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Weather vane, St Helen's Church, Norwich, UK. Photo: LEOL30 via
Weather vane, St Helen's Church, Norwich, UK. Photo: LEOL30 via
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The media's climate Fail - we must move beyond mere anger

Vanessa Spedding

24th February 2014

Following the BBC's abysmal reporting of climate change, Vanessa Spedding believes that news 'consumers' must transcend their outrage at media ignorance of climate, and demand new, inspiring narratives.

Climate change and ecosystem decline could provide a unique opportunity to focus on exciting, inspiring, uplifting news.

I can't deny I found some solace - and perhaps a tinge of schadenfreude - in the flood of complaints that followed BBC Radio 4's Today programme of 13th February.

The programme had attempted to provide context to the prolonged and dramatic weather at the time by pitching Sir Brian Hoskins, eminent, quietly-spoken climate scientist, against Lord Nigel Lawson, strident and verbally dextrous denier of human-caused climate change.

Unsurprisingly, the latter proceeded to dominate the air-time and obfuscate the science, to the immense frustration of many.

BBC - committed to impartiality?

Far less satisfying, however, was the BBC's dismissive, self-satisfied response to the complaints, in which their spokesperson coolly justified the climate denier platform on the basis that it reflected their "commitment to impartiality".

The reasons that the BBC stance is illogical - as well as antithetical to journalistic balance - don't need outlining here.

The web has been aflame with the well-articulated exasperation of others, well able to identify the absurdity and danger of a media machine that persists in debating the causes and significance of climate change, rather than giving appropriate weight to the scientific evidence and possible responses to it. And all while the world's weather systems visibly fall apart.

But while the exasperation is easy to understand, the intransigence of the media is less so - especially of the more serious, arguably less politically motivated outlets such as the BBC.

That the deniers are largely unqualified and lacking in objectivity is well studied and understood. An impartial organisation would surely not hesitate to expose these points. Even the government's inclination to ignore climate reality is fading: in some cases politicians spell the situation out more clearly than opinion writers.

So why - in the face of compelling calls to intellectual and moral rigour, expressed well on this site by Jonathon Porritt and elsewhere by Rob Hopkins and Media Lens - the media groundhog day?

Is climate catastrophe the 'wrong sort of narrative'?

It's fashionable right now to relate everything to the concept of narrative. We're wired for it, after all: we make sense of the world by means of stories. Stories bring meaning and direction.

The construct of story is a very powerful one. Few if any institutions rely on that power more than the media.

The media craft stories that are appealing in part because they give us contexts and comparisons for our lives. We may know, if only instinctively, that we are taking part in a bigger story - the story of our community, our culture, humanity, the planet.

And if we can write our life story so that it contributes in some small way to that larger story, we can achieve a sense of being on a hero's journey of our own.

Something very challenging happens, however, when one of those larger stories starts to look different from how it used to look when we were younger.

Confronting the unpleasant truth

Because when we see that all those well-behaved years of hard work have been contributing all along to something rather less savoury than we'd imagined - that, in fact, they have been contributing to a disaster - we can no longer be heroes.

In fact, we can suffer such a profound loss of meaning and purpose that we prefer to shut out the knowledge of the new story direction.

Likewise, the communities, organisations and institutions into which we have grouped do the same: they deny the dawning realisation of a new narrative trajectory, so as to avoid a crisis of validity and identity.

Driven by the usual economic and cultural forces, the mainstream media, that primary purveyor of stories, is built on and woven from stories of growth, progress, domination, aspiration and winning: the stories that define our modern, industrial culture.

As a result, the day-to-day news sits on a bedrock of assumptions about the validity of the institutions, laws and rules that frame and dictate the direction in which that larger story is headed.

For the media to question the direction of the larger story, its representatives must therefore be prepared to undermine the foundation on which their employment, their working culture and its beliefs sit.

They must move on from the old story, which has determined how they conduct interviews and how they analyse and summarise; and into a new one.

A fundamental disconnect

This entails such a fundamental disconnect with all that they are trained to do, and such a Herculean effort to step outside the frame of conformism and careerism, that it is all but impossible.

Herein lies the challenge presented by climate change: dramatic, accelerating and civilisation-threatening global climate change.

When the BBC defends its positioning of interviewees as impartial, they are preserving a balance either side of an implicitly accepted mid-point, which sits firmly in the quantum fuzziness that is climate change uncertainty.

They have to preserve this mid-point because it allows them to stick to a known position on a predefined, if only implicitly understood trajectory: the story of our society. If they allow that mid-point to shift, they allow the narrative to change direction.

Now today's top story, the end of civilisation ...

And then: well, how is an established newsreader in an Armani suit supposed to manage slick, three-minute discussions about the possible end of civilisation with any degree of professional dignity?

Climate change brings with it a pressing and urgent need to shift the frame of reference for our stories, and nowhere is the collective cognitive dissonance that this produces more evident than within the media.

What we are seeing is a form of intellectual paralysis; a process of mental fibrillation as the circuits overheat. The lack of an appropriate response is symptomatic of a complete failure of collective imagination.

And this is a great pity, because accepting and embracing the new story, as far as we can make it out, could lead to highly imaginative, creative and novel news coverage.

The new narratives we should be hearing

We could be hearing debates about which of a variety of policy responses would be most effective at rectifying the damage.

We could be seeing coverage of the colourful, inspirational grassroots and community projects that seek to minimise dependency on carbon-intensive products and instead to rejuvenate ecosystems, soils and communities. That coverage could even encourage projects and policies to link up, so that constructive responses are supported and funded.

The media has the power to facilitate a transformation of our society. Climate change and ecosystem decline could provide a unique opportunity to focus on exciting, inspiring, uplifting news - to tell stories that confer a new sense of meaning to our lives and to our place in history.

What they need is an invitation, from us their customers: to weave us all into new stories and to reset the compass for our lives. But first they must help us to find our bearings.

I would like to invite them to do just that. Anyone inclined to join me might consider signing this petition, which takes a first step by asking the media to debate the constructive responses to climate change, not its existence.



Vanessa Spedding is a science writer and editor based in the Welsh Marches. She blogs at Vivid.



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