A Glass Half Full: UK Ofcom's Global Swindle Ruling

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? About the UK media regulator Ofcom’s ruling on the broadcasting by Channel 4 of the documentary “Great Global Warming Swindle”, the BBC writes in the new home page, under “Latest”:

LATEST: A Channel 4 film on global warming broke Ofcom rules on impartiality and fairness, the regulator says.

The link goes to an article by Richard Black, titled “Climate documentary ‘broke rules’” summarised as “A controversial Channel 4 film on global warming broke Ofcom rules, the media regulator says.” Still, it “did not mislead audiences”.

It depends on what rules, one imagines. Much better then, to try to understand what the Ofcom actually says, is to go to their website: “Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin issue number 114” dated July 21, 2008, where one can learn:

  • Channel 4 breached Rule 7.1: “Broadcasters must avoid unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes”, specifically regarding Sir David King and Professor Carl Wunsch
  • In part 5 (final) of the documentary, Channel 4 breached Rule 5.11 about “due impartiality” and Rule 5.12 about including an “appropriately wide range of significant views“; those rules apply because the topic can be included among the “matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy
  • Parts 1 to 4 (final) of the documentary were exempt from Rules 5.11 and 5.12
  • Channel 4 did not breach Rule 2.2 of the Broadcasting Code, about materially misleading the public

Looks like all they would have had to do to pass with full marks, was to provide an opportunity of comment for King and Wunsch, and to mention the full gamut of climate-change-related political opinions…

Enough for now, apart from a link to the 86-page bulletin, 17 of which dedicated to Channel 4 and the Swindle documentary.

ADDENDUM

Quotes from the Ofcom bulletin…there are several interesting points. And lots of meaty stuff hidden behind the statement about “not materially misleading the public”:

[…] Ofcom received 265 complaints about the programme from members of the public. Ofcom also received a substantial complaint 176 pages long from a group of complainants, some of whom were scientists (“the Group Complaint”).

[…] Ofcom is not a fact-finding tribunal and its obligation in this case was to reach a fair and reasonable decision on whether The Great Global Warming Swindle breached the requirements of the Code. Given the ambit of Ofcom’s obligation as regards adjudicating on the complaints, however it was in Ofcom’s opinion impractical and inappropriate for it to examine in detail all of the multifarious alleged examples of factual inaccuracy set out in the complaints

[…] Ofcom therefore chose four particular aspects of the programme to examine as part of its overall assessment of whether the programme materially misled the audience. These were:

the use of graphs;
the alleged “distortion” of the science of climate modelling;
presentation of the argument that the theory of man-made global warming is promoted as a means to limit economic growth;
and, not giving an accurate and fair presentation of the expertise and credibility of various contributors.

These particular areas were selected because they featured in a large number of the complaints, and in Ofcom’s opinion were reasonably illustrative of the key issues and different types of alleged factual
inaccuracy in the programme

[…] (regarding due impartiality) Channel 4 said the programme must be considered within the context of the ubiquitous media coverage of the global warming issue and so, in addressing the question of due impartiality, Channel 4 presented an extensive list of programmes over recent years across all the main channels, including Channel 4, which accepted the view that the principal cause of global warming is man-made emissions of carbon dioxide. […] Programmes referred to included, on Channel 4: Channel 4 Year of the Environment, 2007; A World Without Water; and The Year the Earth Went Wild. On ITV, Climate Change – Make A Difference and on Discovery Channel Global Warming: What You Need to Know

[…] Ofcom considers it of paramount importance that broadcasters, such as Channel 4, continue to explore controversial subject matter. While such programmes can polarise opinion, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us and are amongst the most important content that broadcasters produce. It is inevitable such programmes will have a high profile and may lead to a large number of complaints.

[…] In dealing with an issue such as the theory of anthropogenic global warming, which is the subject of scientific controversy, those involved in the debate will – by definition – disagree over the factual accuracy of each others’ claims. Therefore, it is to some extent inevitable that in a polemical programme such as The Great Global Warming both sides of the argument will violently disagree about the ‘facts’.

