Global Warming, Propaganda-Journalism And The Definition Of Insanity
By David Cromwell
The systematic propaganda of the corporate media – its deep-rooted antipathy towards upholding proper journalistic standards in the public interest – extends to its coverage of human-induced climate change. The Independent recently delivered a masterpiece of headline obfuscation with: ‘World cools on global warming as green fatigue sets in.’
The news report said:
‘Only 49 per cent of people now consider climate change a very serious issue – far fewer than at the beginning of the worldwide financial crisis in 2009.’
As usual, there was no mention of the role of the corporate media as a leading cause of why ‘green fatigue’ has supposedly set in. No mention of the media’s shameful failure to explore root causes of the climate crisis, not least the elite-serving corporate globalisation that has taken humanity to the brink of disaster. Chris Shaw, a social sciences researcher at the University of Sussex, noted on Twitter that nor was there ‘any mention of the work of the merchants of doubt, paid for and acting on the behalf of corporate interests’.
Ironically, science writer Joe Romm of the indispensable Climate Progress blog had exposed the myth of ‘green fatigue’ in a piece a few days earlier:
‘The two greatest myths about global warming communications are 1) constant repetition of doomsday messages has been a major, ongoing strategy and 2) that strategy doesn’t work and indeed is actually counterproductive!’
Romm’s powerful rebuttal noted that ‘blunt, science-based messaging that also makes clear the problem is solvable’ has a demonstrable effect in stimulating public concern about climate. His piece listed 8 key points about the mostly poor standard of climate coverage in the media, as well as the incessant pro-business propaganda to which the US public is subjected (likewise in the UK and other ‘developed’ countries). Some of Romm’s key points are:
• ‘There is not one single TV show on any network devoted to this subject [climate change], which is, arguably, more consequential than any other preventable issue we face.’
• ‘The public is exposed to constant messages promoting business as usual and indeed idolizing conspicuous consumption…’
• ‘The major energy companies bombard the airwaves with millions and millions of dollars of repetitious pro-fossil-fuel ads. The environmentalists spend far, far less money.’
Not only is the so-called ‘mainstream’ media uninterested in addressing the climate catastrophe looming right in front of us, it is simply not equipped to do so. This is obvious when one recalls that the media isn’t actually ‘mainstream’, if by that word we mean representing majority public interests. It’s corporate media: owned and operated by elite interests – government, financial, business – that are structurally driven by the ‘need’ for control, profit and accumulation.
Civilisation On The Cusp Of Disaster
A study published earlier this month in the prestigious journal Science showed that, on current trends, the world will be warmer by 2100 than at any time since the end of the last ice age, over 11,000 years ago. This time period, known as the Holocene, encompasses the origins of agriculture, writing, cities, science, the Industrial Revolution and the exploration of space (see this excellent video of a climate talk by David Roberts of Grist).
The current phase of global warming, from around the start of the 20th century, is much more rapid than at any other time in the Holocene. According to Jeremy Shakun of Harvard University, a co-author of the Science study:
‘We are heading for somewhere that is far off from anything we have seen in the past 10,000 years – it’s through the roof. In my mind, we are heading for a different planet to the one that we have been used to.’
Meanwhile, the Guardian noted yet another ‘climate change alarm’, in a decades-long series of unheeded ‘alarms’ or ‘wake-up calls’, the familiar recycled trope of jaded journalism. This was the news that US scientists had measured the second-greatest annual rise in CO2 emissions last year at the famous Mauna Loa observatory on Hawaii. Guardian environment editor John Vidal, a safe pair of hands at the paper who has managed to skip over numerous troubling questions for over two decades, noted:
‘The chances of the world holding temperature rises to 2C – the level of global warming considered “safe” by scientists – appear to be fading fast.’
