opinion of OFCOM, these did not cause harm or offence to the public. Now, I’m afraid that there is no real justification in the ruling that OFCOM have tested whether it caused harm and offence, and actually, there’s quite a lot of evidence out there that it has caused harm, because people have changed their views, I think, about whether greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change.

EM: And you think that’s down to one programme?

BW: Well, it’s certainly contributed to it, and as Hamish Mykura [Channel 4 Commissioning Editor] was saying, he believes that it’s acted as a lightning rod. It certainly, I mean, people I’ve talked to professionally within the insurance industry with whom I work, some of them have been swayed, and that’s quite damaging. So, as a result, I think it’s certainly true that I and many of the other complainants are now going to appeal against the OFCOM decision on the grounds that there is clear evidence of harm.

EM: Do you think perhaps that some of the complaints that went to OFCOM were too detailed and too technical?

BW: Well, OFCOM did say that they are not there to rule on scientific accuracy, so it’s certainly been a challenge, which is why it’s taken them 16 months to rule. But it’s disappointing that they have reached the conclusions that they have – that although they recognise there are inaccuracies, it didn’t cause harm. They don’t appear to have investigated whether there is harm and how you would justify this. In fact, the OFCOM process is not very transparent itself; it’s not clear how they went about assessing the accuracy of these claims.

EM: Isn’t it true though – and this came over in the interview on The World At One – that while Channel Four obviously broadcast this programme, it intends to broadcast Al Gore’s documentary when it becomes available for television, so a range of views are being represented?

BW: That’s true. And one doesn’t object to a range of views. But there has to be a responsibility among broadcasters not to broadcast factually inaccurate information. That must be against the public interest. And I just don’t accept that broadcasting a programme like this, which was inaccurate about a subject as important as climate change, does not harm the public interest. And that unfortunately is what OFCOM said.

We have argued before that what emerges from the hand-wringing about the few moments of broadcasting that challenge environmentalism is not the exposure of the conspiratorial network of ‘well-funded denialists that environmentalists and the likes of David King and Bob Ward want us to believe exists. Indeed, such shrill hectoring better serves to show the environmental movement in its true colours. The fact that Environmentalists have been unable to laugh off or ignore what they regard as inaccurate tosh speaks volumes about the confidence in their own flimsy arguments. Without the argumentative ammunition to make their case politically, they need to make it into a morality tale. Environmentalists need Durkin and the Swindle like a pantomime needs a villain. They’ve written him into the script. If he didn’t exist, they’d have to invent him.

The Swindle has been made a scapegoat by pollsters Ipsos Mori, Bob Ward and his former boss Bob May, George Monbiot and many others desperate to explain the failure of Environmentalism to capture public hearts and minds. One has to wonder, then, what they hope to achieve by raising the profile of the film. The history of censorship shows that the more noise you make about something you regard as an abomination, the more interesting you make it, and the further you undermine your own position. The reaction to the Swindle has, since we began the blog, led us to look more closely at the activities of the Royal Society, and Bob Ward and co themselves. It turns out that his own position is not so spotless.

In June last year, we recorded Bob May, erstwhile president of the Royal Society, lying to an audience in Oxford about the Swindle‘s director, Martin Durkin. May told the audience that Durkin was responsible for a three part series denying the link between HIV and AIDS, and that this form of climate scepticism was equivalent to denying the link between passive smoking and lung disease. Where were Bob Ward’s complaints about mispresentation and calls for accuracy? It’s hard to believe that May would have made such an error of fact in public, when he publicly demands that we ‘respect the facts‘. All the more ironic is that in counseling us to ‘respect the facts’, he should made several further errors of fact, not least in his translation of ‘Nullius in Verba’, but also in his statement of fact that ’15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming’, omitting the fact that this is aworst-case scenario predicted by just a single study. Again, where was Bob Ward and his calls for accuracy? He was busy penning inaccuracies of his own, perhaps. In his open letter to Martin Durkin’s Wag TV, one of Five major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence in the film concerned Durkin’s suggestion that the global temperature slump in the 1950s and ’60s, which was concurrent with rising emissions of greenhouse gases, was problematic for orthodox global warming arguments. Ward asserted that it is established that this is the result of white aerosols masking the greenhouse effect, and yet mainstream climate scientists we spoke to described the evidence for that as flimsy, and said that the debate continues. Another of the ‘five misrepresentations’ concerned Durkin’s argument that solar activity is a major driver of rising temperatures. The science has long been settled, said Ward. So why did the Royal Society find it necessary to publish new research based on a new dataset to demonstrate that the sun was not responsible for global warming after all? And just to make sure we got the message, they even launched the research with the strapline ‘the truth about global warming!

