The "challengers" TV debate. Photo: Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images
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Broadcasters must be more robust to tackle multiparty Britain

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of smaller parties - and they weren't quite prepared.

There will soon be shedloads of empirical research about this campaign, and the broadcasters will have their seminars about what went right and what went wrong as they trudge their way towards the next set of elections. But if I had the misfortune still to be stuck in those cheerless meeting rooms, there are items I’d want to be on the agenda based on a personal and subjective view of what we’ve just witnessed.

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of multiparty Britain. In previous elections there had been a tight focus on the three biggest parties, and it was refreshing to get a wider range of opinions that reflected more people in the UK. And yet there is a difference between a fair hearing for smaller parties and over-­representation, especially in the biggest events, which can distort the election outcome. My instinct is that an early mistake was made by adding Ukip to the list of major parties. It’s all very well talking about opinion-poll performance and European elections, but media representation has historically been based on the House of Commons – where Ukip won no seats in 2010.

Once you lost the anchor of the composition of the Commons and the 88 per cent of the vote won by the big three in 2010, and started looking at the transient polls and by-elections instead, the appearance of Ukip in the plans for leaders’ debates understandably provoked a challenge from the Greens and the nationalists. Although the Conservatives never really wanted debates at all, and were at times simply obstructive, they were right that allowing in only Ukip would have been unfair.

So, that then led to Plaid Cymru, which had entered the campaign with three MPs and only 165,000 votes, having two UK-wide debate appearances on a status equal with Ed Miliband’s. There would have been an unfairness in Wales in excluding them altogether; but the outcome felt disproportionate, and it particularly weighted the scales against Miliband in the contenders’ encounter. At least one senior broadcaster I spoke to is expressing unease at nationalist parties getting such prolonged network exposure in the debate series and, arguably, disrupting the overall balance of coverage.

There was also some injustice to Northern Ireland. I was one of the people who argued against the Irish parties being at the top table because I could see no way of including the DUP without featuring all the other contenders there, too, and 12-way debates would have been impossible. But, leaving aside the lack of visibility that annoyed Ulster voters, it slewed the UK campaign. Labour was asked endlessly about an SNP alliance, while the scarcity of DUP ­appearances helped the Tories avoid challenges about a deal with a party that has some startling views about social issues.

The broadcasters probably ended up being over-kind to the SNP. It was right that they were in at least one of the debates, and given full attention on BBC Scotland and STV, but it’s not clear why Nicola Sturgeon was granted additional UK set-piece interview slots when she could be voted for only in Scotland. There was an additional problem in the news bulletins where the SNP clips were almost entirely on their favoured territory about the power they would wield in a hung parliament. They were seldom heard talking about policy or defending their own record in government in Edinburgh. Across the board, there was too much chatter about what would happen after the election compared with coverage of manifesto issues.

The television campaign most came alive when it focused on the choice of who would be prime minister: the highlights were the Channel 4/Sky interviews with David Cam­eron and Ed Miliband, and the BBC Question Time that added Nick Clegg into that mix. It was particularly cheering to see what a difference it made having a passionate audience in Yorkshire, fuelled by the sense that they were taking part in something which mattered. That is why the broadcasters were right when they tried to protect as many of those defining moments as possible. The success of the highest-visibility Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby programmes underlines why executives should resist the argument in future that every debate has to feature everyone.

What the broadcasters need to preserve is their right to make judgements – in the way they construct the framework of the campaign as well as in their journalism. They have a public-service obligation to reflect democracy in action, but they shouldn’t shy away from making choices based on the evidence. It doesn’t do anybody any favours, least of all Natalie Bennett, to pretend that the Greens will be in government; or that we need to spend much time discussing Ukip’s policy on higher education. But with this comes an obligation to be more transparent about decision-making. It still hasn’t been properly explained why the Lib Dems were not in the contenders’ debate, and there was the mystery of why Nigel Farage got his own mini-Question Time when that was not part of the announced plans.

Fortunately for the broadcasters, though, the final lesson is about the indispensability of the old battalions. For all the partisan huff-and-puff of the press, and despite the hyping of digital and social media, it was most often network television and radio that drove the agenda. In this lacklustre campaign, that wasn’t always a blessing.

Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive

Roger Mosey is the BBC’s director of London 2012.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.