Climate denial in the mainstream media is pervasive and dangerous – but how to spot it?
I have often wondered how the economic, intellectual and cultural decline signified by the Dark Ages could have erased, for centuries, memory of the civilised advances of the Classical era. It is as fascinating as it is terrifying to witness the answer playing out today, as the obscurantist arguments of the forces of climate denial gain traction in the popular press and broadcast media.
Their agenda: to deny the scientific reality of climate change at the behest of those vested interests whose bottom line requires a repudiation of ‘net zero’ and renewable energy technology.
When mixed with a politically engineered mistrust of ‘experts’, the result is a populace blinkered to anything that might upset the creed of eternal extractive growth, including the existential threat of climate collapse.
How can we be so blind to something that is happening right before our eyes?
Now that outright denial of the science is untenable, propagandists have switched tactics, attempting to lull us into complacency by denying the urgency of mitigation. Meanwhile, our acquiescence is secured with a culture war to distract and obfuscate. Masters of this strategy are the so-called ‘think tanks’ of London’s Tufton Street, most notably the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), who are welcomed in the media as pundits rather than fossil fuel lobby groups.
What’s more, in an increasingly polarised world, few look beyond their silos for information other than confirmation of their own prejudices. When wildfires hit the town of Bastrop in Republican-controlled Texas, no one would talk about climate change. When Hurricane Sandy hit Democratic stronghold New Jersey and flooded large swathes of Manhattan, it was seen as the obvious cause.
Given the deluge of disinformation emanating from the denialist think tanks, it is more important than ever to be aware of the tropes of deception in the press that feed our complacency. Here are some of the most common tricks and techniques that I have seen used by climate deniers in the media:
Proxy opinion pieces
The Editors’ Code of Practice of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) states: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.” However, if an article purports to be an opinion piece, it is absolved of this obligation, and if a journalist sails too close to wilful inaccuracy, they can resort to merely parroting denialist propaganda in the guise of commentary.
This tactic is particularly brazen when commentators reference papers they have written or commissioned elsewhere. When GWPF Deputy Director Andrew Montford uses opinion pieces to repeat assertions from an article Montford himself commissioned from arch-denialist Indur Goklany for the GWPF’s website, he places himself at arm’s length from accusations of inaccuracy. Such distortions are frequently taken up and repeated elsewhere in the echo chamber of the partisan press with the excuse that they, too, are merely ‘reporting on the reporting’.
Disingenuous commentators may also exploit the defence of ‘qualified privilege’, which allows for contentious reporting where the journalist feels there is a social duty to do so.
How can we be so blind to something that is happening right before our eyes?
Cherry-picking details from authentic research allows propagandists to skew data to their
own ends. A prime example of this tactic can be seen in Matt Ridley’s contention that there had been no significant decrease in Arctic ice over the last 20 years in his Times article ‘Walrus comeback is more good news…’. In it, he cited an Arctic survey chart which, though clearly showing a steep decline, was spun to suggest little change.
Cold, scientific methodology will always lose out to an appeal to emotion and a deceitful misinterpretation of the peculiar shades of scientific language. When the examination of hypotheses involves the time-honoured practice of ‘falsifiability’ (to avoid confirmation bias), it is an easy jump for polemicists to claim that the science is unreliable.
Indeed, scientists are sometimes their own worst enemy when it comes to the nuances of messaging. American physicist Richard Feynman described science as “a philosophy of doubt”. We know what he means but, to the untutored, his stance suggests that the deniers have a case.
Scientists are sometimes their own worst enemy when it comes to the nuances of messaging.
Framing deceitful positions as rhetorical questions is another way of remaining at arm’s length from an actionable statement and sowing seeds of doubt that do not need to be evidenced. By artfully couching misinformation as rumination, Guy Walter’s piece for the Mail on Sunday, ‘Did Putin Plot With Eco-Warriors To Halt Britain’s Fracking?’, neatly sidesteps accusations of defamation.
Journalists will also hedge their bets with studied imprecision. The use of the emotive ‘fury’ in a headline is geared to elicit vicarious loathing, and inverted commas (‘motorists’, ‘activists’, etc) rally imaginary hordes of indeterminate provenance. Activist and blogger Paul Walter observed, in Liberal Democrat Voice, that The Times had originated a trend whereby use of single inverted commas were employed “to give a highly contentious paraphrase of what they would like someone to have said, when they didn’t say it”.
