Appeasing climate deniers at the ABC

Appeasing climate deniers at the ABC

Clive Hamilton on journalistic balance and the war on science

The politicisation of the ABC during the Howard years is now well documented.1 Analysts of the ‘culture war’ against the broadcaster have focused on the sustained criticism from senior politicians (including the minister responsible for the ABC, who ordered ‘surveillance’ to prove bias), harassment by senators, and the appointment of right-wing allies to the board of the organisation.

But the real work of transformation was carried out by a phalanx of senior executives appointed by the board, who day after day pressured program producers and journalists to treat sensitive political issues in ways compatible with the views of the federal government. The pressure and harassment were particularly intense over reporting of reconciliation and Indigenous disadvantage, the Iraq War, the environment and ‘political correctness’ generally.

With the politicisation of climate science in the 1990s – the result of a careful strategy developed by Republicans and the fossil fuel lobby in the United States, documented most recently by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt2 – it was inevitable that the new conservative ABC management would change the way global warming was reported. The Howard government’s approach to climate change was to do as little as electorally possible and resist international efforts to reach an effective treaty.3 The prime minister himself was a ‘climate sceptic’, and so were several of those appointed by him to the corporation’s board.

The appointment of sceptics highlights something crucial in understanding the ABC’s particular failure over climate change reporting. A distinction should be drawn between arguments over scientific evidence and disputes based on differences in values and political orientation, including policy responses to climate change. The validity of scientific evidence is not a matter of opinion, and judgements ought to be independent of political views. Certainly, within the scientific community any scientist whose research and arguments were shaped to suit his or her political views would be ostracised.

While the politicisation of the ABC over the Iraq War, multiculturalism, Aboriginal policy and so on was lamentable, the ABC’s contribution to the erosion of public confidence in climate science had another dimension, an epistemological one. It reflected a decision to relativise science itself.

The appeasement of climate denial reached its nadir earlier this year with the visit to Australia of Christopher Monckton. Monckton’s views are so extreme that even conservative commentators who are themselves sceptics distanced themselves from him. He has also been exposed for lying about his qualifications and achievements.4 Yet, during his visit, he enjoyed blanket coverage on the ABC, including a string of interviews in which he was allowed to make many untrue and damaging statements about climate science with no significant challenge from interviewers.

Monckton was presented as if he were a credible source of knowledge – or, at least, had a credible point of view – on the science of climate change, despite the fact that his various claims have been debunked by qualified scientists.5

So why did ABC producers, whose job includes acting as gatekeepers to keep out the wild-eyed and obsessed, allow Monckton to expatiate on climate science even though they must have known he lacked credibility? And why did interviewers fail to confront him about his bizarre political views, particularly as it is apparent that his opinions on climate science are motivated by his political beliefs?

In my contact with ABC staff over the years, it has become clear that across the organisation journalists and producers have come under strong pressure from senior management to give exposure to ‘the other side’ of the climate debate. For them, denying airtime to Monckton was not worth the grief they’d get from management.

This impression was only confirmed by the extraordinary speech to staff by ABC chairman Maurice Newman in March. Newman – well known in the organisation as ‘a passionate climate change denialist’6 – claimed that the corporation had been captured by ‘group-think’ on climate change and was preventing ‘contrary views’ from being heard.

As it turned out, the exposure given to Monckton was not in any sense balanced but heavily biased in his favour. Crikey compared ABC coverage of Monckton during his Australian visit with that given to James Hansen, one of the world’s most esteemed climate scientists, who visited a few weeks later: the analysis showed that the unqualified climate denier scored 161 mentions on the ABC against the world expert’s nine mentions.7

But a reflection on the meaning of bias and balance confirms that equal exposure for Monckton and Hansen would have been profoundly biased. It is true that Monckton provided greater entertainment value than Hansen – what he lacks in scientific credentials he more than makes up for in showmanship – but when did the ABC decide to privilege laughs over truth in matters of public importance?

‘Balance’ is bias

In 2004 the journal Global Environmental Change published an article titled ‘Balance as bias: Global warming and the US prestige press’, by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff. A thorough content analysis of coverage of climate change by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal over the period 1988–2002 found a divergence between popular discourse and scientific discourse, arising from the exploitation by denialist groups of the journalistic norm of balance. They concluded that ‘the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.’8

The author Ross Gelbspan set out the problem simply. In general, unbiased reporting requires the presentation of alternative perspectives – but this principle fails when reporting on science. ‘It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of views on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when actually they do not.’9

Presenting both sides is biased when one ‘side’ is backed by a large body of peer-reviewed research and the other is not. The ‘other side’ would deserve some reporting if there were a significant minority view that had some legitimate science to sustain its claims, even if that science proves unsustainable. But there isn’t.