Here, Vidal uncritically relayed the dangerous and discredited notion of a 2ºC ‘safe limit’ for global temperature rise. Climate change has been hereby reduced to a phenomenon defined by a single global dangerous number. This is a simplistic and damaging view of climate which, in reality, varies widely in time and space with multiple, overlapping impacts and feedbacks including ice melt, sea level rise, increasing storms and devastating droughts. Social scientist Chris Shaw, whom we mentioned above, has studied how this skewed ‘safe limit’ framing of the climate change debate arose, and how it has become a stranglehood on climate policy and even on progressive voices who should know better. Shaw warns that ‘falsely ascribing a scientifically derived dangerous limit to climate change diverts attention away from questions about the political and social order that have given rise to the crisis.’ He notes:
‘The oft quoted quip attributed to Einstein, that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing, even after it has failed, seems particularly apposite for the “dangerous limits” framing of climate policy.’
Rapid and dangerous climate change is already underway, with little chance now of keeping global temperature rise to under 2ºC. Indeed, another recent climate study warns that a global temperature rise of just 1.5ºC may ‘trigger the thawing of permanently frozen ground over a large part of Siberia’ with ‘vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane’ being released into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect. We are, said a report in New Scientist, ‘on the cusp of a tipping point in the climate’. And a new scientific study has linked recent examples of extreme weather to human-induced climate change. There are deeply difficult times ahead. Yet the political response has been pitiful.
Consider that in pre-industrial times the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was around 280 parts per million. Largely due to human activities since then, notably fossil fuel use, the level of CO2 has been rising inexorably and has now reached 391 ppm. Science writer Peter Gleick predicts that in 2014 we will see the ‘inevitable’ headline, ‘Planet’s CO2 level reaches 400 ppm for first time in human existence.’ He warns that:
‘never in the history of the planet have humans altered the atmosphere as radically as we are doing so now. And the climatic consequences for us are likely to be radical as well, on a time-scale far faster than humans have ever experienced.’
And yet, switch on the television or the radio, or open up a newspaper, and – bar a few items in passing – it’s as if none of this is happening. Instead, the public is being force-fed a diet of celebrity gossip, huge advertising campaigns to consume more and more, and tedious ‘news’ and ‘debates’ that elucidate almost nothing about the real world.
Journalists and editors at all levels of the major news organisations must be aware, to some extent, that the glorious vision of the media ‘holding power to account’ is more myth than reality. But very few media professionals have the honesty, bravery and decency to speak out. We understand that it is not easy; one’s hopes of a stellar media career or even the prospect of continued employment might be on the line. In the early days of Media Lens, we used to entertain the very slim possibility that – if anyone – the environment editors of the major newspapers might do so. But signs of media sanity from even these quarters are scarce.
Locked Inside A Box
BBC News is no exception to the corporate media’s abysmal performance on climate. This crucial issue – the fate of humanity, no less – is confined to a small, tightly-shut box that is rarely opened for public display, even when it’s kicking and screaming to be heard. There are all too many examples we could cite. Take one report on the BBC News at Ten last month (February 19, 2013), for instance, by John Moylan, the BBC’s employment and industry correspondent. On the flagship television news programme, watched by millions around the country, Boylan spoke of the rising demand for energy and the cost of fuel. He stood in front of impressive high-tech graphics and he eloquently made his points. And he referred, briefly, to EU environmental targets on closing ‘dirty polluting power plants’.
But Moylan did not once mention climate change. In an era when leading scientists are warning of the catastrophic dangers of climate instability under global warming, how could the BBC correspondent possibly justify this omission from his report? We asked him, twice, but did not receive an answer.
Obviously this single example is not an exhaustive investigation of BBC News; although the cumulative impact can be gauged from our numerous media alerts and several books over many years. But it is indicative of how poorly BBC News journalists and editors take their commitment to (a) reporting the significant risk of rapid and dangerous climate change; (b) responding to public concerns about it. As ever, the biased and debased standards of BBC News adhere to the norms of corporate journalism.
But what about the Guardian? It has long been considered by many greens as a sort of ‘flagship’ newspaper for the environment movement. This has never been an accurate picture. But even more so in recent years when, notes Haaretz columnist Zafrir Rinat, the paper has been avidly:
‘developing business ties with corporations leading to the creation of the websites such as Global Development Professionals, which received financing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of corporations. The Guardian is also involved in several environmental ventures that are expected to yield profits.’
Rinat spoke with Joe Confino, an executive editor of the Guardian, and the chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. This is a Guardian-corporate partnership which promotes the notion of ‘corporate social responsibility’, a public relations oxymoron that should be exposed repeatedly.