[…] The anthropogenic global warming theory is extremely well represented in the
mainstream media. […] it is reasonable for the programme makers to assume that the likely audience would have a basic understanding of the mainstream man-made global warming theory […] the programme was clearly trailed and its authorship was clearly identified […] At no point did the programme state that the theories it contained were the mainstream or majority view

[…] Ofcom is of the view that the audience of this programme was not materially misled in a manner that would have led to actual or potential harm. […] Regardless of whether viewers were in fact persuaded by the arguments contained in the programme, Ofcom does not believe that they could have been materially misled as to the existence and substance of these alternative theories and
opinions, or misled as to the weight which is given to these opinions in the scientific community

[…] Ofcom considered it highly unlikely that the programme could have caused actual harm. As to potential harm some complainants had considered that the programme’s questioning of the theory of man-made global warming would create doubt and confusion in viewers’ minds about the need to take action against global warming. Ofcom considers that, although the programme may have caused
viewers to challenge the consensus view that human activity is the main cause of global warming, there is no evidence that the programme in itself did, or would, cause appreciable potential harm to members of the public

[…] (regarding the graphs) Ofcom did not consider the inaccuracy to be of such significance as to have been materially misleading so as to cause harm and offence in breach of Rule 2.2

[…] (regarding the reliability of climate models) Ofcom noted that, although the complainants disagreed with the points made by the contributors in the programme, they did not suggest that the overall statements about climate models were factually inaccurate […] Overall however Ofcom’s view was that the passages complained of were not materially misleading so as to cause harm and offence.

[…] (regarding the suggestion that some environmentalists are trying to reverse economic growth) In line with the right to freedom of expression, Ofcom considers that the broadcaster has the right to transmit such views and the audience would understand the context in which such comments were made. The content was therefore not misleading

[…] (regarding the contributors to the programme) The decisions by the programme makers not to include all the qualifications of contributors, and not to include more background on them (some of which is strongly disputed), were editorial decisions which overall did not in Ofcom’s view result in the audience being materially misled.

[…] Although this programme was intentionally designed as a polemic, [some of the] comments were so sweeping and intemperate that they risked to some degree undermining the fact that overall the programme very aggressively challenged the mainstream scientific consensus on man’s contribution to global warming, without concluding that the mainstream scientific theory was completely without merit

[…] Ofcom considers there is a difference between presenting an opinion which attacks an established, mainstream and well understood view, such as in this programme, and criticising a view which is much more widely disputed and contentious […] In the context of this particular programme, given the number of scientific theories and politico-economic arguments dealt with in The Great Global Warming Swindle, it was not materially misleading overall to have omitted certain opposing views or represented them only in commentary

[…] while unfairness to participants has been found (failures to give an adequate opportunity to respond and the unfair presentation of views), Ofcom does not consider that, overall, these failures led to material being transmitted which was so misleading that harm would have been caused to viewers.

[…] for most of its 90 minute duration the requirements of due impartiality did not apply to The Great Global Warming Swindle. This is because for the first four of its five parts the programme did not deal with a matter of political or industrial controversy or matter relating to current public policy. However, in Part Five of the programme Ofcom noted that the discussion moved away from the scientific debate about the causes of global warming, to consider the policies alleged to result from the mainstream scientific theory being adopted by UN and Western governments and their consequences

[…] Ofcom also had regard to the fact that, both domestically and on a worldwide level, the political debate had largely moved on from questioning the causes of climate change to attempting to find solutions to deal with it. Therefore, in the political arena at least, there was a very broad consensus of opinion which accepted the scientific theory of man-made global warming. In this respect it could be said that the discussion about the causes of global warming was to a very great extent settled by the date of broadcast (8 March 2007).

