‘Balancing’ the Climate Consensus – Part 2

An interview with John Gibbons, formerly of the Irish Times

In Part 1 of this interview John Gibbons identified his personal ‘turning point’ on the subject of  climate change. He went on to describe the resistance he came up against in the Irish media when he attempted to bring that information to a wider audience, even 20 years after the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report.

In this second part of the interview we ask whether the mainstream media is in some way limited by certain structural factors, such as financial considerations, in turn compromising its ability to provide an accurate picture of the world, one that is not shaped in a large part by strong corporate and political interests.

(JG – John Gibbons, MB – MediaBite, David Manning)

MB: In your last piece [for the Irish Times] you referenced the University of Cardiff School of Journalism’s study on climate change reporting. The last study they conducted that gained a certain amount of attention was on the Iraq War, where they found that the media – particularly the BBC – had toed the government line. You also criticised the entirety of Irish media, have you had a reaction?

JG: Very little, I think they are just glad he’s gone away. A newspaper like the Irish Times prides itself, and rightly so, as being liberal, but in this sense liberal means letting the people in the fringes have a go and the difficulty was that I was mainstreaming, non-mainstream thought. And this ultimately was the undoing of the column. I was like a movie without a happy ending. I wasn’t saying ‘we have faced these challenges and now everything will be fine’. I was refusing to engage in the ‘final act’ – four acts for a tragedy, five for comedy. I didn’t finish by saying: “If we all put our rubbish in the right coloured bins we are going to be fine.” I was simply calling it as I saw it, we are approaching a cliff and to deal with that we have to first accept it, something I repeated week in and week out.

Every Cassandra suffers the same fate, you are cursed because no one will believe you and by the time they do, it won’t matter. That’s my chief learning after this, nobody is listening, nobody wants to listen and nothing will change.

MB: What you were writing in the Times was always going to be presented in a way that made it appear slightly strange, as the paper generally provides an economic analysis that promotes ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ above all else. There’s little doubt for instance, that if the banks suddenly started lending tomorrow we wouldn’t all be building property portfolios again. I’m not sure whether this goes beyond the obvious commercial restraints, whether it is an inability of the media to look forward, restricted in the sense that it can only comment on what has already happened. Are there voices in the media that have this forward looking perspective?

JG: I think there are people that understand these issues; it would be hard to believe there wouldn’t be. But I was in the unusual position in that I am financially independent. Many journalists don’t have that luxury. So I was only prepared to write it one way, I wasn’t amenable to write it some other way. I wasn’t that interested in how it would go down because the purpose of the column wasn’t to perpetuate itself.

If that was your objective you could play it a lot smarter. You could write a lot more feel-good, branch away from the unpleasant stuff and write about the 30 kph bike zone in Dublin city centre, which is a good news story, something most of us can agree on.

Environmentalism can after-all be reduced to cleaning up things, but who wants to have the cleanest berth on the Titanic? If you are not looking at this issue system wide, it doesn’t matter. I’ve really lost interest in the minutiae of environmental gestures because I’ve realised it simply doesn’t matter. I wanted to share the information with people that would spur them to act.

MB: Going back the problem of scientific succinctness, is there an argument that scientists that are not able to play the media game shouldn’t go on television at all? An encounter I remember is between the maker of industry funded anti-environmentalism documentaries ‘Mine Your Own Business’ and ‘Not Evil, Just Wrong’, Phelim MacAleer, who was put up against Dr. Kieran Hickey, a geographer and climate change expert, where MacAleer nearly ‘won’ the debate using a mixture of theatrics and false assertions. How is it that scientists go on air without a proper understanding of the way the media works, the time restraints, the type of language needed etc?

JG: It’s because they are scientists not media people. MacAleer on the other hand is a hack going back many years with the Sunday Times and so on and he is clever with sound bites. I heard him on the radio recently and he claimed to have read several times the IPCC’s fourth report, which runs to nearly 3,000 pages.