All this is not to suggest that the weight of evidence points to the sun rather than anthropogenic CO2 as the culprit. We are more concerned with the double standards employed by the Royal Society and its associates, a body that should surely be standing back from the squabbling and providing cool, calm information about the science in all its glorious complexity. A body that deals in a currency of facts needs to be especially careful about how it wields them. Like a body that bangs on about the dodgy financial interests of ‘deniers’ looks rather silly when its own dealings are on the grubby side of squeaky clean.

So, 16 months after the event, we have a report that says Durkin might have stretched the facts a tad, might have been a bit less than entirely honest with his contributors, might not have been quite as balanced as he could have been. And we are supposed to be surprised? It’s a TV programme. We could have got the same answer from a taxi driver as from a shiny report from an unelected quango. Meanwhile a browse through the pretty pie charts in OFCOM’s carbon audit suggests that the number of plastic coffee cups and notepaper used by OFCOM over those 16 months might have had a bigger negative impact on the planet than any seeds of doubt cast by Durkin’s film. If you think that’s a trivial point, then read George Monbiot’s recent comment on the silly affair, where he asks ‘why does Channel 4 seem to be waging a war against the greens?’.

This ‘War against the Greens’ consists of Durkin’s Swindle, his 2000 film about GM technology (an issue which Monbiot cannot claim the scientific establishment in the form of the Royal Society was with him on) and three-part series in 1997 called Against Nature, and a film by a different producer in 1990. And… errr… that’s it. That’s the extent of this ‘war’. Channel 4 broadcasts 24 hours a day, and has done for most of the past 18 years. Of nearly 160,000 hours of programming, this ‘war’ makes up around five hours; just 300 minutes. Monbiot continues:

It is arguable that no organisation in the United Kingdom has done more to damage the effort to protect the environment

If he’s right, then he’s got absolutely nothing to worry about.

Sceptics and critics of Environmentalism have been portrayed as cranks, weirdos and outsiders. You can make your own mind up about the truth of that. What the reaction to them shows, however, is a deep-seated anxiety which is totally disproportionate to reality. Monbiot and Ward’s paranoid hystrionics about the audacity of Channel 4 and Martin Durkin is nothing short of sheer lunacy. Their hypocrisy and unfounded outrage is breath-taking to an extent that it’s hard to actually conceive of an historical, or even pathological precedent. You would have to be seriously off your rocker to imagine that 5 hours of broadcasting over the course of two decades constituted a war, let alone even a mild threat. The real war – if there is a war, some might dare to suggest that it is simply debate about policy in a democratic society – is a war against journalistic freedom to present Greens such as George Monbiot and Bob Ward as the utter lunatics they really are. Fortunately it doesn’t take documentary films to show this; they do it all by themselves. You don’t need to portray Monbiot as a sinister purveyor of authoritarian misanthrophopy; you can just read his column.


  1. Alex Cull

    It is indeed an amazing fuss that some are making over TGGWS, as if the massive indifference in the UK to global warming is due to this one TV programme. No-one I know has even seen it, although a few people I know went to see An Inconvenient Truth. The real inconvenient truth is that most folks just do not care about carbon emissions and are simply not interested in the subject.