‘We are partners in ventures with businesses that we are convinced are going in the right direction on sustainability. The condition for all cooperation is preserving complete editorial independence.’
But high-ranking newspaper professionals always assert that there is a ‘firewall’ between advertising and editorial content, a claim that does not withstand scrutiny. Moreover, as Haaretz‘s Rinat rightly points out:
‘Behind this [Guardian and corporate business] cooperation lies a pretentious worldview that it is possible to convince corporations to operate differently along the entire production chain, from the raw materials stage up through handling the refuse from the final products that are sold.’
Rinat added that ‘the media is still part of the problem because it continues to promote in its reports the culture of consumerism that depletes the planet’s resources.’ He noted that Confino ‘doesn’t deny’ this crucial point but, disappointingly, the Haaretz columnist did not press the Guardian executive about it.
Consider that a major imperative for corporate newspapers like the Guardian, struggling with dwindling advertising revenue, is to boost the numbers of people exposed to online ads by visiting their websites. Chris Elliott, the Guardian readers’ editor, was upfront about this in a recent column when he said that this was ‘essential’ to ‘secure the future’ of the paper.
But there are flickerings of internal dissent:
‘in the last six months three colleagues have written or spoken to me to express concern that the entirely reasonable desire to attract people to the site may be skewing news and features agendas.’
One ‘conflicted colleague’, as Elliott put it somewhat pejoratively, said:
‘There have been occasions recently where stories have been commissioned by editors who have talked about how they hope it will “play well” online – this appears to have been at the very forefront of their mind when commissioning. Certainly this is the prime driver of many online picture galleries. Obviously … we want to be well-read and popular, but it is a slippery slope, and it now appears that in a few cases we are creating stories purely to attract clicks.’
Given that Elliott’s piece was likely a sanitised, for-public-consumption version of the reality, one wonders what Guardian staff are really thinking, and how widespread is the concern, perhaps even direct opposition, inside their plush corporate offices. ‘Conflicted’ Guardian journalists may well be wondering how – if at all – a corporate newspaper is able to uphold the nine cardinal principles of journalism set out by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, amongst which:
• Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
• Its first loyalty is to citizens
• It must serve as an independent monitor of power
• It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
Covering dangerous climate change in accordance with such basic essentials means not just reporting the science of climate change responsibly – a task too far for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. But it also means investigating the systemic reasons for global warming. That must include a critical appraisal of corporate-driven capitalism and unrestrained consumerism. And, finally, it must also mean full and open public debate about alternative ways of organising society to benefit human well-being and the climate stability of the planet.
Hope: The Spirit of ’45
If you need hope and inspiration in the face of such a huge task, then watch Ken Loach’s new film, The Spirit of ’45. It is partly a tribute to those who lived through the Second World War and then battled to fight poverty, illness and unemployment at home in Britain. It was public pressure, through the election of a post-war Labour government, that led to the nationalisation of assets such as railways, the coal mines and the steel industry; building a proper welfare system; and the founding of the National Health Service. This was not, in fact, real socialism. For example, private ownership of the mines transferred to state ownership with many of the same elitist bureaucracies and establishment figures in charge. But many gains were achieved for the benefit of millions of working-class people; not least the NHS which is now being carved open for private profit under the noses of a compliant news media, including the BBC.
Loach’s film, then, is much more than a nostalgic nod to a bygone era. It is highly relevant to today’s ‘age of austerity’ (in other words, austerity for the many, and riches for the few). It is a skillful, engaging and powerfully humane response to the neoliberal propaganda that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism; and that all the current system might need is a ‘kinder and gentler’ face. But as one participant in the film wryly notes: ‘Caring capitalism is like the Arabian Phoenix: everyone’s heard about it but nobody’s seen one!’
The Spirit of ’45 is a timely reminder of what people can achieve when they work together for the good of everyone. That same spirit is needed today and can bring about radical change. After all, ‘ordinary people’ hold enormous latent power in our hands. Governments and private interests are forever fearful of us rediscovering, and acting upon, that powerful truth.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Chris Elliott, Guardian readers’ editor
John Moylan, BBC News employment and industry correspondent