Now, the reality is that the Chief authors of the report would tell you they haven’t read the whole thing, because they couldn’t. They read their sections. Yet he went on the radio repeating this fabrication several times over and then proceeded to attack an actual scientist who admitted he had only read sections of it, which he then held up as some sort of vindication of his position.

It was a brilliant move, completely untrue, but un-provable, because the arbitrator in this debate, our friend Pat Kenny, was never going to do what I would have done which would have been to challenge MacAleer to discuss the specifics of the report he had claimed to have read several times over.

But I don’t believe that if you put scientists on media training courses it would be beneficial.  They might do a bit better but that’s not their field of expertise. They are involved in the language of equivocation and the business of uncertainty.

MB: They can’t separate the two mindsets?

JG: They can’t suddenly go from dealing with scientific uncertainty in the laboratory to going on the radio acting like a soap salesman. That’s not how science works, they don’t make absolute statements. Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’ is a brilliant expose of this gulf between how science works and the caricature of science that is in the media.

What the likes of the Daily Mail does is play with the caricature of the nutty professor, the notion that science is somehow capricious, arbitrary and constantly changing its mind. Science works in exactly the opposite direction.

Consensus building is layering of knowledge, gradual, painful elimination of error and moving ever closer to a better version of reality – a less false version. Human reasoning often works in exactly the opposite direction; we depend on anecdotal reasoning, heuristics etc.

Pat Kenny for instance, starts with a conclusion and then marshals information supportive of that conclusion, before arguing it. Science argues in exactly the opposite direction. The purpose of science is to dismantle favourite pet theories and not to work towards conclusion, but to see where facts take us.

I don’t think science is compatible with the media, media doesn’t work that way, it always has an agenda, always has a conclusion. The attention span of the media has also been lost.  In October 2007 the IPCC published it’s fourth assessment report and there was a huge spike in serious media coverage and even newspapers like the Sunday Times fell into line but what happened? Nothing, the sky hasn’t fallen in. And the people who stayed with that story, tried to explain it, we are becoming the Chicken Lickens. We are now being parodied: “Oh that lot, they promised us the sun was going to crash into the earth and look, we’ve just had the coldest winter ever.”

I think there is strong feeling in the media that they’ve been had about climate change. The Climategate errors and smear campaign over the stolen emails has fed into a predisposition that is sceptical in the genuine sense of the word and they are thinking ‘we’ve been had’. This weather has unhinged a lot of otherwise sensible people – it’s freezing, and it’s been freezing for 6 weeks. Yet I read only recently that globally we’ve just had the hottest January that has ever been recorded. The Daily Express this morning has a front page joke headline which says ‘Don’t laugh but hottest January ever!’ with an accompanying picture of someone in two feet of snow. So there’s the difference between what we can see with our eyes, which the media are good at reporting and slow moving threats, which they are extremely bad at.

MB: How do those papers, which consider themselves the intelligent, thoughtful media, explain the fact that over the last 20 years they haven’t provided their readers with the knowledge and insight to understand that this Climategate scandal is just a blip on an otherwise consensus issue?

JG: I’m not sure they would see it that way. They’ll tell you their job is to report the news and that it is not their job to campaign.

MB: Is it necessarily ‘campaigning’? It’s a reality, a scientific certainty. There is no campaign about gravity after all. It seems to me anyway that the fact we are still forced to debate this issue is evidence of a complete failure on the part of the media.

JG: I would even say we are going backwards, we are regressing. I’ve been very close to it for quite some time and the level of scepticism and cynicism among colleagues in the media and even friends has heightened enormously. But I genuinely think there was a fatigue.  You’ve heard of charity fatigue, well we have a climate fatigue here where we have been warned about something apocalyptic. It hasn’t happened, then something comes along, a.k.a. this weather, which triggers that anecdotal part of your brain which says ‘this isn’t right’, combined with some wishful thinking and mushed together by a media that is loving this. Suddenly you have instant scepticism everywhere. It’s an extraordinary inversion.

