Two weeks ago, just after we’d watched ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, I saw Graham Lewton – Deputy Editor of the New Scientist – speak on the relationship between science and the media.
The media is most people’s primary source of information on the wider world. Lewton’s key message was that it is generally forgotten that the primary directive of the media is not to educate or accurately inform the public, but to make money. It’s ability to return a profit is the only thing the corporate media is actually held accountable to. Its only duty is to shareholders and the only time it has a duty to accurately report issues is if that accuracy sells newspapers – which sadly is not very often.
That has profound implications. For instance, seen in this light, expecting and relying on the media to accurately portray world events and ensure society is reliably and well informed does not seem like a very well thought out strategy. Especially given that to respond appropriately to the current crises society faces we all need an accurate view of the science that underlies them.
A free press is vital to the health of any democracy and we currently rely on the corporate media to fill this role. While state controlled media is obviously entirely bias, it seems we may be very naive to view corporate media as hugely more free and fair. It has entirely its own agenda, vested interests and bias - towards whichever stories sell as appose to which stories are most important – and we must recognise that these two things very rarely overlap.
That all adds up to a not-so-pretty picture for science in the media and raises some serious concerns.
However, we take a closer look at media coverage of climate change science in particular then the picture gets a whole lot darker again. Why? Because of huge amounts of money for disinformation campaigns made available by those with a vested interest in keeping climate change a clouded and controversial issue.
Or as James Hoggan puts it -“reputable newspapers and magazines are today acting in a confused and confusing manner because a great number of people have worked very hard and spent a great deal of money in an effort to establish and spread confusion.”
A paper which analysed 928 peer reviewed journal articles on climate change found that not a single paper took exception to the consensus position that human action is causing climate change (Oreskes, 2004). In contrast, an analysis of 4 major US prestige daily that did the same thing for all climate related articles between 1988-2002 found 53% of stories presented climate change as a controversial issue and quoted a scientist on one side and a spokesperson on the other (Boykoff, 2005).
To take just one story that broke in the last few days as an example of wider practice, here is the case of the Heartland Institute – a thinktank that works to discredit the established science on climate change.
Heartland mistakenly emailed board meeting material (including budget and strategy documents) to the wrong person last week who then leaked it to DeSmogBlog. While Heartland originally tried to claim at least one of the documents was faked they have now been authenticated (Littlemore, 2012).
The documents demonstrated the clear intent of deliberately misinforming the public and spreading doubt around climate change. For example, they show that Heartland paid a team of writers $388,000 in 2011 to write a series of reports "to undermine the official United Nation's IPCC reports".
The documents shed light on just how profitable being a climate denier is these days - “funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message. At the moment, this funding goes primarily to Craig Idso ($11,600 per month), Fred Singer ($5,000 per month, plus expenses), Robert Carter ($1,667 per month), and a number of other individuals.”
A huge amount of funding from corporations and individuals with vested interests in the current fossil fuel dependent system drives this misinformation and does so on a massive scale. Heartlands annual budget is $6 million and is supplied by U.S. businesses including Microsoft, Altria (parent company of Philip Morris) RJR Tobacco and more (DeMelle, 2012). And this is just one organisation amongst many that channels funding of this kind.
Add to this the reality that corporate media are not working to protect the public from misinformation – they are working to protect their profit margins – and we have a recipe for disastrously undermining society’s ability to respond effectively to the threat of climate change.
And just how far reaching and successful is this misinformation? Does it directly affect us? Well, to stick with the Heartlands example, what do Nir Shaviv, Syun-Ichi Akasofu, S. Fred Singer, Robert Carter, Tim Ball, Richard Lindzen, Ian Clark, Roy Spencer and Paul Reiter have in common?
1. They are all members of the Heartlands Institute.
2. They were all interviewed in ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ as climate experts.
A Nature Editorial last year publicly denounced the Heartland Institute, stating that for the Heartland Institute "science is secondary to wild accusations and political propaganda."
But then, clearly, not many people read peer reviewed journals and they don’t have the power to sway public opinion. And how many check the credentials of the climate ‘expert’ brought in for balance on the front page of the paper? That’s the journalists job, isn’t it?
So it looks like in our current capitalist society, ‘uncertainty’ on the issue of your choice is for sale to the highest bidder and it makes an attractive investment – for a licence to continue business as usual plus toothless environmental policy it's a bargain price.