Climate change and censorship

The furore over 'The great global warming swindle' is about more than climate change denial, argues James Turley

After over a year of wrangling, the Office for Communications (Ofcom) media watchdog has found Channel 4 in breach of various sections of the broadcasting code, over the documentary The great global warming swindle.

The programme triggered a serious controversy, which mostly consisted of a long list of scientific luminaries, politicians, green activists and others queuing up to denounce its producers and director. Particularly piqued were David King, Tony Blair’s long-time chief science advisor, who was criticised for comments he never actually made; and Carl Wunsch, a leading oceanographer, whose work was selectively quoted to back up assertions that were baldly false. Ofcom received over 200 individual complaints.

Apart from upholding the complaints of King, Wunsch and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Ofcom also ruled that the parts of the programme dealing with government and UN responses to climate change breached ‘due impartiality’ clauses in the broadcasting code. These clauses only cover material which influence public policy, however, and most of the rest of Swindle’s running time did not qualify, since - according to The Guardian - “governments accepted the consensus position [on anthropogenic climate change] and would not be influenced” by discussions of the raw scientific data.1

This is not the first time Durkin and Channel 4 have courted controversy on the issue. In 1997, C4 broadcastAgainst nature, a three-part series making similar claims, along with more wide-ranging denunciations of the implied misanthropy of the green movement; then too the director was Durkin, and again there was a public controversy, ending in censure from Ofcom’s predecessor, the Independent Television Commission.

There can be little doubt that Swindle is a scurrilous piece of work - numerous commentators and scientists have dedicated considerable time to refuting its scientific claims, and the programme is unable to account for how the narrative of anthropogenic global warming has become accepted so widely, barring conspiratorial mumblings about research funding. As with Against nature (and with the anti-green lobby in general), most talking heads on the show were funded, directly or indirectly, by the energy industry. Durkin certainly deserved the point-by-point refutations he has received, and is little more than a crank.

However, none of this need involve Ofcom. Indeed, the broadcasting code has been revealed quite clearly as at best a whimsical beast by this whole affair. The clause on impartiality, with its limitation to material which is likely to “influence public policy”, is quite extraordinary, both in its self-defeating character and in its demands on regulators (can we seriously expect Ofcom bureaucrats to lay down a consistent line on what constitutes an influential statement?).

And why should television programmes have to be ‘impartial’ anyway? Since it appears perfectly admissible for polemical documentaries to be broadcast (as they frequently are, without comment), the furore about this particular instance seems particularly bizarre. Some opponents of the programme have highlighted that highly tendentious statements were presented as facts, and falsehoods stitched out of wholecloth, which is no doubt true, but characteristic of the very form of polemic (inasmuch as bad ones are endemic).

It does not produce truth immaculately, like Minerva from the head of Jove, but through the contestation of different viewpoints. And the programme as a whole was unambiguously not presented as an ‘impartial’ bit of science - The great global warming swindle may not have quite the same bite as Durkin’s first-choice title,Apocalypse, my arse, but is nevertheless partisan and discursive in tone.

This conglomerate bureaucracy, bringing together the ITC and five or six other individual regulatory bodies, has become increasingly heavy-handed in its regulation of television programmes. Guardian columnist Peter Preston highlighted several recent cases of eccentric censorship, including a “robust” response to the appearance of a plaster-cast phallus before watershed on an obscure Swedish channel available to some satellite viewers, as well as a slap on the wrist for Channel 4 over a (quite ancient, and previously broadcast) Simpsons episode featuring the word ‘wanker’.2

Communists are under no illusion about the nature of Ofcom and its ilk - it is another wing of the state bureaucracy, and thus another tool in the belt of the ruling class. The idea that preventing the broadcast of the word ‘wanker’ morally protects children - have these people actually ever met any children? - may be little more than risible, but it ties into a general ideological offensive, designed to infantilise the population at large. Apart from that, the real role of Ofcom is to stop dangerous opinionsgetting on the box - if, today, it is a crank like Durkin feeling the heat, tomorrow it may well be communist propaganda on the chopping block (indeed, on the other end of the political spectrum, the British National Party has frequently seen its election broadcasts mutilated).