In March the presenter of Media Watch, Jonathan Holmes, weighed in to the debate over bias in the ABC’s coverage of climate change.10 ‘“Bias” is notoriously difficult to pin down,’ he began. But is it? In political and social debates, where differences are founded on divergent values or political viewpoints, that might be true, but where there is a well-defined body of fact, bias is not difficult to pin down. There is an objective benchmark.

A number of studies have substantiated what is obvious to anyone with even a casual knowledge of the research on the science of global warming – that is, there is an overwhelming consensus on the main conclusions presented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. While uncertainties remain and the evidence will evolve, the level of consensus on the main tenets of climate science is unusually high.

A recent study identified the 1372 scientists around the world with expertise in climate science, measured by their track records of publication in a relevant field.11 It concluded that there is ‘striking agreement’ among climate scientists, with 97–98 per cent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field supporting the conclusions of the IPCC. This suggests that, if the ABC aims to present climate science in an unbiased way, for every qualified climate scientist with a dissenting view we should hear from thirty-nine presenting the consensus view.

The vital distinction between issues in which credible views should be based on expertise and those where values and political orientation are perfectly valid escapes even Jonathan Holmes. Noting that ‘the degree of scepticism in the community at large bears little relation to the degree of doubt that exists in the scientific community,’ he nevertheless goes on suggest this public ignorance vindicates the decision to give airtime to characters like Christopher Monckton.

In fact, the ABC’s editorial policy mandates the opposite. It rightly declares that the organisation should not confuse its audiences by allowing opinion to be presented as fact.12 If claims about climate science have no empirical backing, cannot meet the criteria for publication set by professional journals and are repeatedly rejected by the world’s scientific academies, then they must be regarded as opinions.

Curiously, nowhere in the ABC’s 172-page editorial policy document is there any discussion of what fairness, balance and bias mean. Some further thought would surely disprove the simple-minded assumption that the way to avoid biased journalism is to present a balance of opinions.

The fact that climate denialists, invariably linked to right-wing think tanks with an axe to grind, have succeeded in their explicit and widely-known strategy of confusing the public by casting doubt on the science should not be a reason for providing greater coverage to anti-scientific opinions. Indeed, one would have thought it within the ABC’s charter to correct public misunderstanding, notwithstanding that the corporation’s chairman shares those misunderstandings.

After all, if half of the population were persuaded that the Apollo mission to the moon was an elaborate hoax, would the ABC feel compelled to give equal coverage to ‘experts’ who claimed to have evidence that proved the hoax each time the moon landing came up? In Holmes’ view it should, for he goes on to argue that if half of Australians believed in creationism then each time a scientist was interviewed about evolution, it would be right to ‘balance’ this view with a creationist take on the science of evolution. The ABC would not – and should not – resist the demands of those who reject evolution.

‘[F]or general programs, it’s not what the boffins think, but what our listeners and viewers think, that guide our decisions about balance,’ he writes, although acknowledging that on specialist programs like the Science Show the obligation would be to present the theory of evolution supported by the overwhelming majority of biologists.

A moment’s thought reveals what a bizarre conception this is. It implies that on any program for a general audience – including news, current affairs and chat shows – there is no reason to privilege science over popular prejudice, even when the popular prejudice is demonstrably wrong and its persistence represents a threat to the future.

Why not, then, present creationism to ‘balance’ evolution? In some respects, the case for giving creationism equal time is actually stronger than that for giving equal time to climate denial. Creationism’s rejection of evolution science is, after all, based explicitly on another source of authority – the Bible – and is rooted in religious convictions. It is therefore possible for listeners or viewers to make a decision about which authority (science or the Bible) to accept before taking a view on the content of the claims. Climate deniers, by contrast, conceal their political purposes and pretend to base their arguments on the authority of science – which is the same authority that the accepted view of global warming relies upon. The deniers’ lack of honesty makes it more difficult for the public to decide whether to accept this; the ABC’s failure to inform the public of the deniers’ deceptions lends credibility to discredited views.

