The Great Global Warming Swindle is just one example of Channel 4’s war against the greens
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd July 2008.
So here we go again. For the second time, Channel 4 has been fiercely criticised by the broadcasting regulator for a programme attacking environmental science. For the second time the director was Martin Durkin. Ten years ago, his series Against Nature was found to have misled his interviewees about “the content and purpose of the programmes” and distorted their views “through selective editing”(1). Now Ofcom has ruled that the programme he made last year – The Great Global Warming Swindle – treated two scientists and an organisation (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) unfairly(2). For the second time, Channel 4 will have to make an embarrassing primetime apology.
But while the new ruling exposes some of the channel’s practices, it also exposes the limitations of the regulator. The programme was peppered with distortions and misleading claims. But despite being presented with a vast dossier of evidence by climate scientists, Ofcom decided that it could not rule on the matter of accuracy. While news programmes are expected to be accurate, other factual programmes are not, and Ofcom “only regulates misleading material where that material is likely to cause harm or offence.” It decided that The Great Global Warming Swindle hadn’t caused actual harm to members of the public and would not rule on whether or not the programme had misled them. In fact, it is precisely because “the discussion about the causes of global warming was to a very great extent settled by the date of broadcast”, meaning that climate change was no longer a matter of political controversy, that a programme claiming it is all a pack of lies could slip past the partiality rules. The greater a programme’s defiance of scientific fact, the less likely Ofcom is to rule against it. This paradoxical judgement allows Channel 4 to keep getting away with it.
The Great Global Warming Swindle is part of a long-standing pattern. Channel 4 upsets all sorts of people, and it has every right to do so. On all other issues it appears to do so in a random fashion, sometimes attacking people on one side of the debate, sometimes on the other. But one polemical position has kept recurring over the past 18 years: a fierce antagonism towards environmentalism. Some of these programmes have used misrepresentation, distortion or fabrication to sustain claims that environmental concerns are the fantasies of self-serving scientists. It is arguable that no organisation in the United Kingdom has done more to damage the effort to protect the environment.
For the first eight years of the channel’s life, its coverage of environmental issues was broad, diverse and often stimulating. It broadcast 20 programmes a year in its Fragile Earth slot. But two years after Michael Grade became chief executive, its programming began to change. The trend continued after he left.
In 1990 Channel 4 screened a documentary called The Greenhouse Conspiracy, directed by Hilary Lawson at the company TVF. It maintained that “there is no evidence at all” for dangerous climate change. There is a conspiracy among scientists, it said, to talk up the dangers in order to win funding(3). No reasonable person would dispute that Channel 4 should show countervailing views, or would claim that it has an obligation to take an environmentalist line. But there were three problems with this programme, which appear to characterise several of the channel’s films about the environment.
The first is that it was billed as a science documentary, rather than a one-sided polemic. It had an anonymous and authoritative voiceover, rather than the onscreen presenter you would expect to see in a polemical film. It presented as hard fact statements that were extremely contentious and often plain wrong. The second is that contributors’ commercial interests were not mentioned. The third problem is that though the majority of scientific opinion was at odds with the line the programme took, the opposing point of view was scarcely represented. The contribution of a very eminent climate scientist was edited to make him seem like an inconsistent crank, while maverick outsiders were presented as the voices of scientific orthodoxy.
But this film became a template for the channel’s environmental coverage over much of the following 17 years. Its most prominent films about the environment screened in this period took the same line as The Greenhouse Conspiracy, which created the impression that environmental problems do not exist and that environmental scientists are mendacious fanatics.
In 1997 Channel 4 broadcast a series across three hours of prime time on Sunday evenings, called Against Nature. Made by Martin Durkin, then working for the production company RDF, it claimed that the greens are modern-day Nazis who have been “needlessly consigning millions of people in the Third World to poverty and early death”. The programme’s publicity stated that it “highlights the absence of scientific rigour behind notions like the greenhouse effect and global warming”, yet the series made the most elementary scientific blunders, describing sulphur dioxide as a greenhouse gas and the oceans as the major net source of carbon dioxide.
Like The Greenhouse Conspiracy, Against Nature was billed as a science programme, rather than a polemic. It had no onscreen presenter. It amplified the credentials of some of its contributors and failed to reveal that some were funded by fossil fuel industries. The programme makers duped and misrepresented the environmentalists they featured. This series was subject to one of the most damning verdicts that Ofcom’s predecessor, the Independent Television Commission, has ever handed down.
