I feel confident that when the IPCC came out this week with the warning that the world’s people may soon face mass starvation on a scale not previously known, many RTÉ journalists had their private doubts. That’s what happens when you’ve been to university, you see. You’re not easily blinded by science, even when it’s coming from 500 scientists, 66 expert authors, 271 officials and 57 observers from 115 countries.
You can be sure our trusty RTÉ journalists asked who these fellows are to tell us what to do? You can be sure they sat down over a coffee in the RTÉ canteen and talked about it for several minutes before reverting to their trademark position on climate change — one eyebrow raised, voice dripping with sarcasm, “Don’t teach your grandmother...”, “Wasn’t born yesterday...”
In fact, exactly the same trademark position they use on nearly any subject you care to mention.
I for one am glad we spend wisely that €180 million worth of licence fee dished out to RTÉ every year. I’m glad that there are people in there who don’t think it’s a big issue that wheat and maize yields could be going down by 2% every decade from 2030 while the world’s population is rising by 2% a year.
It’s a bit of a worry that my children will be attempting to get a foothold in the adult world at a time when the world may be failing to feed more and more of its children. Every now and then you feel it might be worth heeding the words of the IPCC when they say that if you cut our greenhouse gas emissions right now we will still be able to avoid the worst excesses of the horror story.
But then you think — why bother? RTÉ has another coffee from the canteen and they’re discussing another story. I mean, is the end of the world as we know it really a story? Does it stand up? Our national broadcaster is making up its mind and most of the time they don’t mention climate change at all. But last week, when Prime Time did its first programme on climate change since 2009, they invited onto the panel Benny Peiser of the so-called Global Warming Policy Foundation which is headed by climate change denier-in-chief, Nigel Lawson.
Our most distinguished climate scientist, John Sweeney, refused to go on the show because the debate as to whether climate change exists and is man-made is long over. He told me he thought such an approach was “puerile” on the part of RTÉ given Prime Time hadn’t looked at the subject for so long.
It would just be an excuse for a row, he said: “The argument would go round and round and the audience would get the impression it’s a 50:50 call as to whether climate change exists or not.”
He says he doesn’t want to tell broadcasters how to do their job but looking for “balance” on the debate as to whether climate change exists or not “no longer reflects the balance of science.” As the journalist John Gibbons writes in his account of the Prime Time debacle on irishenvironment.com, it is like inviting “experts” in to provide balance as to whether smoking is bad for you.
Professor Barry McMullin at Dublin City University, chair of An Taisce’s new Climate Change Committee, also refused to participate in the programme. This was not surprising given he was sent this briefing email by the research team: “We will be discussing “Climate Change” and we will be asking whether our recent weather is a result of climate change? Is the climate change man-made? Is it the world’s biggest crises (sic)? Has Ireland’s climate changed?”
When McMullin explained he could not be part of such a programme, the new editor of Prime Time, Donogh Diamond, sent him this deeply troubling email which may explain a lot about the programme’s dire record on reporting the “world’s biggest crises” (sic): “We were disappointed that you, among others, chose to decline our invitation to take part in last night’s discussion on climate change, based, it seems on the fact that we had one person on the panel who did not share your analysis of the problem. As Campaigners, if you feel it is in your interests, you may, of course, choose to ignore a particular strand of opinion, but as journalists and public service broadcasters we do not feel ourselves free to do so. We must always reserve the right to choose our panel using our best judgement and taking into account the state of scientific knowledge on a particular subject, rather than doing so based on the pressure exerted by any campaigning group.”
You may ask who Donogh Diamond is to make this call on “the state of scientific knowledge”? There is no expertise on this issue at the station. The post of environment correspondent went unfilled for three years until last month, when George Lee got the job of agriculture and environment correspondent. But will he be given the editorial scope to break the silence on climate change at RTÉ?
An excellent piece of research which, in fairness to them, RTE commissioned recently from Bantry-based campaigner Clare Watson and UCC doctoral student Mark Cullinane, paints the station’s derogation of its duty on this issue in glaring colours. Studying climate change coverage on the Six One news, RTÉ online news and Prime Time, between 2007 and 2013, they found the number of climate change items fell by two-thirds in the second three years.
On RTÉ news climate change was almost always presented as an international news story so that the Irish farm fodder crisis, for instance, was never linked to climate change. Even as an international issue, coverage has collapsed to the point that the recent UN climate talks in Warsaw were not covered at all.
Prime Time doesn’t do international climate stories. The eight times climate change was considered on the show between 2010 and 2013 it was in the context of national events like the Shannon water diversion scheme or the Cork floods. Prime Time covers natural resources, alright, but usually without climate change in the frame and very often to provoke what John Sweeney calls “a row”: “Rural concern over plans for wind farms”; “Turf cutting controversy despite ban”; “Row over plan to take water from Shannon.”
You’d have to say that RTÉ has set the national agenda very well. Here we are, mired in muck over pylons and sods of turf, while global catastrophe hovers over our heads.
Or does the will of the people set RTE’s agenda? And if that is so, is it good enough? Don’t we have a right to expect what Watson and Cullinane call a “proactive” role from the national broadcaster on what is undoubtedly “the world’s biggest crises”?