Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How TV works

Like hundreds, perhaps thousands of others who complained about The Great Global Warming Swindle, I received a letter this morning from Ofcom notifying me of the results of their adjudication. It's online here (you have to scroll down; a summary by David Adam is here). But George Monbiot is about right with this:
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 had not caused actual harm to members of the public: merely misleading them does not count. 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 judgment allows Channel 4 to keep getting away with it.
Michael LePage observes that the Ofcom ruling implies that documentary makers here have no obligation to be accurate, though factual programmes should present a wide range of views:
Ofcom has decided Durkin's programme was not in breach of the code when it comes to factual accuracy. So apparently:

• It's OK to fabricate graphics.

• It's OK to state that volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans when in fact humans emit far more.

• It's OK to present scientists as experts in fields they in fact know little about.

• It's OK to present disputed claims as if they were well-established and accepted scientific facts.

• It's OK to claim: "There is no evidence at all from Earth's long climate history that carbon dioxide has ever determined global temperatures", when there is overwhelming evidence going back many decades that CO2 does play a role.

• It's OK to deliberately confuse long-term changes in sea ice cover with the seasonal coming and going of ice.

• It's OK to state that Margaret Thatcher made a speech to scientists at the Royal Society saying: "There's money on the table for you to prove this stuff" (meaning global warming) when she did not say any such thing. The extraordinary idea being that climate change was an issue cooked up by climate scientists in order to get funding.

• It's OK to state that, "The common belief that carbon dioxide is driving climate change is at odds with much of the available scientific data: data from weather balloons and satellites, from ice core surveys, and from the historical temperature records" when this is clearly untrue.

• It's OK to claim that an individual called Piers Corbyn produces more accurate weather forecasts than the UK's Met Office when there is no evidence of this at all.

The list could go on and on, but you get the picture. I can't think of any supposedly factual programme on British TV that was less accurate than Durkin's polemic. For Ofcom to rule that it was not factually misleading is extraordinary and sets a disastrous precedent for programmes relating to controversial scientific issues.
{Read also Dave Rado, 21 July]

P.S. 24 July: George Monbiot rips the cover of a lunar conspiracy.

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