By David Cromwell
When a senior UN climate official warns that the world is ‘heading for a heart attack’ (The Times, September 23, 2013), there is clearly no time to lose in taking the radical action necessary to avert disaster. But we also have to understand why it is that no matter how many scientific warnings and ‘wake up calls’ are issued, we are still headed for climate chaos.
The standard liberal view is that climate sceptics have a heavy burden of responsibility for boosting climate confusion and derailing any rational attempts to constrain business as usual. If only the media would stop giving them so much attention, a healthy public debate could take place, followed by real action to combat rapid climate change. Thus, in the Observer last Sunday, economist Will Hutton warned that:
‘Sceptics will rubbish a new report on climate change, dismissing calls for governmental action. Don’t be swayed.’
The forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will:
‘be met by a barrage of criticism from the new “sceptical” environmental movement – almost entirely on the political right.’
‘Don’t be bamboozled’, he continued, ‘as Britain’s centre-right media move to join with the sceptics to rubbish a careful body of scientific work that has been arrived at by exhaustive cross-examination.’
Hutton rightly called for ‘collective action’ to ‘minimise the risk’ of the ‘terrifying’ effects of climate change, and he criticised the ‘highly ideological rightwing mind [which] does not think in this way.’ For those clinging to that ‘faith system’, climate change is ‘necessarily a gigantic scam, backdoor socialism’ and the IPCC itself is ‘the product of Marxists and deluded socialists.’ Clearly, such a mindset is not based on reality.
Hutton then turned to the BBC in his list of targets:
‘BBC attempts to broadcast [the IPCC’s] findings in as impartial way as possible will be portrayed as yet more evidence of BBC bias, even though the BBC will pack its coverage with lots of sceptical voices, notwithstanding their marginalisation by world science, to try to cover its back. By the week’s end, the risk is you will be less certain than you are now, tempted to join the apparent new consensus that there is no need for an urgent response. The sceptics will have done their job and national – let alone international – action will be more remote.’
No doubt Hutton’s piece came across to many as a powerful, valiant plea for enlightened rationalism. And he made several good points, as indicated. But, in reality, it was yet another example of the hobbled analysis on climate change routinely offered up by the Guardian-Observer flagship of liberal journalism.
Consider Hutton’s remark in his article about ‘the astonishing political economy of Britain’s media.’ As Hutton naively sees it, ‘the duty of newspapers [is] to impart information as objectively and truthfully as possible, keeping comment rigorously separate.’ This noble aim, based on the false notion of a ‘firewall’ between news and comment has, he claims, ‘been progressively dropped’, making it sound like a discarded fashion accessory. In Hutton’s seriously restricted perspective, the ‘duty of newspapers’ is supposedly independent of the extreme concentration of profit-seeking media ownership, heavy subsidies in the form of advertising revenue, and a lapdog reliance on the endless musings and mutterings of government and business leaders (see here). But for Hutton these fundamental features of the corporate media pass without mention. Instead, he steers clear of any structural analysis of ‘the astonishing political economy of Britain’s media’ and instead goes for the usual easy targets:
‘Right-of-centre newspapers are now edited ruthlessly to make their readers think what their editors and proprietors want – on immigration, welfare, Europe, tax, political affiliation or whatever. Climate change has joined the list.’
And so Hutton has nothing to say about his own paper which, like the rest of the corporate press, is dependent on advertising revenue for around 60 per cent of its income. Nor does he have anything to say about how embedded his employers are in a corporate-financial-establishment network with links to banking, industry, fossil fuels and big business. As ever, even the best ‘liberal journalism’ routinely ignores what we have called the ‘Eight Corporate Media Unmentionables’. Here are just three of them:
The inherently biocidal, indeed psychopathic, logic of corporate capitalism, structurally locked into generating maximised revenues in minimum time at minimum corporate cost.
The proven track record of big business in promoting catastrophic consumption regardless of the consequences for human and environmental health.
The lethal role of the corporate media in promoting the planet-devouring aims of private power.
All of these factors are essentially excluded from the media agenda, thus extinguishing any hopes for a fully rational discussion of climate chaos and how to avoid it.
Don’t Mention The Media!
Veteran environment journalist Geoffrey Lean similarly dodged the real media issues in a blog piece on the Daily Telegraph website. At first sight, Lean said, the climate sceptics have ‘been winning the battle for public opinion’. He referred to a recent survey showing that ‘the proportion of Britons who believe the world’s climate is not changing has increased almost fourfold since 2005 from four to 19 per cent, and almost doubled in the last year.’ However, as Lean rightly pointed out, the overwhelming majority of the population has nevertheless consistently rejected the misleading, anti-scientific propaganda from the sceptic lobby.
Although this lobby is small, they are very well-funded – typically by cynical business interests – and they continue to mobilise ‘far more effectively than their opponents’. As a prime example of this, Lean refers to a small number of errors in the thousands of pages of earlier IPCC work which were:
‘brilliantly exploited by the sceptics and massively mishandled by the scientists, causing an erosion in the IPCC’s authority among the public and the press alike.’
