Ofcom, the U.K. television regulator, has rendered a remarkable decision. People interested in what was actually decided will, unfortunately, have to consult the original judgment at Ofcom, rather than the BBC accounts (here, here) of the judgment.
The Great Global Warming Swindle, a controversial Channel 4 film, broke Ofcom rules, the media regulator says. In a long-awaited judgement, Ofcom says Channel 4 did not fulfil obligations to be impartial and to reflect a range of views on controversial issues. The film also treated interviewees unfairly, but did not mislead audiences “so as to cause harm or offence”. Plaintiffs say the Ofcom judgement is “inconsistent” and “lets Channel 4 off the hook on a technicality.”
Ofcom rendered 4 decisions in relation to the program itself (page 6) and about alleged unfairness to David King (page 36), IPCC (page 43) and Carl Wunsch (page 70) separately. Today I’ll post on the program decision and will discuss the 3 ancillary decisions tomorrow.
As I’ve previously mentioned on the blog, I had no involvement in the making or editing of the production. I chatted briefly with a production assistant in Sweden at the KTH conference in Sept 2006 on a pleasant fall day and agreed to an interview when they visited North America, but the interview was cancelled and I had no further contact with them prior to the show being aired. It turned out that I was mentioned in the credits, but nonetheless, as stated above, I had no involvement in anything to do with the preparation of the program.
When controversy arose about one of their temperature graphics in early 2007, I examined the graphic (reported on at CA here on March 17), identifying the exact error (as opposed to more fanciful explanations). I contacted the producers of the show urging them to fix the error, which they undertook to do. Last fall, they contacted me for assistance in responding to the various complaints, which I provided. One of the complaints was that Swindle had failed to use Michael Mann’s Hockey Stick, a matter on which I felt that the complaint was singularly unjustified and on which I was well qualified to provide technical information. Had the other side asked my opinion on their account of the Stick prior to submitting the complaint, I would have provided it and urged them to avoid this particular issue.
Ofcom stated that it had received 265 complaints about the Program, the bulk of them alleging misrepresentations (in breach of section 2.2) or a failure of due impartiality (section 5).
Among the complainants claiming misrepresentations were Bob Ward and the 37 professors (Myles Allen, Phil Jones et al) who alleged a wide variety of error here and David Rado of the 175-page complaint profiled by BBC here. Ofcom did not uphold any of the misrepresentation complaints against Swindle. Not one. [Update: Three paragraphs down, I state the symmetric point that neither does Ofcom "vindicate" Swindle, which some people ignore. My point here is that Ofcom totally refused to give the complainants the relief that they sought.]
Ofcom summarized their judgement as follows:
In summary, in relation to the manner in which facts in the programme were presented, 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. The audience would have been in no doubt that the programme’s focus was on scientific and other arguments which challenged the orthodox theory of man-made global warming. 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
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 …
Channel 4, however, had the right to show this programme provided it remained within the Code and – despite certain reservations – Ofcom has determined that it did not breach Rule 2.2. On balance it did not materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence.
Not in breach of Rule 2.2.
That’s not to say that Ofcom said that Durkin’s point of view had been vindicated, merely that the complainants were seeking comfort in the wrong bed. Even though complainant Rado said that his complaint had been “peer reviewed” by William Connolley, Ofcom resisted the temptation to opine on scientific truth; instead they did the job assigned to them legislation – to determine whether there had been a violation of Rule 2.2, a possibility that none of the complainants seemed to have considered and for which their preparations were abysmal.
In addition to the general finding, Ofcom selected four major alleged misrepresentations (from the dozens of incoherently presented issues in Rado’s 175 page “peer reviewed” complaint) for individual consideration. Here’s a bit of advice from me to the complainants – you’d have been better off to pick your 4 best issues and stick to them, no matter how interesting the other ones seemed; write a blog on the other ones if you want, but the risk of presenting too many issues to a tribunal is that they’ll end up picking 4 issues to consider anyway and, by throwing too many spitballs against the wall, you end up being stuck with the choices that they make. Were I crafting the complaint, I would not have picked the 4 issues that Ofcom focused on as my priority issues. But the complainants failed to prioritize and got stuck with the issues that Ofcom selected.
The first specific issue related to the use of graphics. And indeed, Swindle contained an error in the temperature graphic in the first program, which was said to have been inadvertently introduced in the production of the graphic. Unlike (say) Inconvenient Truth, where errors have remained uncorrected even when one of their Scientific Advisers supposedly brought the error to the attention of the Inconvenient Truth producers, in this case, the producers promptly replaced the graphic, with changes being made even before the second showing. In the hearing, the GGWS producers candidly acknowledged the error and reported the correction. This undoubtedly helped them with the complaint; Ofcom noted the error but found that this error was “not of such significance as to have been materially misleading so as to cause harm and offence in breach of Rule 2.2″.
The second specific allegation considered was the alleged “‘distortion’ of the science of climate modelling.” Ofcom drolly noted:
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.
Ouch. Ofcom went on to say (again finding for the defendant):
Ofcom notes that the creation of such models necessarily involved assumptions. The disagreement among scientists about the nature of those assumptions (as described by the contributors to the programme) is not an issue on which Ofcom can adjudicate. Overall however Ofcom’s view was that the passages complained of were not materially misleading so as to cause harm and offence.
