Neutrality is cowardice

Journalists who provide a platform for climate change sceptics should summon up the courage needed t

Future historians, assuming that there are any, will have an entertaining time looking back at how today's journalists wriggled when confronted with the great moral question of our age. Faced with clear evidence of an existential threat to the survival of the planetary biosphere, news correspondents and media organisations not only constantly fail to convey the true magnitude of the story, but also dash for cover every time the going gets tough.

The most sacred principle of news reporting is that of "balance": giving equal weight to both sides of an argument. I say this principle is sacred because it is so little adhered to. Analyse most news journalism and you will quickly discover a welter of unspoken assumptions and hidden biases, from the false parity accorded to the combatants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the refusal to question the "need" for economic growth. The reality, as most journalists will tell you after a couple of drinks, is that "fairness" largely consists of balancing out and accommodating the most powerful lobbies and the loudest voices. In an issue as divisive and politicised as climate change, that for a long time meant according the tiny number of sceptics equal coverage with representatives of the majority scientific consensus, leaving the public woefully misinformed. Now it simply means being timid: the reactionary lobby is still powerful enough to shoot down anyone who sticks their head above the parapet and says anything that might vaguely be interpreted as "campaigning".

The spat at last weekend's Edinburgh International Television Festival was a classic example of this impulse to timidity. When the anti-environmentalist film-maker Martin Durkin and his Channel 4 commissioning editor Hamish Mykura attacked the BBC's upcoming Planet Relief project - a proposed day of climate change-related programming and entertainment modelled on Comic Relief - corporation executives present rushed to disown it. "It is absolutely not the BBC's job to save the planet," insisted Newsnight editor Peter Barron. "I think there are a lot of people who think that it must be stopped."

If Barron is really suggesting that the BBC should be "neutral" on the question of planetary survival, his absurd stance surely sets a new low for political cowardice in the media. It is also completely inconsistent. On easy moral questions, such as poverty in Africa, the BBC is quite happy to campaign explicitly (as with Comic Relief or Live Aid), despite the claim by the corporation's head of television news, Peter Horrocks, that its role is "giving people information, not leading them or prophesying". By analogy, the BBC would have been neutral on the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, and should be giving full voice today to the likes of the British National Party - all in the interests of balance and fairness. Likewise, it should not cover the plight of Aids orphans in South Africa without constantly acknowledging the views of the tiny minority who still dispute the link between HIV and Aids.

It is worth re-stating again what a more rigorous and honest approach to climate change might look like. First, it would recognise that, despite small uncertainties regarding the specifics, the larger scientific question regarding causality has been settled for a decade at least. Second, it would acknowledge the moral repercussions of our failure to act so far: on people who are already suffering and dying in more frequent and extreme weather events, on future generations of human beings who will suffer a far worse fate, and on other species that will be driven to extinction as a result.

I recently came across a fascinating academic paper, written by Dr Marc Davidson of the University of Amsterdam and published in the scientific journal Climatic Change, which reviews the striking parallels between arguments made by pro-slavery reactionaries in the US deep south 150 years ago and those made by climate change deniers today. Slave-owners argued that the economic consequences of giving negroes freedom would be disastrous, as the muscles of enslaved Africans were the main energy source of the time, as fossil fuels are today. They also argued that the consequences of abolition were just too uncertain to go through with it. Some even claimed that slavery was good for blacks - as some today argue that more carbon dioxide is "good for us".

With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can see just how false and self-serving the pro-slavery arguments were. Slave-owners were defending the indefensible, but it took a civil war to end the evil institution they had established. If more of today's media commentators can summon up the courage to help defend the planet, even against the powerful vested interests that continue to profit from its destruction, then maybe the coming holocaust of global warming can be averted without such a deep and bitter conflict.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?