‘Ever since the scientific community has come off worse in the public debate, often undermined by its tendency to focus on uncertainties, while the sceptics betrayed no doubt.’
So scientists have let themselves down, in Lean’s eyes. What about the green pressure groups?
‘There is less excuse for the environmental groups, whose very purpose is to make a case to the public, press and policymakers, and thus bring about change. But they too largely quit the field when the controversy began. Friends of the Earth, for example, declined to enter the lists on behalf of the scientists at the University of East Anglia whose emails were leaked in November 2009 – and in some cases skilfully misrepresented by the sceptics – because they had not yet held a meeting to discuss it. They finally held their meeting, and issued a statement, months after the event. The inconvenient truth is that all too often the pressure groups, dependent on popular support for funds, are shamefully reluctant to battle a head wind.’
Media Lens, too, has pointed out the sorry state of environmentalism today (see here, here and here), particularly among the big pressure groups upon which so many green hopes were once placed. Where we differ in our diagnosis from Lean, however, is that the biggest ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the major green groups have become ever more neutered, compromised and even aligned with ‘mainstream’ political ‘debate’. Given the public’s deep discontent with the majority of politicians and the media, the smart thing for environment groups to do would be to be boldly challenge the existing power and class structure that is pursuing its own selfish ends at the expense of the planet and most of humanity. That means exposing the very corporate nature of society that is crushing us; not appealing to big business to be a little bit less lethal.
When Lean was environment editor at the Independent on Sunday, a reader challenged him to look at the global economic system of capitalism as a root cause of climate instability. Lean wasn’t having any of it:
‘Why don’t you really read what we have been writing over the years rather than relying on media lens?’ (email, February 18, 2005)
In other words, don’t even bother raising the issue! And certainly don’t consider the possibility that a corporate media might be promoting inaction in response to a problem caused by corporate interests.
In his blog piece, Lean pointed to the solid public support in favour of climate science and renewable energy, concluding feebly:
‘All, of which perhaps goes to show that the public are less swayed by media and political fashion than those of us working in those fields like to believe. To be honest, I find that reassuring. But I guess I would, wouldn’t I?’
At least the veteran journalist recognises his own lack of concern, verging on smugness, that the public should not be concerned by the corporate media and ‘political fashion’. All this from one of the best environment journalists in the country.
‘The Primary Loyalty Is To Corporate Backers’
Paul Vallely, a former colleague of Lean’s, wrote along similar lines in a piece for the Independent on Sunday titled, ‘Whatever happened to climate change?’ The two key reasons for the public remaining supposedly unconvinced of the need for radical action are ‘the complexity of the science and the simplistic nature of much media reporting, some of which is wilfully ignorant.’ Those factors are relevant, but Vallely’s attempt at an explanation avoids essential facts about power in society. Sadly, this visiting professor in public ethics and media at the University of Chester is yet another example of a liberal commentator who appears ignorant of the propaganda nature and function of the corporate media. Again, the easy targets were selected:
‘So the public is swayed by media agendas. Rupert Murdoch, a man who believes what he reads in his own newspapers, from the Wall St Journal to The Australian, has been tweeting against climate change and in favour of fracking. Small wonder that Australia’s new prime minister, Tony Abbott, who once dismissed evidence of climate change as “absolute crap”, has on Day Two of his premiership, disbanded a key climate change agency.’
The agency has since been resurrected thanks to enormous public support in Australia, horrified at Abbot’s actions. Murdoch and his News International empire do indeed represent a disaster for fair and balanced news, as the liberal press have no trouble pointing out. But looking closer to home is simply taboo.
Vallely then continues with some critical comments of the BBC, albeit limited to what should be obvious:
‘Meanwhile here BBC news outlets – normally a voice of sanity on science – are paralysed by their adversarial paradigm of giving “equal space” to both sides. Faced with the prospect of having to give climate change deniers the same airtime as the 97 per cent scientific consensus the BBC has largely descended into silence on the issue. The BBC has a bigger responsibility than balance here.’
No hint here from Vallely that the BBC is cosily nestled within the establishment, routinely broadcasting news that is heavily biased towards protecting western state and corporate interests. Moreover, despite Vallely’s professed public ethics and media credentials, there is apparently no problem with the oligarch-owned Independent newspapers, part of a much larger business and financial empire that includes banking, fossil fuel and ‘defence’ interests.
‘We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another. We know that however cool a media outlet may purport to be, their primary loyalty is to their corporate backers. We know also that you cannot criticise the corporate backers openly without censorship and subsequent manipulation of this information.’
Yes, this wonderfully astute article did appear in the Guardian. But, once again, the Guardian itself was seemingly exempt from open criticism. This might not matter much except that when it happens over and over again, across even the ‘best’ media, then the narrow confines of ‘the climate debate’ are further skewed away from what needs to be understood, and what needs to be done. The consequences for human society and planetary ecosystems in an era of impending climate chaos are awesome indeed.