  2. lee

    The C4 guy is right that TGGWS is a lightning rod, i.e., people are generally deeply sceptical of environmentalism and climate change alarmism (as every poll suggests), but they are often afraid to admit it or find difficulty in articulating their dissent (because of the new orthodoxy and attacks on
    ‘deniers’). TGGWS simply gave them a way to express their disbelief, by referring to the first thing in the public domain with which they could align themselves. In this sense your analysis of why the greens react so ferociously is spot on.

    On another point, I wonder whether you would be interested in lodging some OFCOM complaints about shoddy reporting of climate issues. I know running to the censor is hardly ideal, but it does draw a lot of attention to issues and I have used it in campaigns in the past. Very few people are actually holding the media to account in the way they report climate issues, so they can distort and inflate all they like. Just an idea. Give it some thought and feel free to drop me a line if you want more info or to chat it through.

  3. JMW

    Imagine if the environmentalists and their credo were a small-time soft drink maker trying to make a dent in the market, then blaming his failure to do so on the “corporate giants” Coke and Pepsi and the consumer’s blind loyalty to them—even getting it into his head that the government must pass laws to allow the Little Guy to sell their product, all while ignoring the real reason: that he’s simply offering an inferior product. And the populace knows this, and are simply choosing what they think is the better product.

    Translate this into the Green Message, and…

    They’ve offered their product. The populace has largely rejected it. Though it was, for a time in the early 90’s [if I remember it correctly], trendy to be seen as “green”. Now only the message is left, and those adherents who stuck with it all this time.

    Sadly, they just don’t Get It.

  4. jnicklin

    If all it takes is 90 minutes of TV do the amount of damage to the environemetalist cause, then the cause must be very shaky indeed.

    I watched Swindle and I watched AIT. Swindle at least had the courage, or is it criminal intent, to include the opinions of actual scientists as opposed to AIT’s monologue by a “recovering politician.”

    Swindle had a few errors, that is the hazzard of dealing with science in a documentary, new information can unseat the old. AIT on the other hand was, for all intents, content free programming since almost all of it was a misrepresentation of reality.

    With all of its faults, Swindle still stands head and shoulders above the Gore slide show. If it has unsettled the settled view of the greens, then their message may well be exhausted.

  5. Alex Cull

    I agree re the shakiness of the environmentalist cause if they consider that Swindle could wreak such great damage. Another thing that often annoys me, in the debate surrounding this TV programme, is the emphasis on people not being able to think for themselves, and needing to be led down the one true path. The message is clear: don’t think for yourselves, don’t deviate from the straight and narrow. There are some things that should never be questioned. Let us make up your minds for you.

  6. JMW

    “The message is clear: don’t think for yourselves, don’t deviate from the straight and narrow. There are some things that should never be questioned. Let us make up your minds for you”

    The environmentalist’s definition of “fair and balanced”: It’s not fair when it’s balanced. Because then people start using their brains for something other than a means to keep their skulls from caving in.

    Small wonder that, 16 months later, they’re still in a mad flap over a television documentary.

    It’s hilarious and sad.

  7. geoff chambers

    you say “Monbiot and Ward’s paranoid hystrionics (sic).. is nothing short of sheer lunacy .. it’s hard to actually conceive of an historical, or even pathological precedent.”
    Not that difficult, actually. The war of Jenkins’ Ear springs to mind, and the reaction to the assassination of that Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 is generally considered to have been a bit over the top. Which is why, now the lunatics are not only running the asylum, but writing the agenda for the G8 meetings, your kind of political analysis is vital. Most sceptics seem to assume the warming fad will just fade away when facts get known, but any psychologist or social scientist will tell you it’s not that simple. Hasn’t any computer modeller come up with a prediction (sorry, projection) of what will happen when people discover the entire developed world has been basing its political and economic policies on fantasy for fifteen years?

  8. Moshe

    The war of Jenkins’ Ear springs to mind, and the reaction to the assassination of that Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 is generally considered to have been a bit over the top. Which is why, now the lunatics are not only running the asylum, but writing the agenda for the G8 meetings, your kind of political analysis is vital. Most sceptics seem to assume the warming fad will just fade away when facts get known, but any psychologist or social scientist will tell you it’s not that simple.



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