Tag Archives: george monbiot

Performance -> Feedback -> Response

Just got back from Robin Ince’s Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People which you, dear reader, may recall I attended last year as well and I am delighted to be able to report that all three of my suggestions were taken on board and as an overall package it was a massive improvement on an evening which I enjoyed immensely. Now I know what it feels like to use Windows 7!

What did I learn this evening? Well, apparently things really can only get better after D:Ream – Brian Cox’s science bit was easily the most mind-blowing of the evening. I got to experience another aspect of Alan Moore’s genius – in this case as an incredibly funny, thought proviking and self-effacing stand up comic. I learned that Ben Goldacre can speak incredibly fast and still make perfect sense. And I learned that rap is the best medium for explaining how evolution works (although Monty Python managed to make it even simpler).

And then there was Johnny Ball. After the previous evening, where Ball was reportedly booed off stage, there was a bit of a squeaky bum moment in anticipation of his act. I would guess that like around 50% of the audience, Johnny Ball was one of the main reasons why I was there that evening, a childhood hero whose absence on childrens’ television has been sorely missed. And it is a real problem when it emerges that your heroes have feet of clay.

From what I’ve read, Balls’ arguments belittling anthropocentric climate change don’t really add up. Wisely he decided to drop this material this evening. Instead his piece focused on how Newton’s theory of gravity largely built on the work of Gallileo and Kepler and that a genius was only really someone who read more than one book and managed to join the dots. His message for the evening was that in the 21st century we have thousands of people out there doing what was regarded was genius-level work a couple of centuries out there and that we shouldn’t give into despair but instead be inspired by human ingenuity.

This resonated with me, mainly because of the way it so strongly contrasts with the basic message of George Monbiot’s Guardian column earlier this week. Monbiot’s argument could not be more different; as the subeditor writes “survival depends on accepting we live within limits”. Monbiot has a point; we can’t assume we can simply keep digging up more and more oil other natural resources and that somehow something will just come along and make it all right. But in dividing the world up between “expanders and restrainers” (which, ironically, does explain the great True Blood / Twilight controversy; something which I’m sure Monbiot will be delighted to discover), he asserts that for humanity to survive it must essentially give up that which makes us most human; the need to strive. In place of that, we should be content with mere survival.

“The summit’s premise is that the age of heroism is over” he asserts. What? Really? It seems to me that the one thing Copenhagen needs more than anything else is a bit of sentimental, schmaltzy, Hollywood-style heroism. If the world assembled world leaders were prepared to be a bit heroic, they could set in train a process which would avert possible catastrophe. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ruling out any meaningful progress before the talks even began, Obama came back from Copenhagen with a wildly ambitious plan that the rest of the world agreed with and made it his mission to get the US to accept it? He might not succeed, but he’d almost certainly carry the debate far further than it has gone in the US thus far.

The problem is not that world leaders are obsessed with being heroic; anything but. Are we really about to cede heroism to the denialist right? Is the anonymous bureaucrat really going to be our future role model?

Monbiot has set himself an impossible task: he wants to remould humanity in a way that is not only uninspiring but would be both incapable and undeserving of surivival. As misanthropic narratives are concerned, that’s quite an achievement. It is manna from heaven for the denialists who seek to present climate change activists in precisely the light that Monbiot is now basking in.

One way or another, humanity is going to survive the 21st century; of that I’m quite certain. We might do it by having a collective change in consciousness over the next five years and changing our current path of destruction. Alternatively, we might do it in an extremely painful way by witnessing catastrophic climate change, social unrest, entire populations literally walking into less climate ravaged parts of the world (i.e. Europe) and the destruction of 90% of life on earth. To avoid that, we will require ingenuity (Performance -> Feedback -> Response) on a heroic scale. By contrast, the Malthusianism that Monbiot seems dangerously close to here diminishes human endeavour. And once you start down that path, you start valuing human life as extremely cheap.

Johnny Ball is almost certainly wrong about the science behind climate change and George Monbiot is almost certainly right. But when it comes to inspiration and basic humanism, I’d rather have the former batting for my team any day of the week. Let’s not make him our enemy.

OfCom, the Global Warming “Swindle” and Revolutionary Communism

The controversy surrounding last year’s Great Global Warming Swindle highlights a number of things for me.

First of all, the OfCom ruling today appears to have caused more heat than light. The report states that:

…In dealing with these complaints therefore Ofcom had to ascertain – not whether the programme was accurate – but whether it materially misled the audience with the result that harm and/or offence was likely to be caused.

There it is – in black and white. Why then does Brendan O’Neill at Spiked insist that “Ofcom rejected complaints that Durkin’s film was factually inaccurate on the basis that it did not ‘materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence.’” The Commissioning Editor at C4 Hamish Mykura was even more explicit in a BBC interview, stating at least twice that OfCom ruled they had not mislead the audience.

