The Media’s Stranglehold on the Climate ‘Debate’

‘If the year past is anything to go by, there will be many more than two million deaths from climate change-related disasters worldwide in the next ten years, and the damages to property will be worth hundreds of billions of pounds.’

(Global Commons Institute, letter to The Guardian, 14 March, 2000. Full text of letter available at

Space-borne images of the collapsing Larsen B ice shelf made dramatic copy in UK national newspapers at the end of March. Europe’s flagship earth observation satellite Envisat, coincidentally launched just a few weeks earlier, revealed a 3250 sq km ice shelf breaking into thousands of small icebergs drifting away from the Antarctic peninsula. It was stunning evidence of the impact of global warming.

But it was evidence that was cast aside as the probing searchlight of the corporate media moved swiftly on from the climate ‘debate’. And the result?

· Silence over corporate lobbying to stave off ‘economically harmful’ emissions cuts.
· Scant attention paid to the short-termism and inadequacy of the Kyoto Protocol – cuts in annual emissions of just 5.2 per cent by developed countries before 2012, with no commitments beyond that.
· Minimal coverage of the pressing need for 60-80 per cent cuts merely to stabilise global temperature rise, according to the authoritative 3000-strong UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
· No mention of the exorbitant public subsidies and tax breaks paid to the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of climate-saving renewable energy enterprises.

But then, why expect the corporate media to report accurately on the machinations of corporate business?

Exxon and Blair

Just two months before the collapse of Larsen B, Exxon chief Lee Raymond had been entertained by Tony Blair in Downing Street. The prime minister’s spokesman sought to deflect criticisms: ‘This was a courtesy call as he was passing through the UK and the company is one of the biggest investors in this country’ (The Independent, 23 January, 2002).

Raymond, dubbed the ‘Darth Vader of global warming’ by Greenpeace UK, is notorious amongst environmentalists. In 1997, Raymond had exhorted Asian industry at the fifteenth World Petroleum Congress in Beijing to exploit new reserves of hydrocarbon and fight emission regulations, while back home in the United States he denounced proposed cuts in American emissions if there were to be no emission controls in the developing world. This is not hypocrisy; merely the usual Machiavellian politics in action.

Mainstream news reports made no mention of Raymond’s murky past. As the corporate media is fond of pointing out when challenged on such omissions, ‘we’re in the business of reporting news, not history’; and ‘we’re here to report facts, not to educate the public’.

Climate Change Levy

Meanwhile, the business pages of the mainstream press can be relied upon to present a business-friendly view of corporate activities. Philip Thornton, economics correspondent of The Independent, recently gave space to the standard corporate argument that government should not see industry as a ‘soft touch’ for generating tax revenues. Thornton reported that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes that Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, should ‘give back £2bn to businesses’ (The Independent, 8 April 2002).

‘Although corporation tax has been reduced’ wrote Thornton, ‘the abolition of advance corporation tax, the cut to dividend tax credits, double tax relief changes, climate change levy, aggregates tax and stamp duty have weighed heavily on business.’ Digby Jones, the director-general of the CBI, warned: ‘The Government must start rolling back these costs or end up paying a high price.’

Thornton omitted to mention in his report that there had been a huge backlash from the CBI against the climate change levy, aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions, when it was announced by Gordon Brown in his Budget of March 1999. Representatives of steel, chemicals, paper, glass, food manufacturing and other energy-intensive industries all complained that the new carbon business tax was not fiscally neutral and would render them ‘uncompetitive’. Following intense corporate lobbying, particularly from the CBI, the government scaled down the climate change levy from £1.7 billion to £1 billion when it was introduced in April 2001. This was despite a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature which estimated that businesses employing 93 per cent of the UK workforce would either be unaffected or would gain from the levy.

Energy Review

In January this year, the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit released its much-anticipated Energy Review. Although the Review recommended a shift towards renewable energy and energy efficiency, it was not quite the Great Leap Forward demanded by the impending climate crisis. ‘It also sends some very worrying signals about potential future support for the nuclear industry’, warned Friends of the Earth.

Michael McCarthy, environment editor of ‘The Independent’, gave the review a significantly different spin, warmly welcoming it as ‘a way forward to a radically different world.’ To McCarthy’s credit, however, he did spell out the link between the feeble commitments made by the developed countries at the climate summit in Kyoto 1997, and the much greater cuts that are required for climate stability: ‘[The Kyoto commitment of] 5 per cent is nothing: it barely scratches the surface of the problem. The only way to stabilise CO2 in the atmosphere, scientists agree, is to implement massive cuts, of 60 per cent or more, and in June 2000 Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution hammered this message home in its own report on climate change: nothing less than 60 per cent cuts, it said, could really address the problem.’ (The Independent, 23 January, 2002).

But the total coverage afforded by The Independent – and the mainstream media at large – to the climate problem is miniscule given the gravity of the threat. Society itself is at risk. ‘The stress caused by climate change’ , warned Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On, ‘is lethal to democratic political processes and individual freedoms’ . You wouldn’t know this from the mostly bland reports on climate change that appear sporadically in the news.