An apt example from the canon is the infamous 1978 headline in the Sun ascribed to Prime Minister James Callaghan: ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’, a phrase that ultimately entered the public consciousness and was credited to Callaghan for the rest of his life, although he never said it.
In a piece for the Telegraph, Ben Marlow wrote: “We are yet to see [Extinction Rebellion] staging violent demonstrations outside China’s London embassy.” IPSO’s response to my complaint, that this was defamatory in its suggestion that Extinction Rebellion (XR) was capable of violence, was that, as “we are yet to see” it, the statement holds true.
When Jeremy Clarkson wrote in the Sunday Times: “Maybe Greta could be joined by those Extinction Rebellion halfwits who go to the middle of London […] rather than going to the slums of Calcutta”, I complained that this was misleading, as India has a large XR community. IPSO’s response was that Clarkson was referring only to members of XR who are “halfwits”, not to the organisation as a whole.
A headline in the Sun, “Green Fanatsy”(sic) either slipped past the sub-editor or was a deliberate attempt to implant the idea that banning diesel was a short step to the jackboot on the stair. In many articles, the use of trigger words such as ‘threat’ and ‘mob’ ramp up subconscious alarm.
But the rot is not confined to the press. The current Orwellian reframing of ‘impartiality’ as part of the government’s roadmap for BBC reform, has resulted in the broadcaster running scared of objective reporting of issues that might upset the government’s growth agenda, lest their charter be revoked. In her McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival last year, journalist Emily Maitlis gave voice to fears now widespread within the BBC of a return to “bothsideism” – false equivalence masquerading as balanced debate.
In 2017, the protocols of Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator) when “dealing with matters of major political and industrial controversy”, made clear that anthropogenic global warming was “broadly settled” and required no challenge. In 2019, this caveat was dropped without explanation.
Having one’s cake and eating it
When she resigned, finance manager for the Murdoch press, Emily Townsend, said she could no longer work for an organisation that had run a “misinformation campaign […] that has tried to divert attention away from the real issue which is climate change”.
In its Editors’ Code of Practice, IPSO, quite rightly, speaks of “the public’s right to know” and claims that the Code is enshrined in the contractual agreement between IPSO and newspaper.
However, it is apparent that such checks on standards are frequently ignored when the vested interests of some proprietors are under threat. And, when the complaints panel includes representatives of the very publications so often under investigation, this ‘contract’ would seem to be moot.
Editors will, of course, claim that a move to rein in such excesses would muzzle an open exchange of controversial views. But any code should, surely, differentiate between the controversial and the factually inaccurate. IPSO’s protocols make clear the press has the right to be partisan, to give its own opinion and to publish individuals’ views, as long as it takes care “not to publish inaccurate misleading or distorted information” and to “distinguish […] between comment, conjecture and fact”.
How can these directives be enforced when the committee’s stock response is that its role is “not to make findings of fact or to resolve conflicting evidence in relation to matters under debate” and that an author is “entitled to select in support of his position”?
If the committee does not accept settled facts, such as the existence of climate breakdown, how can it adjudicate on accuracy?
To be held to accuracy while being given leave to cherry pick is to have one’s cake and eat it.
The introduction to the current IPSO code states: “It has become even more difficult for the public to separate the truth from a murky maelstrom of fake news, propaganda and manipulation […] by an army of ‘bad actors’ using social media to further their often-opaque agendas, the public has never been confronted with such a toxic diet of disinformation.”
But while IPSO claims to be a ‘tough’ regulator (it has the power to impose up to £1m in fines), it has never once fined any of these ‘bad actors’. Now, more than ever, it is time for regulators to be truly independent bodies. Empowerment of these institutions, free from political interference, must be a priority of the next government.
We cannot wait another 300 years for the next age of enlightenment.
To find out more, visit www.mpwatch.org
Tom Hardy is a member of Extinction Rebellion and of the RSA Sustainability Network. He is a Co-Founder of MP Watch, a constituency network monitoring climate denial in parliament and MPs’ commitment to net zero.
This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.