None of this, or subsequent distortions, stopped the channel from continuing to pay Martin Durkin to pursue what looks like a personal crusade against science. In 1998, he hired a research biochemist and TV researcher called Najma Kazi to help him with a film for Equinox called Storm in a D-Cup claiming that breast implants are completely safe. After two weeks she walked out. “It’s not a joke to walk away from four or five month’s work,” she told me, “but my research was being ignored. The published research had been construed to give an impression that’s not the case. I don’t know how that programme got passed.”(4) In 2000, he made another film – a 90-minute special – for Equinox about genetic engineering. He interviewed the environmentalist Dr Mae-Wan Ho. “I feel completely betrayed and misled”, she said. “They did not tell me it was going to be an attack on my position.”(5) Neither of these programmes, however, was criticised by the regulators.
During this period, Channel 4 broadcast several environmental programmes which were vicious and grossly unbalanced denunciations of environmental science. But, as independent film makers I have spoken to testify, proposals for programmes which expressed concern about the environment were rejected out of hand. When I went to speak to the man who was then the director of programmes, Tim Gardam, to ask why the channel seemed so hostile to the environment, he told me something that shocked me more than any defensive statement. “I don’t know what’s important any more”.
The list of environmental programmes Channel 4 has sent me shows a sharp reduction in output during the years 1992 to 2006(6). But in mid-2006 I was told by an executive that the channel had realised it had been misled by people who were sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. It seemed as if the dam had broken. Channel 4’s new commissions suggested that it was at last beginning to wake up to the fact that environmental issues were not just the crazy fantasy of a group of green fascists. That was until March 2007, when The Great Global Warming Swindle was broadcast, backed by a massive promotional campaign. The director, yet again, was Martin Durkin, and once more he was given 90 minutes of prime time.
The first thing I noticed about the Great Global Warming Swindle is how similar it is to The Greenhouse Conspiracy, broadcast 17 years before. The two programmes made the same claims, using some of the same contributors. They were now a little greyer and fatter, but they repeated their line almost verbatim. A vast accumulation of evidence in the intervening years, contradicting the programme’s thesis, was ignored – it appeared that very little had changed since 1990. Indeed much of the distortion in the programme involved the freezing of timelines at points convenient to his argument, producing a misleading impression of current evidence.
Some of the graphs Martin Durkin used in the programme, for example, seem to have been altered, changing the historical record. A graph of 20th Century temperatures was attributed in the programme to NASA. In reality it was first published by an Exxon-funded lobby group and creates the false impression that most of the rise in temperature occurred before 1940, after which there was a sharp fall(7). The data it used ended in the mid-1980s. On Durkin’s version however, the timeline was extended to 2005 – the change of dates on the graph appeared to support his argument. Following complaints, the dates were corrected when the programme was rebroadcast.
He used a graph of temperatures over the past millennium to make the claim that they were higher during the 12th Century than they are today. But again the timescale was altered. An arrow marked “Now” points to data which in fact end at 1975. A third graph had been mislabelled in the same way: the arrow marked “Now” points to the global temperature 108 years ago, in 1900. On a fourth graph, the film-makers altered part of a curve, thereby creating the impression that temperature has precisely tracked changes in sunspot cycles. The author of the original graph complained that the film had presented “fabricated data … as genuine” to make its case(8). In response Durkin said it was a mistake.
It would require a book to catalogue all the distortions and fabrications The Great Global Warming Swindle is alleged to have included. A complaint by a team of senior scientists – the first peer-reviewed submission ever made to Ofcom – runs to 188 pages(9). Not only did the film inflate credentials of some of the contributors; some of them appear to have been made up altogether. The climate sceptic Tim Ball, for example, was said to be a professor at the Department of Climatology in the University of Winnipeg. There is no such department and he has not held a professorship since he retired in 1996. Philip Stott, the programme claimed, is a professor at the Department of Biogeography, University of London. While he was once a Professor of Biogeography, there was no such department, and Stott retired some time ago, becoming professor emeritus. Piers Corbyn was given a doctorate he does not possess and described as a “climate forecaster”. He is in fact a weather forecaster – a very different matter – and has published no peer-reviewed papers on either topic since 1986(10). Fred Singer is said to have been the director of the US National Weather Service. In reality he was Director of the US National Weather Satellite Center.