[…] by simple virtue of the fact that one small group of people may disagree with a strongly prevailing
consensus on an issue does not automatically make that issue a matter of controversy as defined in legislation and the Code and therefore a matter requiring due impartiality to be preserved

[…] (in part five) These issues are matters of major political controversy and are major matters relating to current public policy as defined by the Code. During this section no alternative views on this issue were presented […] Part Five of the programme therefore breached Rules 5.11 and 5.12.

[…] (regarding Sir David King) The (Fairness) Committee found that the views attributed to him and the manner in which they were expressed, amounted to a significant allegation about his scientific views and credibility. The Committee found that Sir David had not been offered an opportunity to respond to the contributor’s criticism. In the circumstances the Committee concluded that the broadcast of the comments, without an offer being made to Sir David to respond, resulted in unfairness to him in the programme as broadcast

[…] The Committee acknowledged that while there is a broad consensus amongst scientists, governments and the public that global warming is directly related to anthropogenic causes, this is still a topic of debate. There continues to be discussion about the different methods of measuring change in the climate, the best way these changes should be analysed, and what predictions, if any, can be made from the data. Indeed such discussion and debate are essential for the formulation of robust,
scientifically sound theories, projections and conclusions. Global warming is clearly a legitimate and important subject for programme makers and it is not Ofcom’s role to adjudicate on whether global warming is a man-made phenomenon or on the validity of particular scientific views

[…] (regarding the IPCC) The Committee found that the programme broadcast a number of comments by contributors that amounted to serious allegations about the IPCC […] The Committee found that the IPCC had not been provided with a proper opportunity to respond to these allegations. Therefore, the broadcast of the allegations had been unfair.

[…] Channel 4 maintained that the IPCC had been offered an appropriate opportunity to respond. Channel 4 said the right to reply letter had been sent to the IPCC press officer nine days before the programme was broadcast, excluding the weekend which fell in between. Channel 4 said nine days was an appropriate and acceptable time period in which right of reply requests are sent and responses are expected to be received. Channel 4 said that no response was received whatsoever, not even to request more time for the IPCC’s response.

[…] the Committee considered that it was unreasonable for the programme makers to have expected the IPCC to understand that its response was required in a matter of days, and that it was not reasonable to expect the IPCC to be able to provide a response within the one day of being advised of the deadline. The Committee therefore found that the opportunity to respond had not been offered in a timely way.

[…] In the Committee’s opinion, it was not unreasonable to describe the consequences of the changes predicted in the FAR (1990) report as being disastrous, especially for those most likely to be directly affected […] The Committee did not uphold this part of the IPCC’s complaint

[…] the Committee considered that the programme maker’s had provided sufficient information for the
IPCC to understand the nature of Professor Reiter’s criticisms in relation to malaria […] the Committee concluded that the IPCC was not afforded a timely opportunity to respond to the allegation that the statements by the IPCC in relation to the spread of malaria were alarmist, untrue and based on poor scientific literature.

[…] the Committee concluded that the IPCC was not afforded an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond to the allegation regarding the statements by the IPCC in relation to the IPCC’s handling of Professor Reiter’s resignation or the compilation of its author’s lists

[…] the Committee found that the IPCC had not been provided with an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond to the re-broadcast of Professor Seitz’s reported criticisms

[…] the Committee considered that Professor Wunsch was not provided with adequate information to enable him to give informed consent for his participation. The Committee found this caused unfairness to Professor Wunsch in the programme as broadcast in that his contribution had been used in a programme

[…] In the Committee’s view Professor Wunsch made clear in his full unedited interview that he largely accepted this consensus and the seriousness of the threat of global warming (albeit with caveats about proof) and therefore found that the presentation of Professor Wunsch’s views, within the wider context of the programme, resulted in unfairness to him.

[…] the Committee therefore found that the programme maker’s editing of Professor Wunsch’s comments about the presence of CO2 in the ocean did not result in unfairness in the programme as broadcast. Accordingly the Committee did not uphold this part of Professor Wunsch’s complaint