Channel 4 slammed - or not

The way the BBC (amongst others) is telling it, Channel 4 got a severe rap over the knuckles from Ofcom over last year's heretical documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle. Their report begins,

The Great Global Warming Swindle, a controversial Channel 4 film, broke Ofcom rules, the media regulator says.

In a long-awaited judgement, Ofcom says Channel 4 did not fulfil obligations to be impartial and to reflect a range of views on controversial issues.

The film also treated interviewees unfairly, but

...and here we sense all might not be as it at first appears...

did not mislead audiences "so as to cause harm or offence".

Plaintiffs say the Ofcom judgement is "inconsistent" and "lets Channel 4 off the hook on a technicality."

In fact, they're hopping mad about the judgement. Professor Robert Watson, a former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has called it "highly disappointing". In an article in the Guardian, he complained that,

I believe it inaccurately portrayed the scientific evidence, was not impartial – which, in my view, a documentary should be – and was unbalanced and totally misrepresented the scientific consensus on the role of human activities in causing global warming. Therefore the program should have emphasized far more than it did that it was portraying a minority opinion.

All of which may very well be true. But while Watson obviously knows a great deal about climate science, he knows next to nothing about documentary making. There is no duty to be "impartial" when putting forward a polemical case; and it was obvious to anyone watching that the film was setting out to be controversial, even provocative. The most important - and by far the longest - section of Ofcom's ruling reaffirmed that obvious fact. They stressed - as they did in their last high-profile ruling concerning a Channel 4 documentary, Undercover Mosque - that it was of "paramount importance" that broadcasters, "continue to explore controversial subject matter." The ruling went on,

While such programmes can polarise opinion, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us and are amongst the most important content that broadcasters produce. It is inevitable such programmes will have a high profile and may lead to a large number of complaints.

Ofcom did, it is true, find against Channel 4 on a number of minor matters. Most significantly, they drew a distinction between the first four-fifths of the film, in which the producers - helped out by various dissenting scientists - sought to undermine the consensus, and the last section, which sought to portray this mainstream opinion as being in hock to various left-wing, anti-capitalist and (paradoxically) anti-Third World interests. In this, Ofcom believed, the programme makers did have a duty of balance. This was because there was "clearly a debate" about, for example, "whether, and the extent to which, developing countries should be required to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of concerns about global warming." On the question of climate change itself, by contrast, there was no real debate. Hence Channel 4 were perfectly entitled to do their best to try to start one. As the report put it,

Ofcom considers there is a difference between presenting an opinion which attacks an established, mainstream and well understood view, such as in this programme, and criticising a view which is much more widely disputed and contentious. In the former case, programme makers are not always required to ensure the detailed reflection of the mainstream view since it will already be known and generally accepted by the majority of viewers. In the context of this particular programme, given the number of scientific theories and politico-economic arguments dealt with in The Great Global Warming Swindle, it was not materially misleading overall to have omitted certain opposing views or represented them only in commentary.

Now all this is perfectly true. It is patently obvious that "believers in" climate change have got the debate pretty much sewn up, in scientific circles, in governmental and inter-governmental circles, and in popular opinion. The "deniers" (somehow "sceptic" is too polite a word, or so at least Watson and his colleagues would appear to believe) are in a small minority - though they do exist. The imminent doom facing the planet from global warming is now the stuff of popular entertainment: vide this week's forthcoming TV thriller Burn Out, featuring Neve Campbell, no less. They should be celebrating Ofcom's finding that their views are so preponderent Channel 4 don't even have to present them in any detail.

Instead, they seem strangely worried. Watson again:

Sceptics who disseminate misinformation and argue that there is no need to address this urgent issue are placing the planet at risk, threatening the livelihoods of not only the present generation, but even more future generations – our children and grandchildren.

While his colleague Sir John Houghton, on the BBC website, argued that "Ofcom's remit needs to be revised in order to protect the public when it comes to programmes' accuracy on matters of science."

One of the quotes from the narration that Ofcom singled out claimed that it was "a story of how a theory about climate turned into a political ideology". Another asserted that "global warming has gone beyond politics, it is a new kind of morality". Generally, I'd be inclined to agree with Ofcom that these claims are over the top. But given the violent - almost fearful - reaction of scientists faced with a single dissenting documentary, you have to wonder.


therealalekid said…
I have to be honest Heresiarch, I pretty much go along with the general consensus about climate change.