Next they considered the claim “that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is promoted by environmentalists as a means to reverse economic growth”. I would have advised the complainants to have just dropped this sort of piffle as a complaint. Ofcom made short shrift of this complaint:
This sequence of the programme consisted of a brief historical examination of the environmental movement in the late 1980s before it had become mainstream. These were clearly views of a small set of people who took a particular position on the political motives of these campaigners. 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.
The last specific complaint considered were allegations that the program inflated the credibility of its contributors and that they had failed to disclose nefarious links between the contributors and the fossil fuel industry, links which were denied. Ofcom refused to get involved in judging a beauty contest as to whose experts were the more expert or to grasp the nettle of sorting out the validity of internet tattle on supposed links of Lindzen, Singer etc to the fossil fuel industry. They decided the matter on alternate grounds, finding that the amount of contributor background that was reported was an editorial decision:
The credibility of contributors to the programme The right to freedom of expression and the principle of editorial freedom are crucial to broadcasters. The programme used contributors who offered controversial opinions on the issues raised. 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. … in Ofcom’s view these alleged and strongly disputed links did not need to be disclosed to viewers to avoid the programme being misleading
The Complainants also alleged that Ofcom had misled viewers by “omission of views and facts in a way that materially misled so as to be harmful or offensive”. Here Ofcom observed that the program hardly concealed the existence of a mainstream view – indeed, the program referred repeatedly to the mainstream view, which it criticized, but the audience was clearly apprised that another view was the mainstream view. Ofcom also noted that the mainstream view was well-publicized elsewhere. OFcom:
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 former case, programme makers are not always required to ensure the detailed reflection of the mainstream view (since it will already be known and generally accepted by the majority of viewers). 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. The use by the programme makers of commentary, interviews and archive footage in an attempt to demonstrate the mainstream view on balance, in Ofcom’s opinion, fulfilled this requirement.
In summary, Ofcom considered most viewers would have been aware that the views expressed in the programme went against the scientific consensus about the causes of global warming and were only espoused by a small minority – not least because of the overwhelming amount of material broadcast in recent years based on the consensus view that human production of carbon dioxide is a major cause of global warming.
None of the complaints alleging lack of due impartiality in the science portion (sections 1-4) was upheld. Not one. The only bone thrown to the complainants was a finding that there had not been due impartiality in the portion talking about Africa – an issue that Bob Ward and the Myles Allen 37 didn’t even mention. Ofcom’s reasoning here had a fine touch of irony, which will appeal to connoisseurs of irony, as I hope most CA readers are.
In order for section 5 due impartiality requirements to come into play, the issue had to be one “of political or industrial controversy”. The Code explains that these are “political or industrial issues on which politicians, industry and/or the media are in debate.” But if the science was “settled”, as the complainants elsewhere argued, then the matter necessarily ceased to be one of “political or industrial controversy”, leaving section 5 inapplicable. As confirmation, Channel 4 introduced statements from the Stern Commission and the former Environment Minister that the science was “settled” and thus the science matters discussed in sections 1-4 were no longer matters of “political or industrial controversy.”
Rather a bold gambit and one that left the Complainants on the horns of a dilemma. In order to sustain their section 5 complaint, they would have had to reverse the position argued elsewhere in the complaint and argue that the science was not “settled”, hardly something that they wanted to do and a position that they did not adopt.
In their decision, Ofcom noted the views of the Stern Commission and the former Environment Minister that the science was no longer a matter of “political or industrial controversy” and threw out the section 5 complaints in relation to the science sections. Didn’t I tell you that the irony would appeal to CA readers? [Update: Most blogosphere commentators have failed to catch Ofcom's logic, which is subtle. James Annan sort of grasps it saying "It sort of has a valid internal logic in a smugly complacent middle-class sort of way, but leaves me wondering what OFCOM is actually for." If Annan is interested in the latter question, he would do well to peruse the Ofcom decision bulletins, which indicate a busy schedule, but one which makes them an inappropriate arbitrator of a scientific dispute, no matter how obvious it seems to the proponents - which is doubtless why they chose not to act as arbiters of scientific matters. ]
The only bone that Ofcom threw the program complainants was a mercy bone in relation to the Africa segment, which was hardly a matter of big controversy, having attracted no ire from Bob Ward and the 37 professors. Ofcom concluded that the Africa segment did involve a matter of policy and that the GGWS producers had an obligation to have been more impartial on this topic.
Summary on the Program Complaint
In relation to the program complaint, it’s hard to imagine a more thorough stuffing of the complainants. They were lucky they didn’t have to pay costs.
Tomorrow I’ll comment on the 3 decisions involving individual complaints by David King, the IPCC and Carl Wunsch, each involving fairly particular matters. In each case, Ofcom rejected important items of complaint, with about the only bone thrown the complainants’ way being findings that GGWS did not give the complainants’ enough notice. I was hoping to get to this tonight, because the David King complaint in particular is really the stuff of comedy, which Ofcom handled with a suitably droll delivery worthy of Stephen Colbert.
A complete stuffing of the 37 professors.