Far from revealing its contributors’ financial interests, the film created the impression that they have taken no money from the coal or oil industry. In truth 10 of its protagonists have either been funded directly by fossil fuel companies, or have received paid employment from lobby groups funded by these companies, which campaign against taking action on climate change(11). Tim Ball claimed in the programme that “I’ve never received a nickel from the oil and gas companies.” But he has received fees from two groups which lobby against taking action on climate change – Friends of Science and the Natural Resources Stewardship Project – both of which receive major funding from energy companies(12). The Great Global Warming Swindle looks like free, undisclosed propaganda for coal and oil firms. Channel 4 forcefully denied this. Ofcom decided that it is “unable to assess or adjudicate on the relative merits of these strongly disputed allegations.”
The film invoked an extraordinary conspiracy theory to explain why governments have tried to tackle climate change. It began, the Swindle claimed, with the British coal miners’ strike. “The miners had brought down Ted Heath’s conservative government. Mrs Thatcher was determined the same would not happen to her. She set out to break their power … At the request of Mrs Thatcher, the UK Met Office set up a Climate Modelling Unit, which provided the basis for a new international committee called The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.” In reality, Mrs Thatcher did not make a public statement on climate change until 1988, three years after the miners’ strike ended in their defeat. The IPCC was established in the same year – not by the UK Met Office but by the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN(13) – and the Climate Modelling Unit (the Hadley Centre) did not open until two years afterwards, in 1990(14).
Here too were inaccuracies of the same stamp as those which appeared in Against Nature. The Great Global Warming Swindle claimed that volcanoes produce more CO2 each year than all sources of man-made carbon dioxide put together. In truth they produce less than 1%. It maintained that “the biggest source of CO2 by far is the oceans” (they remain a net carbon sink). Sea level changes have “nothing to do with melting ice” (melting ice is in fact responsible for about 40% of the rise) and so on and so forth. One of the contributors to the Great Global Warming Swindle, Carl Wunsch, says that he was duped into appearing in the documentary and his words were “grossly distorted by context”(15). Ofcom found that Professor Wunsch had been treated unfairly in the way in which his edited interview had been presented but that his comments about CO2 in the ocean were not unfairly edited.
Perhaps the cruellest distortion perpetrated in Durkin’s programme was the claim, also carried in Against Nature, that environmentalists are condemning the poor to live without electricity and to cook their meals on smoky fires, causing millions of premature deaths from respiratory disease. The film interviewed a Kenyan official at a rural clinic, whose solar panels did not produce enough power to run both the fridge and the lights. This was apparently the fault of Western environmentalists, who had somehow obliged the clinic to use solar power, which is “at least 3 times more expensive than conventional forms of electrical generation.”
In reality, it is much cheaper to install solar panels in parts of rural Africa which do not have transmission lines than to build a new grid connection, which is probably why the clinic was using them. If they are providing insufficient power, the cheapest solution is to install more panels and batteries. The solar fridge, developed by the British environmentalist and engineer Guy Watson, has saved countless lives, as it permits vaccines and blood which would otherwise be degraded by heat to survive in even the remotest locations. Environmentalists have been amongst the most outspoken campaigners against cooking on smoky fires, partly because of the health effects, partly because they use huge amounts of wood and partly because the black carbon they produce is a cause of global warming. This was the only partiality issue on which Ofcom was prepared to rule, because it regards the treatment of the poor, by contrast to climate change, to be a “matter of major political controversy”. It decided that in this respect the programme breached its rules.
This film was presented as a dispassionate science documentary. We were not told whose opinions the anonymous narrator represented. Outrageous claims were stated as bald fact. Ofcom has decided that there is “no …requirement” to disclose the personal views of the presenter “in relation to factual programmes”. The Great Global Warming Swindle, like Against Nature, had a huge impact, persuading many people that manmade climate change is not taking place. I attended a presentation by a pollster from Ipsos Mori who showed that there had been a decline last year in the number of people who believed that global warming was a real phenomenon – primarily, she said, as a result of Durkin’s film(16). This is hardly surprising. No one unfamiliar with the channel’s record on this issue could have imagined that a public service broadcaster would have transmitted a programme containing so many distortions.
This became a personal issue when the man who commissioned The Great Global Warming Swindle, Hamish Mykura, appeared on the Today programme to defend the film. It was, he said, part of “a season of opinionated polemical films about global warming”, and was balanced by a film I had made, broadcast in the same week, for Dispatches(17). I was flabbergasted. Neither I, nor the audience, nor anyone on the production team had been told that my programme was part of “a season of opinionated polemical films about global warming”, or that it would be linked to The Great Global Warming Swindle. Had I known this, I would have pulled out. When I asked Mykura for evidence – some memos or publicity material about this “season”, for example – he was unable to provide any(18).