MB: I agree, but there are some elements that don’t fit. For instance, when hurricane Katrina happened and other recent catastrophes, those people who rightly or wrongly tied those events to instability or unpredictability due to climate change were rubbished as well. So what appears as anecdotal evidence is entertained in one instance and disregarded in another.

JG: So you’re going back to your paradigm, where it depends on which end of the telescope you are looking through. I entirely concur that there is a structural problem here, if you look at media ownership in Ireland for instance. On that score the Irish Times is far and away the closest thing we have to an independent, with a lower case ‘i’, newspaper in the country.

Yet it falls within a paradigm, which has worked well for a lot of people, for a good many years. But it’s a jelly mould that has become redundant in a situation like this. With this issue you are taking them to places they don’t want to go.

Most broadcasters and newspapers are businesses, they are profit driven, advertiser centric. In my own case, while it was never explicitly put to me this way, clearly I was scaring the horses. Because I’m suggesting, for example that consumption and increased levels of consumption are counter productive and dangerous, that’s a red hot poker to your advertisers.

MB: Even if you take out the motoring, holiday and property supplements, the paper is there to sell a certain lifestyle that is often defined by consumption.

JG: I recently wrote an article about the Tobin Tax. What spurred it on was that they had an entire supplement in the newspaper devoted to spread-betting. They wouldn’t have a supplement in the newspaper about how to let your house out to drug dealers but as a moral equivalent it is there and thereabouts.

Barely 2 years after the crash of 2008 and we are back running supplements on spread-betting, a practice which is essentially derivatives on speed. This is being presented in the same font as the main newspaper; it is therefore presented as news. There is no doubt that advertisers have driven this need.

MB: There’s plenty of contradictions, for instance there is one in the Irish Times today – a whole supplement on ‘outsourcing’. So in the main paper they have reports on further job losses and in the supplements they are advising on how to make use of cheap labour abroad.

One thing we haven’t spoken about is lobbying in Ireland, does it exist and how effective is it?

JG: In terms of environmental lobbying?

MB: Corporate lobbying in America seems to be quite straightforward. The lobbyist arrives on MSNBC, they don’t declare their interests and then they proceed to declare the need to increase the military budget or whatever policy that might benefit the interests they represent. Does anything similar to that exist in Ireland?

JG: It’s much more subtle. I don’t see that type of lobbying playing a major part, most of the censorship is internal, it’s rarely externalised like that. In a lot of cases you are pushing against open doors anyway. You are dealing with people of a similar mindset, who are concerned only with getting ‘growth’ going again. If you were to remove that term from the English language you would render most politicians and media personalities dumb, it is like a mantra.

MB: Is that an indictment of Irish journalism?

JG: Absolutely, Irish journalism is like a chicken without a head sometimes. They are running around gathering things without actually sitting down and asking: “What are we building here?” For intelligent people to unquestioningly buy into a system that will kill us – not may or could, but will – in the lifetime of our own children.

We are getting closer to the truth here I feel, it’s a form of nihilism – where people know the game is up, they then trash the place. It’s something akin to prisoners burning down their own prison wing.

I do believe that way down in our primordial brain people have a sense that their goose is nearly cooked and I think it is accelerating some of the negative behaviour. Like the blue finned tuna, as it moves towards extinction the market responds. How does it respond? The price of blue finned tuna goes up, thus hastening its extinction.

MB: One of the first questions I had after reading your last column and what spurred me to ask you to do this interview was that while you were openly very critical of the media you don’t make any challenge. Do you think that there is no one out there ready to really tackle this issue?

JG: I certainly wanted to give a parting a shot, a kick in the arse to the media. To say we are doing a terrible job, this is the biggest story in the world and we are missing it, getting it wrong. I thought I got that across. To me it sounds corny to say ladies and gents pick up your cudgels and fight. I thought it was self evident that anyone reading this would realise we could and should do better, so I didn’t go any further, that wouldn’t be my style.

MB: Well the Irish Times has one less defence against their reporting of climate issues, they can no longer point towards your column. That makes our job easier at any rate.

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