The editorial policies of the ABC insist that a range of perspectives on each subject be presented – which in most cases is fair enough – but unless the ABC wishes to concede it has accepted a version of postmodernism in which scientific evidence becomes no more than a ‘perspective’ and any point of view is as valid as the next, surely it must differentiate between subjects where a body of objective facts determines the truth (or at least approximates it) and others where values and world views legitimately determine opinions.

Ironically, the Howard government’s culture war that set out to expunge from the ABC all traces of political correctness seems to have ended up endorsing the postmodernist position of characterising science as a matter of opinion. Modernism’s confidence in objective science developed through the process of formulating hypotheses, gathering evidence, testing conclusions, replicating results and subjecting everything to the fierce scepticism of well-informed peers has been under attack from conservatives determined to defeat environmentalism at the expense of public confidence in science.

Where do boffins belong?

If Jonathan Holmes has trouble grasping this distinction between scientific views based on the accumulation of evidence, and opinions based on values and political orientation, then it is no surprise if no-one else in the ABC does. As for his argument that ‘boffins’ (the term itself is revealing) belong in specialist programs where expertise matters, it might be said – reluctantly, because for years, it was a beacon of good reporting in a dark sea of indifference – that even the Science Show is not immune to pressure from on-high to ‘balance’ climate science with unscientific opinion.

My impression (admittedly not backed by a content analysis) is that there has been a subtle shift in the way the Science Show reports climate change. While the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change has become much stronger over the last few years, the Science Show has provided more opportunities for those who deny or distort climate science to air their opinions. Bjørn Lomborg, whose arguments on climate science have been systematically exposed as misleading and amateurish by leading scientists in leading professional journals, is presented as a legitimate voice, something that can only contribute to the impression – widespread in the public – that climate science is beset by uncertainty.

While the Australian has been for years the principal agent in this country of the Republicans’ war on climate science, the ABC has been engaged in a strategic retreat, leaving scientists isolated on the battle field. As a result, the scientific community – always slow to react, due to its natural inhibitions – is now expressing grave concern at the erosion of the ‘intellectual and moral authority of Australian science’.13

The war on climate science, conducted on talkback radio and in opinion columns and the news pages of the Australian, regularly characterises climate scientists as unreliable, manipulative and self-seeking. One does not expect Alan Jones to understand the scientific research process and the role of peer-review – but we do expect the ABC to be more sophisticated, notwithstanding its chairman’s intellectual crudeness. Rather than being rebuked by Maurice Newman for ‘group-think’, those in the organisation who understand how science works should be invited to explain to senior managers like Kim Dalton and Mark Scott that when the hard evidence is overwhelming, insisting on ‘balance’ can only contribute to public ignorance.

  1. See, for example, Margaret Simons, ‘Inside the ABC’ and Quentin Dempster, ‘The slow destruction of the ABC’ in Robert Manne (ed.), Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia?, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2005; Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison (eds), Silencing Dissent, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2007.
  2. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury, New York, 2010.
  3. See Guy Pearse, High & Dry, Penguin, Melbourne, 2007; Clive Hamilton, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2007.
  4. Clive Hamilton, ‘Viscount Monckton of Brenchley’s Over-egged CV’, Crikey, 12 January 2010, http://www.crikey.com.au, viewed 31 July 2010.
  5. ‘A Scientist Replies to Christopher Monckton’, http://www.stthomas.edu/engineering/jpabraham/; John Abraham, ‘Monckton Takes Scientist to Brink of Madness at Climate Change Talk’, Guardian, 3 June 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk, viewed 31 July 2010.
  6. Amanda Meade and Geoff Elliott, ‘Climate balance urged at ABC’, Australian, 11 March 2010.
  7. ‘Group Think: A Crikey Graph’, Crikey, 11 March 2010, http://www.crikey.com.au, viewed 31 July 2010.
  8. Maxwell and Jules Boykoff, ‘Balance as bias: Global warming and the US prestige press’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 14, 2004, http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/publications/downloads/boykoff04-gec.pdf, p. 125.
  9. Ross Gelbspan, The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription, Perseus Press, Cambridge, 1997, quoted by Boykoff.\
  10. Jonathan Holmes, Climate change reporting: balanced or biased?, The Drum, 4 March 2010, http://www.abc.net.au, viewed 31 July 2010.
  11. William Anderegg et al., ‘Expert credibility in climate change’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, June 2010, http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1003187107.
  12. ABC Editorial Policies, http://www.abc.net.au/corp/pubs/documents/EdPols07_updateFeb09
  13. Luke Slattery, ‘Climate wars give science a bad name’, Australian, 24 February 2010.