Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The morality of global warming and its reporting

I've been aware of the movement to describe global warming as a moral issue but mostly saw it as a way to bring more people, such as religious leaders, in to the effort to stop it.

However this excellent column by British reporter and activist Mark Lynas, called "Neutrality is cowardice", has made a connection between this moral side and reporting which I had not appreciated.

The BBC was planning an "Earth Relief" day of climate-change related programming. A little complaining from some anti-environmentalists and the BBC executives couldn't disown it fast enough:
The spat at last weekend's Edinburgh International Television Festival was a classic example of this impulse to timidity. When the anti-environmentalist film-maker Martin Durkin and his Channel 4 commissioning editor Hamish Mykura attacked the BBC's upcoming Planet Relief project - a proposed day of climate change-related programming and entertainment modelled on Comic Relief - corporation executives present rushed to disown it. "It is absolutely not the BBC's job to save the planet," insisted Newsnight editor Peter Barron. "I think there are a lot of people who think that it must be stopped."
Yes its not the BBC's job but if you could help save the planet, wouldn't you? Here's the passage that really struck me:
If Barron is really suggesting that the BBC should be "neutral" on the question of planetary survival, his absurd stance surely sets a new low for political cowardice in the media. It is also completely inconsistent. On easy moral questions, such as poverty in Africa, the BBC is quite happy to campaign explicitly (as with Comic Relief or Live Aid), despite the claim by the corporation's head of television news, Peter Horrocks, that its role is "giving people information, not leading them or prophesying". By analogy, the BBC would have been neutral on the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, and should be giving full voice today to the likes of the British National Party - all in the interests of balance and fairness. Likewise, it should not cover the plight of Aids orphans in South Africa without constantly acknowledging the views of the tiny minority who still dispute the link between HIV and Aids.
Another example that immediately came to mind was Apartheid in South Africa which the press here easily condemned in the eighties. More from Mr. Lynas:
It is worth re-stating again what a more rigorous and honest approach to climate change might look like. First, it would recognise that, despite small uncertainties regarding the specifics, the larger scientific question regarding causality has been settled for a decade at least. Second, it would acknowledge the moral repercussions of our failure to act so far: on people who are already suffering and dying in more frequent and extreme weather events, on future generations of human beings who will suffer a far worse fate, and on other species that will be driven to extinction as a result.
Mr Lynas has a lower opinion of reporters, editors and producers then I do (some of them know what to do). But this does put the onus on the traditional media: its not enough to not give deniers space in your pages or patiently explain the latest scientific findings. They need to talk about how this is ruining lives now and in the future and why action is necessary now. More on this in a future post.

I'll also track down and comment on an interesting reference Mr. Lynas found comparing denier-speak with pro-slavery arguments from 19th century America!

Update: BBC canceled the Planet Relief special. Cowards.

No comments: