Whether due to commercial pressures or a lack of will, the mainstream media has largely vacated the space for robust reporting on science and political lobbying. As a consequence, independent media outlets are increasingly picking up the slack.
The BBC is by no means the worst offender, but it does make a good case-in-point.
Earlier this year, DeSmog UK revealed that the organisation scrapped its ‘Reporting Science’ course for journalists at the end of 2012. That was despite a major review by Professor Steve Jones just one year earlier criticising the BBC for allowing “an adversarial attitude to science which allows minority, or even contrarian, views an undue place”, and recommending the course be instated.
The lack of institutional scientific expertise has serious implications and leads to some fairly fundamental mistakes, particularly when it comes to climate change.
After much furore, the BBC apologised. It did so not for having Lawson on the programme, but because his incorrect scientific statements “should have been challenged”.
The apology came a full 11 weeks after the Lawson interview took place, and not before the producers invited another climate science denier – this time from the US – onto the programme.
Myron Ebell appeared on the Today programme in early November to discuss the landmark Paris Agreement during annual UN climate talks, held in Bonn the same week. Like Lawson, Ebell is also a well-known purveyor of disinformation of climate change, and duly made factually inaccurate statements about climate science on the Today programme.
Ebell’s statements again went unchallenged by the Today programme’s presenter.
Both the Lawson and Ebell interviews were broadcast without proper context about the history, ideology, and financial interests of their subjects. It is this kind of polarisation and failure to tell the story-behind-the-story that a host of new, independent, media organisations seek to combat.
Some organisations, such as ProPublica, do this through fairly traditional, Pulitzer prize winning, reporting. Others, such as WikiTribune, crowdsource fact-checking expertise to ensure the editorial standards that institutions such as the BBC once proudly held are at least present in a corner of the internet.
Google News also now has a fact-checking service, where articles that have been independently verified get a ranking based on their accuracy. Notably, such checking isn’t conducted in-house by Google but by (you guessed it) the independent media.
In the absence of specialised reporters in the mainstream press, issue-focused outlets such as DeSmog UK and many others continue to pick up the slack – employing qualified journalists to pick apart and creatively communicate a much richer story.
DeSmog UK’s new Climate Disinformation Database, launched today, is just one example of the ways independent media are helping readers to fill in the gaps.
The database has almost 70 profiles of people and organisations known to spread disinformation about climate change. It logs their key quotes, misdeeds, funding and ideological connections to a wider lobbying network.
Likewise, if you search for Myron Ebell on the database of our sister site, DeSmogBlog, you’ll see that his Competitive Enterprise Institute has taken money from fossil fuel magnates the Koch brothers. You’ll also see that Ebell was was instrumental in putting together the Trump administration team on energy and environment – including getting coal lobbyist and climate science denier Scott Pruitt into his role as Environmental Protection Agency chief.
With a new map to accompany the database’s launch, you can also see that Ebell is a key cog in a trans-Atlantic lobbying network that uses libertarian free market ideology as an excuse to push for environmental deregulation.
In February 2017, and logged in the database, you can see that Ebell spoke at an event hosted by Tory MEP and Brexit cheerleader Daniel Hannan, who thinks we shouldn’t bother spending money to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
Click through to Hannan’s profile, and you’ll see he has now set up the Institute for Free Trade in the UK – an organisation that supports the idea that the best way to combat environmental problems is simply to make everyone in the world rich, overlooking the warnings of many economists.
The IFT was launched in the Foreign Office by another Tory with a questionable history on climate change, foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
Current environment secretary Michael Gove, who has said climate policy should not be implemented at the expense of the economy, has also spoken at IFT events. And trade minister Liam Fox is know to be a fan. Fox visited The Heritage Foundation, another think tank with a dodgy history on climate change, on his first trip to the US in his new post.
And who else was present at the summit hosted by Hannan in Brussels? None other than Matt Ridley, an academic advisor to climate science denial campaign group the GWPF (who also helped launch the IFT), and Benny Peiser, the Director of the GWPF.
Were such details of this web of lobbying and disinformation offered in the Today programme interviews? No.
But now, with the independent media working hard to provide the context, there can be little excuse for journalists, producers, researchers and the public to stay uninformed.
Mat Hope is Editor of DeSmog UK, an investigative journalism project dedicated to cutting through the PR spin that coulds the climate change debate.