The Climate Change ‘Debate’ – Part 2

“ExxonMobil is the world’s most profitable corporation. Its sales now amount to more than $1bn a day. It makes most of this money from oil, and has more to lose than any other company from efforts to tackle climate change. To safeguard its profits, ExxonMobil needs to sow doubt about whether serious action needs to be taken on climate change. But there are difficulties: it must confront a scientific consensus as strong as that which maintains that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV causes Aids. So what’s its strategy?” [George Monbiot, The denial industry, The Guardian, 19 September 2006]

In Part 1 of this MediaShot we discussed how the media can often skew debate in their search for a balancing argument or ‘the other side of the story’, specifically in the case of climate change. Ken O’Shea, RTE Editor of Current Affairs defended RTE’s decision to challenge the scientific consensus on the basis that ‘dissenting voices…feed and inform the debate’, allowing ‘people to make up their own minds’.

While there is some truth to this, presenting a ‘daring challenge to the consensus’ on a respected current affairs programme has the potential to undermine current pressure to tackle climate change and justify inaction.

We responded:

Ken,

Thanks for taking the time to respond, it’s much appreciated.

At no point was the documentary ‘Not Evil Just Wrong’ described as controversial, in fact the introduction to the programme claimed the documentary makers had ‘dared’ to challenge ‘these kind of scares’, framing them as courageous mavericks tackling a ‘scare’*.

Assuming though that the intention was to paint Mr. McAleer’s stance as controversial, the expectation of an informed debate on global warming was not forthcoming, at least on one side. Mr. McAleer was actually unwilling to discuss global warming at all. When asked by Dr. Hickey to focus on the issue Mr. McAleer replied “Let’s not talk about climate change” and this was his position throughout the programme, where he discussed everything from BSE and DDT to former US Vice President Al Gore.

When he did refer to climate change he did so only in dismissive terms, such as ‘global warming hysteria’ and ‘flawed science’. At no point did he challenge the science. And since the documentary has not been released, viewers are none the wiser as to whether there’s any actual evidence in the documentary.

The underlying purpose of Mr. McAleer’s appearance was to demonise and ridicule ‘anti-development’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ environmentalists, who see ‘poverty as a lifestyle choice’ – a platform he has been offered by RTE on several occasions, when he has a film to promote. On the eve of the release of his last documentary ‘Mine Your Own Business’ RTE spliced clips of his film with footage of the Corrib protests. So it would seem that to some extent at least RTE and Mr. McAleer have similar positions.

My complaint is not that there shouldn’t be debate over the science of global warming if there is a serious debate to be had, and which I don’t believe there currently is, but that there is little value in the spectacle of a scientist forced to defend the environmental movement against charges of wanting to keep the poor poor – other than to cause confusion and sow doubt over the issue.

The implementation of ‘balance’ in this instance, required that climate ‘sceptics’ be consulted on issues they have demonstrated no authority on, and even when they are quite obviously compromised by financial links to the carbon industry.

I appreciate the fact you brought George Monbiot over by ferry, but to watch this programme on RTE.ie viewers have to watch an advertisement for the Opel Insignia, repeatedly, depending on the quality of your connection, so perhaps there’s somewhat of a contradiction in RTE’s environmental policy.

Best wishes,

David Manning

And Ken then closed the feedback loop:

I don’t agree with all your points there David (and I’m not responsible for the ads on the website) but I’ll take your views on board. Remember though, Prime Time is a forum for topical debate and different ideas. I think any reasonable person watching that item would be well able to make their own mind out about the merits of the arguments being put forward. And we will always retain the option of bringing the odd contrarian on, to keep things interesting.

Regards,

Ken O’Shea

While this may not answer all our questions we greatly appreciate RTE’s honest attempt to engage with viewers. Institutions such as the Irish Times and the Irish Independent have no such relationship with their readers. While they often print critical letters in the back pages, they are entirely unwilling to have their own reporting held to account.

Another Agenda?

This Prime Time debate obviously had little to do with climate change. It did however allow thinly disguised space for another debate. This debate centres on the intentions and motivations of the ‘environmental movement’.

 

As in 2006, when RTE invited Mr. McAleer to promote his documentary supporting the exploitation of mining resources in northern Romania (and funded by the mining company positioned to exploit those resources) the agenda was one of demonising environmentalists. Mr. McAleer’s claim that he is a ‘reformed’ environmentalist makes his scepticism all the more intriguing for a media obsessed with ‘balance’.

