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Martin Cohen: The Guardian’s Climate Change Coverage And Its Commitment To Factual Reporting

Almost a year ago now, I took up not so much cudgels as a couple of scholarly points with the London Guardian, newspaper known to all climate change campaigners for its zealous advocacy of the theory that man-made CO2 was threatening disaster to the Earth.

C.P. Scott, the paper’s father-figure and past editor, described what were to be the paper’s principles in a special centenary leader on May 5, 1921. Among the many well known lines are the assertions that ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’, that newspapers have ‘a moral as well as a material existence’ and that ‘the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard’.

It doesn’t take a full-scale Public Inquiry to see that in the case of Climate Change, the Guardian has clearly fallen short of at least two of the three values, leaving them the right to misjudge the morality of advocacy that has led directly and predictably to widespread deforestation and habitat loss on the one hand and swingeing fuel taxes on the poor on the other. The statement of purpose for the Scott Trust, the organisation that oversees the paper adds that it should be: “a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to its liberal tradition.”

Actually, no one in philosophy knows what exactly that might mean or require, so the Guardian can be forgiven being doubly unclear on its ethics, much as we might regret it. But after some dismissive replies from the Scott Trust to inquiries, Chris Elliott, the paper’s Readers’ Editor, the senior journalist with responsibility for such matters, agreed to look at the specific issue of whether or not the paper was continuing to respect of the ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’ principle, so prominently emblazoned these days on its website.

Eventually, in December 2010, he wrote to me (by email) to say that: ‘The Guardian is not the BBC; we are not legally bound to be impartial. There are certain things the paper believes in and it says so. This is not at odds with the journalistic principles of CP Scott. What is important is to stick to his dictum of the separation of news and comment.’

He went on to briskly dismiss my general concerns, but agreed to look at one narrow issue concerning the Climate Change coverage. This in due course he adjudicated on – in the paper’s favour’ in July this year in one of his ‘Open Door’ columns entitled: Open door: The greenhouse effect and subtitled: The readers’ editor on… the appliance of science and claims of skewed reporting.

After some general observations about being a Reader’s Editor (which tended to lead the reader to sympathise with his task of dealing with cranks and vexatious complaints) he summarised my ‘complaint’ thus: ‘”…a significant factual error, with consequences for the debate about climate change science, was being regularly made in the paper… The claim was that CO2 is the major element in the atmospheric greenhouse effect and my point was that it is not. This being a fact, it should have been reported accurately, whether in ‘comment’ pieces or ‘news’ stories.”

Chris Elliott summarised my comlaint very shortly thus: ‘Cohen states that water vapour is the major element in the greenhouse effect.’

This is where for GWPF readers it perhaps gets more interesting.

He then continues: ‘I spent some time going through Dr Cohen’s examples with Ian Sample, one of our science correspondents since 2003. He was a journalist at the New Scientist and worked at the Institute of Physics as a journal editor. He has a PhD in biomedical materials from Queen Mary, University of London. On the basis of our discussions I wrote to Dr Cohen:

“…There is no dispute that water vapour is the largest contributor to the greenhouse effect on Earth. That vapour is in the atmosphere naturally, as part of the water cycle, and without it we would be living in frigid conditions. Water vapour is the blanket that keeps us warm. It accounts for roughly half of the greenhouse effect. This is our natural environment: warm and hospitable to life.’

‘Now, let’s put nature to one side.Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas that comes from human activity. It accounts for about two thirds of the additional warming caused by the release of all human-emitted greenhouse gases. Guardian journalists reporting global warming tend to focus on it because it has a large effect and it is something we can actually do something about. Humanity can’t do much about water vapour in the atmosphere.’

‘So there is room for confusion in how we write about the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect. The major contributor is water vapour, but the one we focus on, the one that has become the most important Ian would say, is carbon dioxide, because human activity is behind rising CO2 levels and that rise is driving global warming. Human activity doesn’t put significant amounts of water vapour into the atmosphere …’

Chris Elliott’s account tails off with ellipses on that point, which perhaps is just as well as of course changing land use and interference in water systems is exactly the culprit that climate sceptics might point to for intelligent and realistic explanations of local, regional and even continental climate patterns. But if a man with a PhD in biomedical materials is not able to advise him on that pitfall, Chris can hardly be expected to avoid it himself. Instead he says contentedly:

‘I don’t think that there is any deliberate skewing of our reporting to suit a particular set of beliefs that are at odds with editorial guidelines, rather we report as we do through a process of deductive reasoning as to what is important within the argument. The Scott Trust trusts the editor to ensure that the journalism adheres to the law and editorial guidelines…’

The bottom line then, on this central issue to do with the reality or otherwise of climate change, on which so much of the Guardian’s environment, social and economic coverage has rested, is that even if carbon dioxide is not a significant element in the greenhouse effect, people think it is, and so the paper is entitled to use the idea as a kind of journalistic shorthand. Or that is how I read the adjudication.

Let Chris though, have the final word.

‘Perhaps we should make a clear distinction in our writing, between the most significant contributor to the greenhouse effect (water vapour) and the most important component so far as human activity and potential mitigation is concerned (carbon dioxide). Sample’s feeling is that as reporting on climate change has matured, reference to carbon dioxide as the most important greenhouse gas has fallen into common usage. There is no Guardian-wide agenda here, but I would be interested in what readers think?’

There were 267 comments, althought quite a lot, as they usually do on the Guardian’s website, mostly were on topics of their own with little to do with the article. However, WestRuntonWeasel (comment 17 July 2011 10:59PM) seemed to me to aptly sum up the position when he said:

‘If you were using this as a test case and Dr. Cohen was proved correct – as you agree, then surely you admit that his complaints had merit and that you should investigate or concede on the outstanding matters.’

Alas the Guardian is no more likely to do that than the IPCC is to admit the Himalayas are not going to melt, the seas turn to carbonic acid and the Amazon into a dust bowl…

Does it matter what the Guardian says? But indeed, it may matter. As Peter Sissons notes in his autobiography, according to one person who participated, the infamous BBC ‘seminar’ that decided that balance was no longer the appropriate watchword for Climate reporting, ‘that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus’, consisted of people who relied on the Guardian for their views.

And as I know from personal experience, and is reflected by this debate just, Guardian journalists rely on sources like Wikipedia and Greenpeace and are spectacularly casual about distinguishing bettween, well, fact and comment.