Changing the Media to Beat Climate Change
by Ian Sinclair
27 September 2018
A common, dispiriting problem activists often face is the difficulty in discerning any direct effects of all their hard work.
This does not apply to Dr Rupert Read’s latest action on climate change.
On 1 August Read, Chair of the Green House thinktank and a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, tweeted that he decided to turn down an invitation from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to debate with a climate change denier. “When the call came through, my initial instinct was to say ‘Yes’, just because it is a media opportunity”, he tells me. “But before the word ‘Yes’ left my mouth, something deep inside me made me hesitate – and say ‘No’. I couldn’t stomach it any more. I couldn’t see how, in the midst of a summer of climate chaos, it made any sense to be debating whether this was really happening.”
The next day Read published an online piece with the Guardian – retweeted by the former Head of BBC News Richard Sambrook – arguing that by giving climate change deniers “a full position, producers make their position seem infinitely more reasonable than it is” even though “the scientific debate is as settled as the ‘debate’ about whether smoking causes cancer.”
“I will no longer be part of such a charade”, he pledged, calling on others to refuse to debate with climate change deniers.
This wish became a reality on 27 August, when an open letter organised by Read was published in the Guardian pledging exactly this. Importantly, it was signed by the great and the good of the green world, including Jonathan Porritt, Greenpeace’s John Sauven, Caroline Lucas MP and George Monbiot, along with Morning Star editor Ben Chacko.
Then, amazingly, on 6 September, Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, sent a briefing note to BBC journalists on climate change, including the corporation’s editorial policy.
“Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often”, it reads.
Under the heading What Is The BBC’s Position? the note explains “Man-made climate change exists: If the science proves it we should report it”, before asking journalists to be aware of “false balance”.
“To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.”
The note does say there may be occasions where “contrarians and sceptics” could be included in debates, though the example given is “debating the speed and intensity of what will happen in the future, or what policies government should adopt”, rather than whether climate change is happening at all. Promisingly, it says the BBC should highlight which organisation a speaker represents and “potentially how that group is funded” – something climate activists have long pushed for.
CarbonBrief news website, who published the internal memo, noted “this is the first time the BBC has issued formal reporting guidance to its staff on this topic.”
“I think that this memo is a game-changer”, comments Read. “The BBC is a ‘world-leading’ media organisation, and it has been dragging its feet on this for so many years. Now, perhaps, no longer. I am hoping that what we have done on this will ‘go international’; and in the meantime I am looking at seeking to ensure that other UK broadcasters follow or indeed exceed the BBC’s lead here.”
“What broadcasters need to do now is to have the right kinds debates about climate”, he adds. “Who wants a carbon tax, and why? What are the possible downsides of geoengineering technologies? etc. We need to put pressure on them to do this, right.”
However, a note of caution needs to be added to the huge victory it looks like Read triggered with his actions.
As Justin Lewis, Professor of Communication in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University, has noted, the erroneous presentation of climate change as a debate is just one problem with the media’s coverage of the topic.
For example, as well as providing news, the media is an important vehicle for advertising, with the corporate press in the UK relying on advertising for more than half of its income.
This pervasive advertising promotes “the pleasures of consumerism” and helps create “a set of cultural conditions that make us less inclined to deal with climate change”, according to Lewis and his co-author Tammy Boyce in their 2009 book Climate Change and the Media. “Advertisements may be individually innocent” but “collectively they are the propaganda wing of a consumerist ideology… our current growth in consumption is unsustainable”, Lewis argued in a 2011 Open Democracy article.
The Guardian, seen by many greens as the newspaper that best reflects the environmental movement, is not immune to this humanity-endangering ideology, with a December 2012 editorial preposterously titled Shopping: Your Patriotic Duty.
Another connected problem with the news media when it comes to climate change is its reckless reporting of economic growth, the engine that is driving up carbon emissions.
For her new book Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis, the academic Laura Basu studied 1,113 news and comment items from the BBC News at Ten, Guardian, Telegraph, Sun and Mirror between 2007 and 2015. She found just one of the 1,113 pieces challenged the assumption that economic growth was a good thing – a 2008 Guardian op-ed written by Monbiot.
In thinking about the media and climate change, Boyce and Lewis “insist that a media and telecommunications industry fuelled by advertising and profit maximisation is, at the moment, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
If correct, this analysis creates additional obstacles to the central argument made by Naomi Klein in here 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate – that stopping climate change will require mass social movements successfully “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”.
Because if Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has taught us anything it is that the British media is overwhelmingly hostile to significant change that takes power away from the corporate-backed British elite, mass grassroots movements and any attempt to increase democracy within the Labour Party itself.
And though it may seem unconnected, the BBC’s pro-establishment coverage of the 2008 financial crisis highlights just how wedded the media is to the current economic system. There was, for a brief historical moment, a chance for fresh thinking and policies following the crash. Instead, in a 2012 study Cardiff University’s Mike Berry found in the weeks after the banking collapse the debate on the BBC Today Programme “was almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage.”
“The evidence from the research is clear”, Berry notes. “The BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative… pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda.”
Being positive, Read’s actions pushing the BBC to cover climate change in a more serious and helpful way shows that significant changes can be made. However, successfully challenging the media’s reliance on advertising, its assumption that economic growth is positive and its de facto support of the neoliberal status quo – all of which will needs to happen if we are to stand a chance of stopping climate change – is a substantially larger, far more difficult task.
Furthermore, time is very short. “Climate change is moving faster than we are”, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, recently warned. Discussing the 2015 Paris climate agreement, he noted “these targets were the bare minimum to avoid the worst aspects of climate change.” However, “scientists tell us that we are far off track”.
“Nothing less than our future and the fate of humankind depends on how we rise to the climate challenge.”