Queen's Policy Engagement

Broadcasting as Usual as the Planet Burns: Recent Media Coverage of Climate Breakdown

One of the most notable issues to observe about the media coverage of climate breakdown in general and the latest IPCC report on the Climate Science in particular, has been how it has been by turns, terrible, biased and lacking in recognising the urgency of the climate crisis says Professor John Barry.

Broadcasting as Usual as the Planet Burns: Recent Media Coverage of Climate Breakdown

Signs of a looming catastrophe presented as ‘lovely weather’

Let’s start where I write, the north of Ireland/Northern |Ireland (we can’t agree on anything in this part of the world…even as it burns)… In July, we experienced such extremely hot weather that the Met office and the Irish Met office issued their first ever heat warnings… yes, their first ever… So what was the media coverage?  Linking this to climate breakdown?  No… it was presented as a nice bit of sunny weather and jokey pieces about which town in the north had recorded the highest daily recorded temperature – Ballywatticock or Castlederg?  The good folk of the former were so proud they changed the road sign!

And while Castlederg ‘won’ the competition, the BBC story of August 2nd did not mention climate change, never mind present this ‘achievement’ as something to be concerned about and evidence of climate breakdown.

On Monday 9th August, on the back of the launch of the IPCC report I was interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra show.  I cannot fault the presenters in that I was given time to outline my reading and interpretation of the report, which I said was about moving beyond carbon energy, but also economic growth and capitalism.  I also made the point that a story that preceded on economic growth in Northern Ireland should have been connected to the climate issue…so far so ok.  After that section of the programme, and other stories, the presenters returned to the IPCC and climate issue.  So after a summary of the headline issues of the IPCC report and my take on it (and that of the )..listeners to the programme were treated to a piece on ‘tiny houses’.

Yes, you heard me right…

….on the day of a global report linking the devastating impacts and causes of our climate crisis, the centuries long future climate damage we have ‘locked in’, a report that is the equivalent of the world’s scientists screaming at the top of their lungs about the need for urgent climate action, BBC Northern Ireland decided an appropriate way to further develop this story was to interview two people who live in pods.  In so doing they, in my view, presented this as a valid way of connecting the report to individual action and to further understanding of the report.  This piece was done in a ‘jokey’ manner with presenters and interviewees agreeing it was ‘not for everyone’.

Unsurprisingly I was angry, to say the least.  To me, and I fully accept this is not how others may view the climate catastrophe, the planetary crisis we are facing is a challenge similar to wartime mobilisation.  So to see and hear light being make of such a serious issue was both inappropriate and indeed tantamount to reckless journalism (and as pointed out below this is common within media coverage of the climate crisis).  But more than that. Why was there an immediate rush to offer individual and individualised responses to the climate crisis?  It’s almost as if the BBC plan was to have a bit from experts and academics like me talking about the report, and then immediately go down the route of ‘well, what can you do as an individual’?  Let me be clear.  I have nothing against ‘tiny house’ and support those who choose and have the choice and resources to choose this way of living… but why would the BBC choose such as ‘quirky’ angle? Given that the choice to live in a tiny house of pod is so ‘niche’ and beyond the realm of possibility of most people, one could be forgiven for thinking the BBC was saying that the appropriate action people could take in response to the climate report was to live in tiny houses. This not only undermined the report in making it seem unrealistic (when all the report did was lay out the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change), but also framed responses in an individualised and explicitly depoliticised manner. Why did they not interview XR activists or youth strike for climate protesters, or trades unionists or members of faith communities working for a green new deal and just transition?   Who, and how is BBC Radio Ulster making the editorial decisions about the climate crisis?

