FEATURE 

Is Fleet Street in climate-change denial?

Despite climate-change being the number one issue for under-30s, newspapers’ coverage of the issue is patchy at best and some prominent columnists have taken particular umbrage at the activism of a teenager from Sweden, reports Liz Gerard.

By Liz Gerard

Is Fleet Street in climate-change denial?

As a late-night editor, you get used to being blamed in absentia in the morning-after inquests. Often you will learn of your trial and conviction, third-hand, days later, since by the time you report for work next afternoon, everyone has moved on and is focused on tomorrow’s paper. So, few of these sins stick in the memory.

One, however, is as clear as day twenty years on. Not least because it involved a totally unexpected full-scale carpeting from an embarrassed acting editor. Summoned to the editor’s suite the moment I arrived in the office, I was told: “We have a problem with the way you rewrote the splash this morning.”

“But I didn’t rewrite it.”

“You did. I have the history [the electronic paper trail showing the various changes in copy from the moment the file is created to the published article].”

It had to be serious to go to such efforts. The story was about climate change, a warning about global warming. Just one or two words had been juggled but the effect, in the editor’s eyes, was devastating. The story accepted that global warming was a fact.

“But it is.” I said. “Yes,” said he. “But this story suggests that it is man-made. The science doesn’t back that up.”

I was still perplexed. What was the big deal?

“This is the one thing that really gets the proprietor going.”

Ah. There had clearly been a phone call. The proprietor might not interfere in day-to-day editorial decision-making, but if something was plain wrong, well…

The proprietor was, of course, Rupert Murdoch. And, even though the science does now back up the man-made argument, his views – or perceived views - on climate change don’t seem to have changed that much.

There is something deeply unsavoury about powerful sixty-something men hectoring a girl young enough to be their granddaughter.

Don’t mention the climate

This month, his Australian newspapers have been mocked for focusing on a “secret police bid to ban booze” and an “onion oracle” amateur weather forecaster while the rest of the world was splashing on New South Wales ablaze.

“This morning’s front page of the [Murdoch-owned] Australian,” tweeted former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. “It’s almost like they can’t bring themselves to believe in climate change.”

To be fair, that issue was updated to replace a jolly picnic picture with a fires photograph for the second edition, and the crisis had dominated the previous day’s front under a banner headline (unusual for the paper) “Fire and fury”. There had been five fire-related splashes over the week – and they had been raging for three months before most of the world got excited about them. Even so, the coverage did seem a little, well, odd.

Odd enough to prompt an internal all-users email from one News Corp employee, accusing the group of publishing dangerous misinformation.

“I have been severely impacted by the coverage of News Corp publications in relation to the fires, in particular the misinformation campaign that has tried to divert attention away from the real issue which is climate change to rather focus on arson (including misrepresenting facts),” Emily Townsend, a commercial finance manager, wrote.

“I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies. The reporting I have witnessed in the Australian, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun is not only irresponsible, but dangerous and damaging to our communities and beautiful planet that needs us more than ever now to acknowledge the destruction we have caused and start doing something about it.”

Back in this country, any Murdoch-induced climate scepticism seems to be dissipating among his titles, if not necessarily among his columnists. Last March, the World Meteorological Organisation reported that in 2018, 62 million people had been affected and nearly 2,000 killed by devastating floods, fires, storms and heatwaves that it put down to climate change. The Sun gave the story six pars on page 2, alongside a report that sunseekers in Britain would be “enjoying” a day hotter than the Med, a bright daffodil picture and a very sunny three-day forecast. It was left to readers to decide whether to make the connection the juxtaposition implied.

The Times carried the climate report as a nib on a world news page. No one else touched it. Well, it was supposed to be Brexit day. Maybe they had other fish to fry. Next day, The Times’s Irish edition followed up with an op-ed headlined, “As we rubberneck Brexit, our planet is dying”.

Over the past year, we have seen wildfires ravage California, Brazil and Australia; here in Britain, summer temperatures have soared, thousands have had their homes wrecked by flooding. Every December, we are told that this year has been hotter than the last. The evidence is everywhere. What’s more, it matters to voters – ie readers – so that it ranked ahead of immigration in pre-election “issues affecting the country” polls. One BBC producer working with young audiences told me that only two issues mattered to the under-30s: climate change and Brexit. In that order. ‘Climate strike’ was Collins Dictionary’s word of the year, while the OED went for ‘climate emergency’.

Yet print news coverage remains scant, so that even 62 million people being affected by climate-driven catastrophes or statistics showing that the 2010s were the hottest decade on record cannot find their way into many papers.

This month’s “hottest decade” report from the UN led the main television news bulletins, but a basement on page 4 in the FT and an 18-19 spread in the Guardian were the best treatment it received in the press. The Express, which splashed for the second day on whether Big Ben should “bong” for Brexit, did not give it a sentence. And among those that did find space for the story, there was absolutely no joined-up thinking. Not one paper tied the report to coverage of David Attenborough puffing a new “people threaten the planet” programme – or to the fallout from Storm Brendan. All three were kept completely separate, pages apart.

This was all par for the course. We see an obligatory nod to global warming in reports of the foreign wildfires, but not in those of the flooding here. We read about the way people’s homes have been destroyed, their lives disrupted, telephone-number tolls of animals killed – as indeed we should – but where is the background, an examination of the Australian coal-mining industry, for example? The standard response is a Q&A panel, kissing off the environmental / policy element in five sentences.

