ABC chair pressures journos on climate change

March 21, 2010

Journalists at the ABC have come under strong pressure from the organisation's chairperson to give more weight to the views of climate change deniers.

In a speech to 250 programmers, journalists and executives at the ABC's Sydney headquarters on March 10, chairperson Maurice Newman warned of "group-think" and "a collective censorious approach" in media reporting of climate change.

The issue, he said, was one where "contrary views have not been tolerated, and where those who express them have been labelled and mocked", the March 12 Australian said. The previous day, the newspaper had said Newman "warned ABC staffers that he would not tolerate anyone suppressing information".

Newman's allegations were interpreted as an attack on the integrity and professional judgement of ABC news staff. Journalists at the Sydney meeting rose to their feet to express shock and anger.

A spokesperson for Friends of the ABC later described Newman's criticisms as "extraordinary and inappropriate", saying his comments looked to be "an attempt to influence ABC programming to be more favourable to global warming scepticism".

The ABC, it is fair to say, has a one-person anti-environment pressure group in its top official. A former stockbroker and businessperson, Newman is a friend of former prime minister John Howard, who appointed him in 2007.

Newman claims to be "agnostic" on climate issues, but sources quoted in the Australian describe him as "a passionate climate-change denialist in private".

His unsubtle message adds to crude pressures on the ABC to report climate questions in a vein that (in the view of mining executives, at least) befits the country that is the world's number-one coal exporter.

The usual charge leveled against the ABC has been of flagrant green bias on climate issues. Writing in the March 16 Spectator, former Australian opinion editor Tom Switzer argued: "With honourable exceptions, such as Chris Uhlmann, [ABC journalists] actively campaign for an alarmist cause."
Analysis of the ABC's reporting, though, reveals a quite different pattern.

Early this year, the ABC followed the herd of the commercial media in failing to debunk the claims of British climate change denier Christopher Monckton during his Australian tour.

Climate writer Clive Hamilton, in a January 28 post, related the dismal story of Monckton's interview with ABC journalist Fran Kelly: "He compared climate scientists…to the eugenicists of Nazi Germany and to the Soviet scientific fraud Trofim Lysenko….

"Fran Kelly allowed Monckton to present himself as a credible scientific voice, and … did not ask him what his qualifications were.

"She did not ask him why he lied about being a member of the House of Lords, or why he claims to be a Nobel laureate.

"She did not ask him about his preposterous claims to have won the Falklands war or to have invented a cure for Graves' disease, multiple sclerosis, and HIV."

On March 11, reported on a Media Monitors count of references to Monckton since the beginning of the year, comparing them with references to renowned US climatologist James Hansen, who at that point was close to the end of his own Australian tour.

Monckton, with training in classics, mathematics and journalism, had received 455 mentions across the media; Hansen, only 21.

For the ABC, the ratio was almost as lopsided. Monckton, the narcissistic crank and impostor, rated 161 references; Hansen, the doyen of US climate scientists, just nine.

If the ABC has any bias on climate change, it is not in the direction alleged. If its journalists are "alarmists", they practice a rigorous self-censorship.

When Monckton out-references Hansen by 161 to nine in ABC coverage, it is plainly not climate deniers within the organisation who are having to watch where they tread.

The implication that a different "balance" is needed, meanwhile, begs the question: what is to be balanced against what?

Science is not about opinions, but findings that other researchers, through observation and experiment, can reproduce. If the "science" of the denialists can't meet these criteria, it is not science but speculation and has no place in news reporting.

Where does demanding "balance" in the reporting of science lead? To requiring that evolution be balanced with creationism, modern medicine with leech therapy, and astronomy with the signs of the zodiac?

Newman's speech and interview, meanwhile, provide insights into the thinking of senior business figures that rely for their "understanding" of climate change on diligent reading of the Murdoch press.

Again and again Newman's "facts" are plain wrong, as when he maintains that "growing numbers of distinguished scientists [are] challenging the conventional wisdom with alternative theories and peer-reviewed research".

The last serious effort to pose an alternative, "natural" cause for global warming, Henrik Svensmark's theory of the effects of cosmic rays on cloud formation, was disproved years ago.

If Newman were merely an ignoramus on climate change, that would not matter, provided he worked to guarantee journalists the ability to gather information freely, and to relay it without pressures or harassment.

But that is not the situation. Instead of defending his staff, Newman is adding to their already substantial problems.

Journalists and the public in general should demand to be rid of him.

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