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.