Even when climate was put centre stage in a televised debate during the election campaign, coverage focused not on rival policies but on melting ice sculptures and Michael Gove trying to invite himself on to the programme. The prime minister’s father got more news space and airtime from that event than the planet. We should have been reading about fracking, wind farms and nuclear energy; instead we were offered “media bias” and a threat to Channel 4’s licence.

A forest of trees must have been felled to provide the newsprint devoted to decrying Extinction Rebellion and the disruption their protests caused, but what of the climate summit in Madrid last month? Barely a word – apart from Greta, of course.

Greta Thunberg is a phenomenon. Here we have a 16-year-old girl who in less than a year has single-handedly motivated her generation to action, met world leaders (apart from Theresa May), addressed conferences and been named the youngest Time magazine person of the year.

The last teenager to make that sort of impact was Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel peace laureate who fought for girls’ right to an education. She was lauded all over the world, the subject of admiring profiles in every paper.

Our newspapers look out of touch, out of date and out of ideas.

Saint or shrew?

But not Greta. “Woke” papers like the Guardian, Observer, FT and Independent have carried in-depth features, but for the rest, the attitude towards this young woman is epitomised by this sentence from the Mail’s Stephen Glover: “Now I have no wish to criticise a brave and resourceful campaigner whose heart is in the right place, but…”

Always the “but”. And, sometimes, not even the positive sweetener first. Some of the headlines make you wince: “The disturbing spectacle of Greta the Great”, “I don’t need Greta’s lectures”, “Teenagers should ignore Greta’s sermons”, “Greta’s glam mummy – and a climate of suspicion”, “The gospel according to ‘saint’ Greta”, “Labour needs a leader who’s prepared to kill terrorists – and doesn’t bang on about Greta Thunberg”. There is something deeply unsavoury about powerful sixty-something men hectoring a girl young enough to be their granddaughter – a child, for heaven’s sake – from the safety of their keyboards in their cosy offices while she’s sailing across the Atlantic. At least the Sun’s Fabulous magazine named her as one of its women of the year.

Greta is far from alone in receiving this treatment. For while most papers now accept there is a problem with the climate, there is still plenty of bile for those who want to do something about it. Especially if they are royals – or, rather, Harry and Meghan – or “luvvies” – particularly Emma Thompson – since their every flight can be cited as proof of their “holier-than-thou hypocrisy”.

And “banging on” is their greatest crime.

In recent weeks, columnists in the Telegraph, Mail and Express have railed against the “green racket”, “the latest piece of climate change lunacy”, a “ridiculous hair-shirt gesture by the deranged ecomentalist lobby”, and “hectoring zealots like po-faced puritans of the past”. The “green lobby” is made up of “irresponsible alarmists” and, according to Jamie Blackett in the Telegraph, is even to blame for the Australian wildfires through its “meddling in the time-honoured practice of burning off excess vegetation”.

They may all have a point, but, by golly, they make it aggressively. Meanwhile, Telegraph columnist and former editor Charles Moore complains that, as guest editor, he had to struggle to get climate sceptic Matt Ridley on Radio 4’s Today programme. Given the flak the BBC had to take over failing to challenge Nigel Lawson in a 2018 interview, was that surprising?

All of which takes us back to where we started. For Ridley is, as it happens, a former Times columnist who wrote frequently and at length on climate issues, describing himself as “lukewarm” – believing that global warming was real and largely man-made, but that the outlook was not catastrophic.

He no longer contributes a regular column and one journalist at the paper says there has been a volte-face under John Witherow. “There was definitely a feeling that we were cautiously sceptical. Now we are very greeny indeed.”

Perhaps that is down to a perceived shift in audience interest. Where executives once suspected that readers were bored by climate stories, focus groups are now showing that they actually want more. “Our editorial line is very much that it's happening, and it's bad. We're definitely well past false balance – there is no expectation of getting in an ‘anti’ quote.”

While most papers now accept there is a problem … there is still plenty of bile for those who want to do something about it.

Not just about plastic bags

So, voters care about it. Readers care about it. But how should newspapers feed this growing appetite? More stories about melting glaciers, suicidal walruses, boiling kelp and burnt koalas? Would that not depress people more and make them feel even more impotent? (There is a rich seam of stories about young people taking anti-depressants to combat their despair over the planet). Vegan recipes and more campaigns to persuade supermarkets to reduce packaging?

Individuals all over the country are making small stands – from veganuary and unpacking shopping at the checkout (forcing the supermarket to deal with the plastic), to swapping clingfilm for beeswax and giving up buying new. There are more stories out there than charging for plastic bags, but they’re not being picked up and developed. Our newspapers look out of touch, out of date and out of ideas. They seem to be floundering, both editorially and commercially – still wrapping their weekend magazines in unrecyclable plastic bags to accommodate all the junk leaflets (some themselves wrapped in plastic) that readers throw away without a glance.

If you aren’t making that basic change yourself and half your columnists are mocking “eco warriors” for wanting to squeeze every drop of joy from your life, it doesn’t really work to say, “this is what you can do”. And, as they keep pointing out, Britain is ahead of many countries in seeking to reduce emissions. The real environmental villains are far bigger, far more powerful and far out of earshot of British tabloid readers.

I asked a handful of science writers what the press should be doing. The answers were not encouraging. Few were willing to speak – “I can’t be seen telling the media what to do,” said one – and none was prepared to go on the record.

“Climate change is a massive problem,” another said. “For a long time, sceptics sort of let us all off. We could show our virtue by disagreeing with them – and ignore the fact that we were all flying and driving too. Now they are increasingly being ignored. I don't know what the press's role is in this; basically because I'm not sure what anyone's is. We're all screwed.”

Individuals all over the country are making small stands.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.