An Taisce Lodges Complaint to RTÉ on ‘PrimeTime’ Climate Change Debate

3rd January 2016
Press Release

An Taisce has lodged a formal complaint with RTÉ regarding the Prime Time programme broadcast on December 3rd, 2015, entitled “How much will climate change cost Ireland”. This has been done because RTE’s flagship current affairs programme completely failed to reflect the overwhelming expert consensus on the core findings of climate science.

RTE Prime Time has, in our view, once again misled the public on the crucial issue of climate change by failing to present a scientifically credible and informed debate on the essential decisions for the future of the Irish economy including agriculture.

The full complaint can be found at the link below, see Note 1. (Please note: this Complaint does not relate to the short, pre-recorded video introductory segment or its reporter, but to the extended ‘studio panel debate’ that followed).

An Taisce fully supports RTÉ’s key role in enabling free and open debate and to “operate in the public interest, providing News and Current Affairs that is fair and impartial, accurate and challenging” (see Note 2). In our view though, these values were ignored in much of the programme’s panel discussion, breaching both the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) rules and RTÉ’s own Journalism Guidelines (2012). This complaint follows similar concerns regarding a previous Prime Time programme on climate change that was aired early last year (Note 3).

The December 2015 programme’s discussion topic was the possible economic effects on Irish agriculture arising from the national policy aiming to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions in line with Ireland’s declared United Nations and EU commitments. However, Prime Time misleadingly introduced a complete non-expert in this field (a specialist in atmospheric meteorology) as an agricultural policy expert.

This panelist was then allowed to divert discussion into areas of climate science on which neither the presenter nor the other panelists had sufficient knowledge, so allowing serious misrepresentations of the expert findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to occur. Personal views were therefore aired without any “forceful questioning” (Note 4), despite the fact that Prime Time knew full well in advance that this panelist represents a tiny ‘contrarian’ minority among scientists. At least two Irish academic specialists had refused invitations to participate in the panel, clearly stating their concerns regarding the potential ‘false balance’ presentation of climate science that, regrettably, did indeed result.

An Taisce believes that normal editorial and presenter preparation could easily have accessed and noted the necessary key statements of the IPCC climate report (Note 5) to properly rebut misleading statements but clearly this did not happen. Indeed, such a shortage of journalistic rigor and basic climate understanding is far too often seen in climate change coverage in our media. Here, this lack of rigor resulted in Prime Time allowing personal advocacy, aimed at promoting climate inaction, being presented under cover of supposed scientific authority, having been introduced as such by the presenter. Free speech must be respected and a scientist is, of course, fully entitled to advocate for a personal view on policy, but it is important that both they and the presenter make clear that they are doing so. This did not happen.

In the complaint, An Taisce urges RTÉ and the BAI to consider introducing appropriate policies and procedures on the accurate reporting of climate change science and policy. As seen in the past, in the tobacco industry’s long running campaign to delay action to control tobacco sales, vested interest efforts to delay action to control greenhouse gas emissions have aimed to create public doubt by misrepresenting science and minimising potential harmful impacts (Note 6). RTÉ and other media need to be far more aware of basic climate science in order to avoid being manipulated in this way.

Clearer guidelines specific to climate change reporting, as have already been introduced by the BBC and other media organisations would help RTÉ editors and presenters further to “maintain a balance of opinion that reflects the weight of evidence”. Regrettably, this “weight of evidence”, was noticeably absent from RTE Prime Time in both its March 2014 and December 2015 segments on climate change – and these were the only segments Prime Time dedicated to this crucial topic in the last two years.

An Taisce looks forward to a detailed and comprehensive response from RTÉ Prime Time regarding this complaint, and, if requested, we are prepared to engage constructively with RTÉ in helping to draw up evidence-based guidelines on environmental and climate-related reporting. We would urge all media editors and reporters working in all sectors – including economics, energy and transport as well as agriculture – to be far more aware of core IPCC climate science and policy guidance so that they can report climate change more accurately and objectively, and so be better equipped to deal with ‘special pleading’ from powerful interest groups opposing action on climate change.

The core finding of the overwhelming consensus, of scientists and experts, from all fields of climate science and policy, is that acting immediately and strongly to cut our national and personal greenhouse emissions will be far safer and far cheaper than delaying decisions and acting later. Knowing this, we and our media need to critically question those who argue otherwise.

Acting on climate change quickly and deeply will be required to meet the extremely challenging 1.5C and 2C targets set out in the recent Paris Agreement, as is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change in the coming decades. Any and all debate now needs to reflect the very challenging arithmetic of carbon budgets and emissions pathways now needed by every nation, including Ireland.

The results of failing to act to cut emissions are already becoming abundantly evident in extreme heat and drought events around the world, and specifically right now, in the extreme flooding and storm events now directly affecting Ireland.

An Taisce strongly supports the right of the media to act independently and free from censorship from any source in its reporting; this in turn right carries clear responsibilities, the most crucial of which, we contend, is not ‘balance’ but accuracy.

We can limit the very worst effects of climate change if we act now. We urge our media to reflect this reality.

ENDS

For further information, please call:
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce. Tel: +353 87 241 1995
email: publicaffairs@antaisce.org
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland
www.antaisce.org

NOTES

  1. Link to full complaint document. http://www.antaisce.org/sites/antaisce.org/files/prime-time-complaint-2015-12-03-final.pdf
  2. RTÉ Journalism Guidelines (2012) p.2
  3. RTÉ Prime Time programme March 18th, 2014. See discussions: http://www.thinkorswim.ie/a-prime-lesson-in-how-not-to-cover-climate-change/
  4. http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/columnists/victoria-white/prime-time-and-rte-are-in-denial-of-the-truth-about-climate-change-264064.html
  5. See BAI Rule 22: “It is an important part of the role of a presenter of a current affairs programme to ensure that the audience has access to a wide variety of views on the subject of the programme or item; to facilitate the expression of contributors’ opinions – sometimes by forceful questioning; and to reflect the views of those who cannot, or choose not to, participate in content.”
  6. IPCC (2015) Video summary of the AR5 Synthesis Report. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrF042fGfQM
  7. Authoritative reports presented at all levels from simple to complex are available from http://www.ipcc.ch
  8. Oreskes N, Conway EM (2010) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press.