My film was subjected to such a rigorous process of fact-checking that it was, in effect, edited by Channel 4’s lawyers. While this made it rather dull, it also meant that it was robust and unchallengeable: any claim which would not stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny was excluded. Despite this, it was billed as a controversial polemic and my own personal view (I was the onscreen presenter). Durkin’s film, by contrast, appears to have been exempted from such rigorous fact-checking and was not presented as his opinion. Why did such radically different standards apply? And in what sense did my film “balance” Durkin’s? Mine was about policies seeking to address climate change: I was not asked to demonstrate that manmade global warming was taking place. Even if that had been my aim, Channel 4 misunderstands its public service obligations if it believes it has to strike a balance between truth and falsehood. I was glad to see that Ofcom found that the other programmes in the channel’s schedule “were not sufficiently timely or linked” to the Swindle to balance it.
The channel appears until now to have shrugged off criticism of these programmes: even, in fact, to have enjoyed it. They create “noise”, which is considered by some executives to be the thing that counts. Hamish Mykura, the man who commissioned The Great Global Warming Swindle, has since been promoted. Channel 4’s spokesman tells me “It would be wrong to suggest that Channel 4 has an agenda regarding environmental programmes. The vast majority of Channel 4’s programmes on environmental issues over the last 20 years have reflected the opinion of the majority of scientists on man-made global warming. … to the best of our knowledge, since 1990 there has been 5 ½ hours of programming giving voice to the minority of scientists who question man’s role in global warming.” This, it says, “is against the background of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] stating that there is a 90% certainty that the causes of global warming are man-made, it follows that there is a 10% uncertainty. Yet this 10% uncertainty receives a disproportionately small amount of airtime.”
I find this argument extraordinary. A 90% level of confidence doesn’t mean that 10% of the evidence suggests that an effect is not occurring – in fact there is no reliable evidence showing that manmade global warming is not taking place. It is expressed in this way because there is no absolute certainty in science. The “very high confidence” the IPCC expresses in the global warming thesis is the strongest statement any reputable scientist would make about his area of study. It is legitimate and right to stress that there can be no absolute certainty about global warming. But this is not what Channel 4 has done. The five and half hours of programmes which attack the thesis (and there have been many more which savage other aspects of environmentalism) express absolute certainty that manmade global warming isn’t happening.
So why does Channel 4 seem to be waging a war against the greens? I am not sure, but it seems to me that much of its programming – whether it concerns property, celebrities or contestants seeking fame and money – is aspirational. Environmentalism is counter-aspirational. It suggests that the carefree world Channel 4 has created, the celebration of the self, cannot be sustained.
It is against my interests to publish this article. I would like to continue making programmes for Channel 4. I recognise that what I have written may jeopardise this work. But these matters are far more consequential than my own employment. By broadcasting programmes that appear to manipulate and even fabricate evidence, it has impeded efforts to forestall the 21st Century’s greatest threat. For how much longer will this be allowed to continue? And for how much longer will Ofcom forbid itself to state that a programme is misleading?
George Monbiot’s book Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice, is published by Guardian Books, at £10.99.
1. Independent Television Commission, 1st April 1998. Channel Four to Apologise to Four Interviewees in “Against Nature” Series. Press Release.
2. Ofcom, 21st July 2008. Broadcast Bulletin, Issue 114. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/obb/prog_cb/obb114/issue114.pdf
3. You can read the transcript here: http://www.angelfire.com/dc/gaudcert/globwarm3.htm
4. Najma Kazi, pers comm.
5. Mae-Wan Ho, pers comm.
6. Channel 4, by email.
7. You can read the account of where this graph came from and much more at http://www.ofcomswindlecomplaint.net/
8. Nathan Rive and Eigil Friis-Christensen, 27th April 2007. Regarding: “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 on March 8, 2007. http://folk.uio.no/nathan/web/statement.html
9. See http://www.ofcomswindlecomplaint.net/
10. Piers Corbyn has sent me the list of his publications.
11. See http://www.ofcomswindlecomplaint.net/
12. Tim Ball, pers comm.
16. Dr Lucy Arnot, 18th October 2007. Communicate 07 conference, Bristol.
17. Hamish Mykura, 16th March 2007. The Today programme.