The Price of Bored Journalists

Oh, damn. When you consider the forces arrayed against you, or whatever your idea of civilization stands for, you want to imagine a squadron a magnificently outfitted bombers with their ideologies pruned and sharpened to inflict the most pain possible from yours, a force to battle that does you the honor of being as elegantly disciplined and thus terrifying as possible, and perhaps from sheer engagement sharpens your own blades. But, alas, I don’t even have to write the next part.

Our corporate overlords, in conjunction with our B-schools and J-schools, have proffered a generation (now firmly into power-wielding adulthood) of bored journalists. I think I would prefer hucksters. Via CP, the perspective of former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne, which seeks to explain where/how the BBC is coming from on climate is reducing its coverage of climate change. And if the BBC won’t cover climate…

As a former BBC foreign correspondent (Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Beijing) during the Cold War, and former World Service editor now struggling with the monumental failure of contemporary journalism on climate change (Nicholas Stern’s 2007 comments about the market are just as relevant for the news media), I have to agree with recent commentators on Climate Progress who see the roots of this failure more in newsroom culture and subtle peer expectation than in a direct and explicit response to political or commercial demands (although those play their part, of course).

My former colleagues at the BBC, including Richard Black and others whom I know as good men and women all, remain trapped like most Western-style journalists in the old paradigm of news as event, not process, always needing to be shiny, new and different.

As a correspondent, and later at every nine o’clock morning editorial meeting at the World Service on every weekday through the 1990s, I and my colleagues would grapple with this – how to tell a complex story in just a few lines, with enough of a news peg to interest our listeners. And listeners, viewers and readers have short attention spans – they’ll tune out if they sense it’s just the same old stuff.

So, in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need (not that we put it like this) a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.

Given our human evolutionary need for primal reassurance that we are safe, and that bad things are happening over there and not here, the events that journalism reports tend to focus mainly on conflict, ideally involving stories of the dramatically dead. World Service news bulletins would often drip with blood, as do the standard news agendas of most Western media. If it bleeds, I’m afraid it does lead.

That’s factor one. Consider then how the editorial decisions of each news editor are taken in the context of those made by his or her immediate predecessor on the last shift, and by the shift and the week and the months and the years before that. As I know from my years in the field, it’s very, very hard to go against the received news agenda wisdom.

Add in, as a third factor, the post-1960s, post-modernist, post-Watergate (especially) but actually quite arrogant self-belief of Western journalists as brave, embattled warriors fighting for truth against devious authority, and I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that the news business finds the climate story so hard to tell.

Bear with me a little longer to see how this all plays especially at the BBC, as a public service broadcaster funded by a domestic licence fee that’s essentially a tax on anyone with a television. (The World Service is funded directly by the Foreign Office.)

At the Corporation, despite its fiercely-defended principles and charter of journalistic independence, the sense of ordinary journalistic embattlement is compounded many times over by pressure (think Tony Blair and the Iraq war, or, even harder to deal with and much more relentless, think Israel and Palestine) from very vocal, insistent and well-organised interest groups.

The BBC’s programmes, domestic and international, are under quite extraordinarily intense daily scrutiny. Editors and journalists respond, both consciously and less so, with a desperation to appear balanced, and fair, and objective.

On climate change, that BBC journalistic urgency to be seen to be fair now means, after a period between Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and the disaster of Copenhagen when global warming was everywhere in the output, that the Corporation has been bending over backwards to reflect the opposite, sceptical view.

Journalists at the BBC know that the mood has shifted – for the time being, anyway. My old colleague and the Corporation’s first environment correspondent Alex Kirby emailed me this week to agree that Richard Black, sharply criticised elsewhere on CP for his recent reporting of the current state of Arctic sea ice, was most probably, as Alex put it, “a victim of the BBC wishing to demonstrate its ‘even-handedness’ by being, if not sceptical, at least much more questioning about the science, even though 99% of it stands up.”

(The determination to be “fair” to all sides on all stories can at times go to such absurd lengths that Allan Little, one of our best reporters with hard experience of covering Sarajevo in the mid-90s and much more, speaks of the analogy of two men at a bar, one saying that two plus two equals four, and the other that two plus two equals six. The BBC solution to this disagreement? Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.)

This past Monday night, discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended (as usual, when the subject is global warming or peak oil) screening at the Frontline Journalists’ Club in London of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert – yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy — I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

Coming towards the end of these thoughts, I quit daily journalism in 2002 after 30 years to work as a psychotherapist (same job, listening to people, but where I get to stay with the story week after week without having to simplify it beyond recognition for the evening bulletin).

As such, I often ask myself — and, obsessively, others — what it will take to get Western-style, ratings-and-profit-led journalism, reflecting as it does the emotions of politics, economics and public opinion, to take climate change and sustainability as seriously as it deserves, as a present, existential threat to the very survival of our species.

Putting it bluntly, I regret to have concluded that this will only happen once very large numbers of people start dying. As in, hundreds of thousands to millions, and quite clearly climate-change-related.

The Pakistan floods were shocking, as were the Russian summer peat fires and the landslides in China. But in order for enough of humanity to wake up (as we all ultimately, or course, will), not enough people died. Ouch.

This is how we are programmed by evolution, to pay attention or not. It has to be personal, people-related. And for most of us, including our newsrooms, things just aren’t hot enough yet, or sufficiently and personally uncomfortable. (Ecocide of almost every other species and the collapse of ecosystems already observable doesn’t, I fear, hit home emotionally.)

Until something Very Very Big happens (we must hope, in Sir Crispin Tickell’s description, for catastrophe that is benign), I do not believe that mainstream journalism, as indeed mainstream politics and economics, will change. The financial crash wasn’t big enough. Nor was the Eurasian summer of 2010. One shudders to think what might (and will) be.