Yet that was not the test. By OfCom’s admission, the bar was set incredibly high, not to say almost impossibly so:

The accompanying Ofcom guidance to the Code explains that “Ofcom is required to guard against harmful or offensive material, and it is possible that actual or potential harm and/or offence may be the result of misleading material in relation to the representation of factual issues. This rule is therefore designed to deal with content which materially misleads the audience so as to cause harm or offence.” (Emphasis in original). Ofcom therefore only regulates misleading material where that material is likely to cause harm or offence. As a consequence, the requirement that content must not materially mislead the audience is necessarily a high test.

In other words, the Great Global Warming Swindle could have been full of the most blatant lies ever devised by man as far as OfCom was concerned, as long as they were white ones. It isn’t entirely surprising therefore that it found in Channel 4’s favour.

And to an extent, that is how it should be. The key test is whether the programme was presented as a documentary or an essay. Adam Curtice’s occasional forays on BBC2 are by turns brilliant and incredibly stoopid, but they are always presented as personal essays. It’s a good format. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is undeniably in the first person. What I’ve seen of Martin Durkin’s programme (I admit to not having watched the programme as I missed it when it was first broadcast and don’t see why I should enrich him by buying a copy), it looks very much like a documentary. This is a key point, and one which George Monbiot is right to quibble over:

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. 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.

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 man-made 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..

It strikes me that it is odd for OfCom to insist that this film was opinion when it has certainly never sought to present itself in that way. Indeed, the film’s power is in documentary’s ability to appear authoritative. It is one of those quirks of the modern age: write a book on climate change and it is taken for granted that it is opinion. Make a film and people wave it around as if it was the gospel truth. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard and seen climate change sceptics bang on about this film as if it demolishes the entire case for anthropocentric climate change.

Returning to Spiked and Brendan O’Neill, you could be forgiven that this partial upholding of a complaint was tantamount to being hanged, drawn and quartered:

Speak ill of a climate expert and you’re likely to be stuck in the stocks of the public media and branded as a fact-denying, truth-distorting threat to public morals.

Increasingly in the climate change debate, no dissent can be brooked. I mean none (my emphasis). That is why, from the thousands and thousands of hours of TV programming devoted to climate change issues last year – from news reports on the threat of global warming to the lifestyle makeover shows imploring us to Go Green – only one has been singled out for censure. The one that questioned whether climate change is occurring. The Great Global Warming Swindle by maverick filmmaker Martin Durkin.

But this is self-evident nonsense. Apart from the fact that climate change deniers took the unusual step of taking Al Gore’s film to court, a fact which that great defender of free speech Brendan O’Neill applauded at the time, there is absolutely nothing – zero – squat – to stop someone from making an official complaint to OfCom about a pro-green television programme if they feel it is factually wrong. But what is more, outside of O’Neill’s fevered nether world, OfCom haven’t actually demanded any action over this film other than insist that C4 summarise its report’s findings. Is it not therefore just a smidgen of an exaggeration to say that “say anything reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous about a climate change scientist and you will be punished. You won’t receive a literal lashing, but you will get a metaphorical one.”? Apparently a tongue lashing is too much to bear for LM, the poor dears.

Ah yes, LM. I’ve taken a mild interest in the goings on of the group formally known as the Revolutionary Communist Party ever since university when along with most other Manchester University students I was regularly accosted by people in the street demanding that I take out direct debits to their magazine in order to “prove” that I support freedom of speech. The freedom of speech they were seeking to defend was their right to claim that ITN had faked footage about a Bosnian concentration camp. Is there an LM network, as has been suggested by certain environmentalists? What is undeniable is that there is a hardcore who tend to club together. After 20 years, you would expect the members of most political organisations to be quite disperse. Yet, here they all are, regularly swapping between Spiked and the Institute of Ideas.

There is nothing wrong with old comrades sticking together. What I have more of a problem with is their tendency to establish a “party” line on pretty much everything. For a think tank and magazine advocating freedom of speech, they never seem to encourage people to argue back with them. You won’t ever find an article on Spiked about climate change, or criticising China, for example. For all their claims as supporters of freedom of expression, debate appears to be the last thing they want (no comments on their website for you or I); merely the right to push their own agenda. And again, that’s fair enough – I often even find myself agreeing with them – but it would be nice if they were honest about it once in a while.

I just wish the polemic wasn’t quite so out there. There isn’t a single cordial disagreement which Brendan O’Neill can’t exacerbate into a climactic clash of civilisations. The tone on Spiked is unremittingly apocalyptic. A friend of mine attended their Battle of Ideas conference last year. He isn’t a Lib Dem but as part of his professional life he has got to know Steve Webb and took exception to it when a Spiked representative started denouncing Webb’s efforts with Facebook from the platform. My friend queried this, only to find himself being denounced as well. At the end of the debate, he sought to engage with his assaillant only to watch the man literally run out of the room.

A grand conspiracy on behalf of the surviving remnants of the Revolutionary Communist Party? Almost certainly not. But does it betray some rather distasteful cultish tendencies? Absolutely. Perhaps if they turned the polemic a notch down from 11 every once in a while they might actually influence people rather than piss them off. But I’m sure that would be a lot less satisfying.