American political scientist Norman Finkelstein commented on this phenomenon of the apostate, or ideological turncoat:

“Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated, apostates almost always make their corrective leap in that direction, discovering the virtues of the status quo…If apostasy weren’t conditioned by power considerations, one would anticipate roughly equal movements in both directions.  But that’s never been the case.  The would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power’s magnetic field, rarely away.” [On Christopher Hitchens, The Rise and Fall of Palestine]

And so it is exactly the case with Phelim McAleer. He is now consulted as an authority precisely because he has turned his back on a position unpopular with industry, to one where industry finances his projects.

This corrective leap towards the considerations of power is deemed by the mainstream media as a virtue – though it’s “hard to figure why an acknowledgment of former errors should enhance one’s current credibility.” Apostates are nonetheless highly regarded when they revert from positions unpopular with the mainstream to ones that defend the status quo.

Environmentalism, the new religion

“Is it just selfishness on the part of a few people?” [Miriam O’Callahan, Prime Time, 5th October 2006]

In October 2006 RTE Prime Time presenter Miriam O’Callahan asked this question of Dr. Mark Garavan, the Shell to Sea campaign spokesperson, referring to their six year protest against Shell’s planned construction of an onshore high pressure gas pipeline in the north west of Ireland.

In November 2006 a Prime Time segment titled ‘Environmentalism in Irish Life’ reported on Phelim McAleer’s recently released documentary ‘Mine Your Own Business’ (the film was also reviewed by the Irish Times and very favourably so by the Irish independent).

The film claimed to expose what it called the ‘dark side of environmentalism’ and the ‘campaigns that want to keep people in poverty’. The RTE report appeared to uncritically accept the thesis, implying that the Shell to Sea campaign provided an ‘echo of the film’s theme’. Prime Time correspondent Donagh Diamond suggested that in their Celtic Tiger affluence campaigners have failed to realize the benefits of the project to others and “don’t require anything as basic as jobs.” [Donagh Diamond, Prime Time 2 November 2006]

In the following studio discussion Phelim McAleer referred to the ‘new religion of environmentalism’ and to co-panellist and current Minister for Communications, Energy & Natural Resources Eamon Ryan (at the time an objector to Shell’s gas project) as its new ‘high priest’.

He said environmentalists are ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-jobs’, they would ‘ban the car’ and ‘they are killing children by opposing development’. Fundamentally he charged: ‘they don’t want humanity to advance’.

Presenter Mark Little attempted to make the argument locally relevant, suggesting that the Corrib gas campaigners ignore the “energy needs of the country,” thereby reinforcing the frame that environmentalists are not concerned about the needs of people.

Now two years later RTE and the Irish Times are promoting Phelim McAleer’s latest documentary, in which he again refers disparagingly to what he calls ‘neo-colonialist’ environmental campaigners:

“Who anointed free earth, save the earth, global warming crowd, anti-DDT crowd, that the blacks and other third world people suffer with malaria and mosquitoes and so we can save birds, I can’t believe Al Gore has greater regard for people, real people.” [Quoted interviewee, Not Evil Just Wrong, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

“There is a lot of anti-capitalism, anti-development people behind this global warming hysteria, they don’t like industrialisation, they don’t like capitalism, they don’t like people of the third world getting developed.” [Phelim McAleer, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

And again Miriam O’Callaghan plays devils advocate:

“There is a perception that environmentalists care more about fish eggs than children and the lives of children. That doesn’t mean the science is wrong.” [Miriam O’Callaghan, Prime Time, 25th November 2008]

It is hard to imagine an RTE presenter commenting to a representative of the oil industry: “There is a perception that Big Oil cares more about crude than children and the lives of children”, even though it would be much closer to the truth.

The ‘other side of the story’

Whether it is climate change, nuclear proliferation or the case for war, the fundamental flaw in the implementation of ‘balance’ is that where the consensus fails to support the dominant power structure, the mainstream media often search for some mitigating argument or point of view, however unconvincing.

So accusations of nuclear proliferation are resurrected to balance statements of compliance by international authorities, allegations of clandestine warfare are echoed uncritically to balance military reports that weapons are not linked to enemy states and industry funded experts are consulted to balance evidence that urgent action is needed to stop the earth dangerously warming.

Whether this is a susceptibility to the PR tactics of government and big business or simply an alignment of common interests is difficult to say. But one thing is not in doubt; this ‘traditional pillar of good journalism’ supports the already disproportionate balance of power and does a disservice to readers expecting reporting that is fair, impartial, accurate and challenging.”

Suggested Action

Please open the debate with journalists and editors on these issues:

Complaints complaints@rte.ie

Letters to the Editor, Irish Times lettersed@irish-times.ie

MediaBite supports an open and constructive debate with the media and individual journalists, please ensure all correspondence is polite. Please copy all emails to editors@mediabite.org.

 

 

 

* The term ‘scare’ was actually introduced by Mr. McAleer. The RTE introduction was: “dared to challenge the consensus.”

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