Behind the ScenesBritish Media’s Climate Denial
Eliz Mizon speaks to journalists from across the spectrum to discover why the UK media still peddles climate denying misinformation – even during an unprecedented heatwave
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Each day, retired civil servant Jon Fuller buys a copy of all the UK’s national newspapers, snaps photos of any article related to the climate crisis, and uploads them to a 100-member message thread. “It’s useful for people to see what is or isn’t being covered, and how,” he says.
What’s startling about Fuller’s archive is the range of output. The majority of articles are short and straight reports of the latest policy announcement, oil clean-up, wind farm squabble, quarterly profit. But, despite an overall trend of improvement in climate science reporting, journalists who dismiss, ridicule and/or erase the climate crisis, and who legitimise extreme views, persist.
Among those, within Britain’s most influential newspapers, remain writers and editors explicitly promoting outright climate denial.
It wasn’t until 2018 that the BBC stopped platforming climate deniers – a key juncture in public understanding of ‘the debate’, which switched from focusing not on the crisis itself but how best to respond to it.
There are facts we can, or should, agree on: the first is that man-made climate change is happening, presents a grave danger, and needs an urgent response. The second is that news’ current business model renders it incapable of reliably delivering that message.
To explore this problem, Byline Times spoke to several journalists and editors who write about climate (or, as one insisted, ‘about weather’). Each explained that, despite their awareness and that of their colleagues of the global consensus, framing the crisis as urgent remains exceptional. Several described Britain’s news culture as “entertainment”.
What emerges is three distinct faces of climate denial.
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“I very much believe in climate change,” said one red top reporter who delivered a piece on Britain’s record-breaking 40.3° heatwave last month. The article discussed the unprecedented temperatures, wildfire damage and the danger to life – but didn’t once mention the climate crisis.
The reporter, a parent who has more than one job, spoke on condition of anonymity. “I need my job, and I don’t want to embarrass my colleagues.”
Dismissal often manifests as ridicule, or erasure of the climate crisis in discussions about extreme weather. This happens not because individual journalists fail to make the link, but because they know their newspaper’s ‘party line’.
Every source who spoke to Byline Times discussed a self-censorship that pervades the industry.
“Probably not,” was the response of the red top source to the question of whether they’d ever pitch an article on climate to their editor. As to whether they think their editors understand the scientific consensus? “Yes.”
Alistair Grant, a freelance news reporter who has written about weather since 2008, was categoric about the way climate crisis reporting fits into the news business.
“Papers write for their audiences,” he told Byline Times. “If the Mail isn’t covering climate change in the way you think it should be covered, it’s because they look at what their readers are interested in and write about that. Some tabloid readers wouldn’t give two hoots about stories which would make the Guardian front page. If the Daily Star starts writing three articles a day about climate change, they’ll start losing readers.”
Does he think tabloids that don’t cover the urgency of climate change – for example, by taking seriously UN chief Antonio Gutierrez’s warning that we’re creating an “unliveable world” – are letting their readers down? “Editors are not paid to promote Government press releases, they’re paid to make an editorial judgement and sell newspapers,” he added.
The tabloids have covered the recent heatwaves extensively. But all too often, these events are framed as ‘just weather’ rather than the results of climate change.
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“It’s a related issue,” Grant said. “But it doesn’t bother me not writing about climate change. My career as a journalist bothers me, rather than pushing specific issues. Take raw sewage in the Thames, for example – that’s not very nice either, but not writing about it doesn’t bother me.”
There are no hordes of reporters rocking up to work excited to derail public awareness and action on the climate crisis. For the most part, these are simply unknown journalists behind the scenes, struggling to earn wages above the poverty line – hence the lack of diversity in journalism – who need to keep earning.
And yet, there are people in visible positions of power leading the climate denial charge – often in TV and radio punditry, an arena supposedly more robustly regulated.
Darren Grimes, a GB News presenter who a fortnight ago dismissed the heatwave as “a spell of hot weather also known as summer” and said there would be “no global security without access to cheap and plentiful” fossil fuels, did not respond to Byline Times‘ request for comment. Neither did GB News.
