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 â€“ 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 Durkinâ€™s film was factually inaccurate on the basis that it did not â€˜materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence.â€™” 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 â€œOfcom 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.â€ (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 â€” some memos or publicity material about this “season”, for example â€” 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 youâ€™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 â€“ from news reports on the threat of global warming to the lifestyle makeover shows imploring us to Go Green â€“ 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 wonâ€™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.