Crucially, the obstructionism of industry, politicians and the mass media itself in the face of climate catastrophe, is virtually taboo in the media. Even the most environmentally-aware reporters and editors working in the most liberal media outlets in Britain are loathe to tackle this sick silence at the heart of society. A case in point was a comment piece by John Vidal, The Guardian’s environment editor, that referred superficially and confusingly to the role of the mass media in minimising and marginalising any climate debate that would seriously challenge the status quo.

‘Shy, bottom-feeding scientists, raptor groups like Greenpeace, genial ruminants like the environment minister, Michael Meacher,’ wrote Vidal, ‘and an army of individuals who had not been heard in the forest of public debate for some time all began to sing again about mankind’s threat to the planet. The “environment”, if only for a few hours, was back in the news.’ (The Guardian, March 22, 2002)

That some, at least, of these charming characters in the ‘forest of public debate’, notably a range of diverse groups campaigning on climate, development and social justice, have never +stopped+ ‘singing’ of the threat of human-induced climate change appears to have escaped Vidal’s attention. The real question is, Why is the media unwilling, indeed unable, to give fair coverage to the critical arguments of such campaigners?

But Vidal lazily assigns abysmal mainstream media coverage on climate, and other vital issues related to the environment and social justice, to ‘September 11 [which] had given the authorities around the world the excuse to bury what until then had been a virulent debate about globalisation, development, corporate influence, pollution, unfair trade, patents, new democracy movements, social justice, human rights, genetics, sustainable agriculture and whatever else comes under the broad heading of “environment”.’

But where was this ‘virulent debate’ before September 11? Somehow we are expected to believe that prior to that awful day, the mass media was essentially a level playing field for news, comment and analysis; that corporate media ownership had no impact on freedom of the press; that corporate advertising did not limit the editorial content of the media; that editors and journalists did not rely heavily on ‘authoritative’ state-corporate sources as ‘reliable’ providers of news and views; that corporate flak directed against ‘errant’ newspapers or broadcasters had no impact on them toeing a business-friendly line; and that the corporate media would carry critiques of corporate globalisation as often as the views of those supporting the current ‘inevitable’ and ‘fair’ system of global economics from which the corporate media has benefited.

In his article, Vidal rightly sees that environmentalists have developed an ‘ever fuller critique of the state of the world and the direction being taken by politicians and those who wield financial power.’ Those who ‘wield financial power’, but unmentioned by Vidal, include corporate media owners who often have ties of ownership or board membership with aerospace, ‘defence’, energy and other industries.

Vidal correctly points out that: ‘[environmentalism] has not made many friends in high places because it is by nature anti-establishment’. But again, he appears oblivious to the notion that because mainstream media are an intrinsic and central element of the establishment, it has a vested interest in ridiculing, marginalising or simply ignoring the serious arguments of environmentalists, especially those who seriously critique the very basis of today’s corporate-driven consumerist society.

Many pressure groups and activists desperately try to attract the attention of environment editors and journalists in the mainstream, and John Vidal, as environment editor of the supposedly liberal Guardian, is perhaps +the+ journalist who is most pressed upon by ardent campaigners, desperate for a scrap of publicity for their cause. But Vidal’s ‘progressive’ credentials have to be in serious doubt when he can write that: ‘the term [environmentalist] may be said fairly to cover everyone now from corporates in Shell and Unilever – who are in their own way trying to clean up their acts – to community activists in Brazil working with the landless.’ This supposed equation of the corporate ‘environmentalist’ with community activist is truly bizarre.

In conclusion, Vidal gamely predicts that on the first anniversary of September 11, ‘environmentalists, whoever they are, will again be sidelined, if not silenced. Then, even if Antarctica melted, it would barely be worth a footnote on the TV.’ But exactly why there already +is+ such a deathly media silence as climate catastrophe takes hold is something that a mainstream commentator is not in a position to tell us.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian. Ask him why the mainstream media, including The Guardian, provide scant and skewed coverage of climate campaigners and the warnings of climate scientists, but vast acres of print and hours of broadcast time every day to the state-corporate propaganda of powerful politicians, investors and industry. Ask him why The Guardian has done so little to reveal the obstructive forces behind a shift to a decentralised economy based on renewable energy and conservation. Why is the undercover work of revealing corporate lobbying left to campaigners, rather than mainstream reporters?

Email: [email protected]

Ask Michael McCarthy, environment editor of The Independent, about his newspaper’s minimal coverage of the likely impacts of climate change, the work of climate campaigners, the lobbying of politicians by big business, and the inadequacy of the Kyoto Protocol. Ask him to report on the exorbitant public subsidies and tax breaks paid to the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of climate-saving renewable energy enterprises. Ask him why his newspaper makes so few links between the concerns of climate campaigners and ‘anti-globalisation’ protesters. (You could also ask why his newspaper, like other mainstream sources, persists in using that pejorative term, rather than say, ‘pro-democracy’ protesters.)

Email: [email protected]