But such dangerous media coverage is not without precedent within the BBC (we’ll get to other media outlets in a moment).  In July this year the corporation was forced to issue an apology and remove from its ‘Bitesize’ webpage (an educational resource for primary and secondary school pupils), a list of ‘benefits from climate change’ (I kid you not).  The benefits listed included “healthier outdoor lifestyles, easier access to oil in Alaska and Siberia, new shipping routes created by melting ice, and more tourist destinations”.  So, burning oil is a major cause of creating carbon dioxide which is the main greenhouse gas causing climate breakdown…so a benefit of global heating is …access to more oil….. oh dear…

The ‘tiny house’ trivialising response and highlighting the benefits of climate breakdown, in my view undermine the good progress the BBC has made since 2019 when they overturned the frankly ridiculous requirement for ‘balance’ in coverage of global heating, which meant that in covering the climate crisis they had to have one person/view supporting the anthropogenic causes and someone else countering it.  As the BBC stated in guidance to its journalists in 2018,

“Be aware of ‘false balance’: As climate change is accepted as happening, you do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate. Although there are those who disagree with the IPCC’s position, very few of them now go so far as to deny that climate change is happening. To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken. However, the BBC does not exclude any shade of opinion from its output, and with appropriate challenge from a knowledgeable interviewer, there may be occasions to hear from a denier”.

While welcome, the demand that the national broadcaster ditch ‘false balance’ and stop sacrificing scientific objectivity for ‘impartiality’ had been made for many years by academics.

 

South of the border….

And lest we think the problems of media coverage of climat breakdown are only with the BBC, if we turn our attention to the Republic of Ireland and RTÉ, the Irish state broadcaster, we sadly find a similar set of problems.  In July 2021 both the Irish Met service and its UK equivalent issued their first ever heat warnings as temperature went above 30 degrees. This includes road gritters spreading sand to prevent the breakup of roads due to heat.

In a story on 22nd July, RTE featured people eating ice creams, enjoying a bit of welcome and deserved ‘fine weather’, including a wedding.  No mention of a link between this heatwave and climate breakdown or that the heatwave is something we should be concerned about.  In response to the criticisms of RTÉ coverage – in its failure to connect heatwaves and flooding (examples of ‘extreme weather events’) to climate breakdown (but not apologising for its positive reporting of the heatwave), Jon Williams, Managing Director of RTÉ News, issued an apology in which he stated that:

“Investigating links between climate and extreme weather is known as attribution science. And in recent years, scientists have developed ways to do it with ever more confidence. That climate change is making some extreme weather events worse is also a fact – one we should regularly remind our audience of.”

As an aside, RTÉ weather (TV) is sponsored by Glanbia, while on the radio the weather report is sponsored by Grant Boilers …. Glanbia being one of the main drivers and beneficiaries of export oriented climate destructive food production in Ireland, while Grant Boilers are part of the fossil fuel energy system…both of which are causing climate breakdown….. no, I am not making this up… An irony (to say the least) not lost on well know environmental commentator, John Gibbons who took to Twitter:

 

Sepcial mention however must go to the Irish Independent’s reporting of our recent experience on the island of climate breakdown.  Below is its tweet from August 13th relating to a story about a report from the UK Met office about the need for Europe to prepare for “the eventuality of further records being broken with temperatures above 50.0°C being possible in Europe in future, most likely close to the Mediterranean where the influence of hot air from North Africa is strongest”.

As someone else noted in response on Twitter – people do not ‘bask’ in 50C heat… they die.  And like RTÉ and the BBC, the media outlet then changed its story, on the back of a social media backlash, to read ‘Europe can expect to roast in grim summer temperatures of 50C in future, say scientists’… so that’s good.

 

But why should it take citizens, academics and actvists taking to social media to get the mainstream media to accurately cover climate breakdown?  How many more ‘corrected’ climate stories can we expect in the years ahead?  Why is the media literally helping those who ‘fiddle while the planet burns’?

Citizens, now and future generations, deserve and need much, much better reporting…. Current mainstream media reporting on the climate crisis is like the person who falling from a high rise building was heard to say at each floor down they passed, ‘so far, so good’….conveniently getting that it’s not the fall that kills you….but the sudden stop at the end….

 

The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. Image by ELG21 from Pixabay.

Professor John Barry
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John Barry is a Professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include: green political theory, politics and political economy of sustainability, greening the economy, environmental and sustainable development policy-making, environmental ethics, transition to a low-carbon/renewable energy economy.

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