The cult of the personality is a centrepiece of the modern news business model – and central to its climate denial problem. This can manifest as the cheeky ‘personality’ of the paper in news-in-brief round-ups, but it’s the columnists who are often on the frontline of the denial disinformation campaign and can get away with writing claims about the climate that are easily shown to be false.
The excuse Express columnist James Whale gave last month for dismissing the climate crisis as “hot air” is that “planets move and we have been getting closer to the sun for thousands of years”. Days later, Times columnist Melanie Phillips claimed “there is no evidence that anything is happening to the world’s climate outside of historical fluctuations”.
Climate scientist Professor Katharine Hayhoe called the claims “zombie myths that have been thoroughly debunked by the scientific literature” and said “it’s important to recognise that they aren’t genuine objections to the science: they’re simply excuses to delay action”.
Leo Hickman, editor and director of data-driven climate and energy outlet Carbon Brief, called Phillips’ inaccuracy “laughably ridiculous” and the absence of editorial intervention “a massive failing on behalf of their readers”. The Times did not respond to a request for comment.
Hickman told Byline Times that reporters rarely “omit, delete, or manipulate sentences” and, rather, the lack of accuracy in climate reporting is an implicit “culture of fear” imposed from on high.
“I’ve heard different versions of this over the years – you know what the owner of the newspaper wants, you know very well what their views are on an issue, you know what sort of story will land with an editor,” he said.
“I think there’s a complicated brew of things going on there, and there’s also a sense of just journalists being in a competitive market. I don’t think there’s an easy script for what’s happening.”
Perhaps the most oblique of all denial is ‘delayism’. By now, mainstream outlets know that outright denial turns audiences off, but the anxiety and confusion around action is real.
Political debate is being framed around ‘sensible’ and largely ‘offset’ decarbonisation – the deadline for which is three decades’ time, delaying the necessity for urgent change. The media reports on but also replicates ‘delayism’.
The Guardian, ostensibly covering the crisis with appropriate urgency, continues to carry airline advertisements and ‘fun in the sun’ visuals in its heatwave coverage. Back in 2007 the Observer’s reader’s editor wrote about complaints the magazine received when its travel section promoted flights to visit natural wonders destroyed by climate chaos.
This has long been a “live issue” at the paper according to Hickman, previously a Guardian environment correspondent. He described an internal meeting in the noughties between himself, other concerned employees and the newspaper’s heads of commercial and advertising.
“The paper was in a vulnerable place financially,” he told Byline Times. “There was a feeling you couldn’t just turn that funding tap off.”
The recent uptick in union action across the country has been alleged to have spread to the National Union of Journalists. One campaigner who spoke to Byline Times spent more than a year trying to get climate reporting on the NUJ agenda, before claiming it was “watered down” in official motions by other reps.
The NUJ strenuously denies the allegation, saying that it is “grossly misleading” and that it passed a motion on the Climate Emergency at its most recent Delegate Meeting which stated, among other points, that the meeting “notes the urgent need for action on the climate emergency both in response to ongoing impacts such as extreme weather, fires, droughts, floods and loss of habitat and species, and in order to avoid the catastrophic and irreversible climate collapse that the world is widely recognised to be on course for, following the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report”.
The motion also stated that the meeting “believes that a sea change is needed in the way we report and act on climate issues”.
“For example, it is looking increasingly incongruous for news outlets to report on carbon emissions while carrying advertisements and features extolling the attractions of long-haul holidays,” it said. “Meanwhile, little attention is paid to the direct carbon impact of media organisations, which should be putting carbon reduction at the heart of their corporate policies.”
If, at the very minimum, we want news to be accurate, we can demand several easy remedies: link extreme weather to climate change; visualise the crisis, not ‘fun in the sun’; pursue solutions journalism. If the revelations about fossil fuel companies’ suppression of the science weren’t enough to convince us that the wealthiest are waging a war against the public, let the ‘culture of fear’ narrative perpetuated by today’s news magnates make it clear. It is not over.