Where I do have an issue is where certain activists deliberately stifle debate or any oppositon to their viewpoint. Such as Caroline Lucas blow:

“The media’s attempt to seem balanced is in fact distorting the public’s understanding of perhaps the most pressing issue facing us all today – and it’s tragic. It doesn’t make any sense: would the media insist on having a holocaust-denier to balance any report about the second word war? Of course not - but by insisting on giving so much airtime to climate change deniers, it is doing exactly the same thing.”

“The media’s attempt to seem balanced is in fact distorting the public’s understanding of perhaps the most pressing issue facing us all today – and it’s tragic. It doesn’t make any sense: would the media insist on having a holocaust-denier to balance any report about the second word war? Of course not - but by insisting on giving so much airtime to climate change deniers, it is doing exactly the same thing.”

I've just watched the Newsnight piece on this and if any scientists have been misquoted then the filmamkers should correct themselves, however I don't have a problem with a contrarian polemic that the likes of Watson and Lucas (I hope good example)have.
valdemar said…
Perhaps scientists get upset because they are so consistently ignored/mocked/misrepresented by the smug, self-satisfied tossers who run the media? It would interesting to know how many media executives (of, say, C4 producer level and above) have science degrees. I'm going to guess wildly and say none, or maybe two or three. Yet, as you pointed out in your previous post, science is a vital part of our culture. There, if you care to look for it, is cause enough for 'violent' reactions to bad science on the telly.
lost causes said…
Well done H on your recent posts: your ode to Dawkins, for example, was excellent. However, I think you and I are on different sides when it comes to this documentary, and climate change theory in general.

Firstly, while I'd bet that many viewers complained about this documentary because it insulted the environmentalist "religion", others would have complained for the simple reason that they don't like being lied to. After watching this air on C4, the first thing I did was look up the sources and scientists quoted. Even the next day, one climate scientist had complained that his views had been completely misrepresented, and that a 4 hour interview had been cut down to 2 minutes of sound bites in which he appears to argue against his actual scientific opinion. In TV land we call this a "stitch up", and it is exactly the same technique employed by the creationist makers of Expelled to try and make Richard Dawkins look foolish.

I believe in free speech, and C4 were right to show this, however they should have framed it as a polemical essay, rather than as current affairs (like Undercover Mosque) or even a science documentary, which it is not.

As for your use of the world "sceptic", I've always taken it to mean someone who takes a rational view of a topic, not someone who happens to disagree with any particular theory. A creationist isn't a sceptic merely because they don't believe the science.

My personal theory regarding the volume of complaints is as follows. The film is incredibly optimistic and upbeat regarding the state of the environment and the power of economic development, ending as it does with an uplifting chorus of ELO's Mr Blue Sky. I think a lot of people went to bed with a happy warm feeling, that everything was going to be ok. When in the following days they read in the newspapers that even the scientists in the film don't support its claims, and that the film maker has a history of this kind of antics, it broke their hearts. That grief turned to anger, which turned into complaints.
lost causes said…
Update: I just came across this:

It expresses some of my thoughts much better than I could.
Heresiarch said…
Valdemar, I think you may well be right (as so often). But the tendency of media misrepresentation - which is usually one of exaggerating the certainty of statistical evidence - is, in this particular case, on the side of the "orthodox" climate scientists. They admit to some doubt, though not much; the media presents absolute certainty, usually in the form of a worst-case scenario. So there's a model - one among many - that suggests the possibility of the Gulf Stream failing due to increased water volumes in the Arctic, and this becomes "scientists say global warming will turn Britain into Alaska".

What I don't quite understand is why they don't get equally upset about this kind of exaggeration, the possibly overdone scaremongering, which is much more common than a programme like Swindle, which was a one-off. Because in the end, those kind of predictions, if they turn out to be exaggerated or implausible, will do more harm - through the Cry Wolf factor - than a one-off like Swindle.

TheRealAleKid: Your quote from Lucas is most apposite, and precisely the kind of thing I had in mind.

LostCauses: You say C4 "should have framed it as a polemical essay." As the Ofcom ruling makes clear, they did. That was the film's whole selling-point; at least that's what came across to me as I watched it. Like you, I hate the way "sceptic" has come to mean "disbeliever". It comes from a Greek root meaning "to see", as you probably know. A sceptic is someone who looks closely at things.
valdemar said…
Well, yes, scaremongering is bad whoever does it. But perhaps, rather than have me (an English graduate, forsooth) burble on at you, you could email Dr Dawkins and ask for his views on the programme, and the broader issue? Go on, dare ya.

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