There is another aspect to the story, which is the involvement of the former Revolutionary Communist Party in the whole affair. The RCP, it will be remembered, started out as an ultra-left split from the International Socialists in the 1970s, before eventually lurching into an ill-defined ‘deep entry’ project into bourgeois academia and civil society in the 1990s.

The Spiked website now provides the ex-RCP with its most public face. Its primary purpose today appears to be based indirectly on the postmodernist axiom that the enlightenment project has run completely aground, the centred subject is dead and humans are simply - as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari put it - a bundle of machines coupled together (eating machines, walking machines, etc). For the RCP, this is all put in Marxisant terms regarding the total demise of the labour movement.

The postmodernists accept all this ‘death of the subject’ business as a brute fact, and sometimes celebrate it. RCP/Spiked’s unique contribution to this corner of intellectual activity has been to totally reverse the conclusion - what is necessary is to rebuild the enlightenment, and reproduce a culture where people are prepared to ‘shoot the moon’ and aspire to more than their lot. Then, people will be fertile for either revolutionary communism or whatever the group’s leader, Frank Furedi, has seen fit to replace it with.

The enemies of their crusading libertarian humanism are all who try to ‘put us in our place’ and limit our freedom - green activists and Asbo-happy councils, paedophile scaremongers and ethical lifestyle columnists. Their number one foe, it often seems, is the liberal environmentalism that focuses on limiting individual consumption.

Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill writes: “Call me a cynic, a doubter, even a denier if you like - I don’t care; but when scientific research continually and conveniently, almost magically, ‘proves’ that people are disgusting and must rein in their desires and change their habits - just as the elite caste, from priests to politicians, have been arguing for decades! - then I get suspicious”, before wrapping up with a simple message for nagging greens - “fuck off.”3

Their line of attack, however, is frequently to promote individuals who are open climate change denialists in the interests of ‘debate’, paint environmentalists as cookie-cutter oppressors and hysterics, and run uncritical articles on the likes of Durkin.

Durkin is not one of the RCP old guard which form the core of whatever organisation it is that presently organises the Spiked webzine, Institute of Ideas think tank, Sense About Science lobby group and so on - but he is clearly a close contact, to the point that he was able to state authoritatively that the RCP had dissolved in an interview several months before this dissolution was formally announced in Spiked’s predecessor, LM magazine4. His films - which also include defences of breast implants and GM food - tally up very closely with the RCP’s priorities.

Spiked - particularly O’Neill - has been gushing in its defence of Swindle, and ran a glowing interview with Durkin in the immediate aftermath of the programme. Even now, he compares the reaction to medieval blasphemy laws.5

It almost goes without saying that - in spite of their libertarian posing - the whole RCP project as currently constituted is profoundly anti-democratic. To demonstrate this, it will suffice to try a small thought experiment - what does Frank Furedi really think about global warming? There is no doubt that he is an intelligent man, and will be aware that the vast bulk of scientific work in this area points towards the distinct likelihood of a significant human-made component in the rise in global temperatures.

But he could never admit it - after all, he has already ruled out in advance concrete political action around these things, instead focusing on ‘rebuilding subjectivity’, and climate change really is a sitter for those who wish to ‘drive down our expectations’. There is thus always a chasm between Furedi and his coterie, and whoever it is they are trying to address at a given time. They are the enlightened inner circle, who are to revolutionise mass consciousness by way of some sort of spiritual putsch.

Communists suffer no such political paralysis. We are able both to acknowledge the fact of capitalism’s rapacious destruction of the environment, and provide the only thoroughgoing solutions to it. Individualistic responses - turning your TV off standby - will fail, as the truly enormous contributions to greenhouse emissions result from social rather than individual realities. Thus, only a socialist society, democratically run, can truly organise ‘green’ politics, such as a radical extension of public transport and the abolition of the overproduction endemic to capitalism. And only socialism will truly be able to react to an environmental catastrophe, should it already be too late - the irrational and uncoordinated nature of capitalism renders it simply unfit for purpose.

Far from global warming denying human potential, it issues our species a challenge - meet that potential, or perish.


1. The Guardian July 21.
2. The Guardian July 7.
3. www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/5479
4. New Interventions 8.3, 1998 - www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Newint/Rcp.html
5. www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/5490


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