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Toxic Media Climate: ‘Air Pollution Is As Invisible in the Press As It Is in Our Atmosphere’

The latest episode of the hit Media Storm podcast focuses on how journalists have covered ULEZ, often politicising the issue rather than exploring it through a health lens

Anti-ULEZ protestors in London’s Trafalgar Square on 27 April 2024. Photo: Monica Wells/Alamy

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The climate crisis has been wreaking havoc in the headlines this week. Heatwaves in south-east Asia, flooding from Kenya to Brazil, and exotic spiders smuggling their way from the Caribbean to Cornwall because global heating has made our island a hospitable environment (don’t tell the Government, it would probably deport them to Rwanda).

Heat, rain and spiders are – as far as we’re aware – unpolitical in their targets. But, if you were to judge by what you read and hear in the press, you’d think they made a mean target of the political left.

A headline-making study in 84 countries linked a quarter of plastic pollution to five companies. It made 70% of appearances in left-leaning papers, 30% in centrist science magazines, and 0% in right-leaning news.

We jotted down highlights from the Telegraph’s op-eds this month: ‘Nobody is buying into the net zero madness’. ‘The lie at the heart of veganism’. And, just in case young people were left feeling any love, ‘Hiring Gen Z is a nightmare’! Youth-bashing doesn’t strike us as a strategy with much foresight, but perhaps the Telegraph is banking on the world being over before Gen Z comes of paper-reading age?

The left has its own issues, sugar-coating the sacrifices and unequal hardships of carbon-cutting, exposing out-of-work Welsh steelworkers to the righteous fury of Tesla-driving urbanites who don’t even know how to recycle. Thank goodness Rishi’s to the rescue with a bold pledge to scrap seven bins! He really knows how to win an election.

One climate-related story has haunted UK headlines for the best part of five years, escalating with this month’s local elections – the introduction and expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). If you didn’t realise ULEZ was a climate story, we wouldn’t blame you. It’s been less about pollution than politics, and therein lies the problem.

“Air pollution is about health, it’s not about politics,” Rosamund Addoo-Kissi-Debrah told the latest Media Storm podcast, the mother of the only child in the world with pollution listed as her legal cause of death (though the true estimate is in the millions). “The way it has been manipulated is very clever.”

Announced in 2015 by then Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson, and implemented by his Labour successor Sadiq Khan, ULEZ – on the face of it – is a cross-party policy aimed at improving air quality in the capital. In reality, it’s a political cagefight drama dominating British elections.

Myths about the £12.50 charge going directly into Khan’s pockets, or illegally plugging TfL’s debts, raged wildly (and Islamophobically) in Facebook groups run by Conservative staff. Testimonies of the hardest-hit drivers and small business owners dominated coverage of Khan’s 2023 ULEZ expansion. They must be heard, but given that 90% of cars were compliant at the time – and 98% of London schoolchildren breathe air exceeding WHO pollution limits – it’s hard to find the proportionality in this.


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A flick through the London Elects handbook (posted through every letterbox before the recent mayoral election) shows that left, right, up, down – all dividing lines disappeared in place of one line only: are you anti or pro-ULEZ? More than half the candidates led with aggressive calls to abolish the zone – ‘end the war on cars’, ‘remove the cameras’. Yet, only one of the anti-ULEZ brigade actually mentioned air pollution. In fact, air pollution only appeared twice in the entire booklet. For an election essentially fought on an anti-pollution policy, this tells us everything we need to know. 

Air pollution is as invisible in the press as it is in our atmosphere. We can’t see it, so maybe we don’t have to think about it? But for some, it can’t be passed up as tomorrow’s problem, given that the worst has already happened.

Rosamund has become one of the most prominent advocates for clean air worldwide since discovering that pollution caused her nine-year-old daughter Ella’s premature passing. She condemns years of news on air pollution being suppressed, backing accusations that then London Mayor Boris Johnson ‘buried’ an air quality report that found four-fifths of London’s primary schools were in areas with illegal levels of air pollution.

“He opened a drawer, he put that research in there, and left it for the next man to deal with,” she told the podcast. “Something we will never know is, if Mr Johnson had carried on doing what Sadiq Khan had done [with ULEZ], whether my daughter would have lived.”

Why was the death-by-pollution of an innocent child not enough for us to take up arms? Perhaps it’s to do with the way climate stories are reported.

‘When Articles Exclude Voices of People They’re About, It’s Dehumanising’ – UK’s Biggest Media Players are the Worst Offenders

Once you notice their silence, you can’t not hear it – introducing a new Byline Times column to accompany the new series of the hit podcast Media Storm

There was once a time, says Bloomberg Green senior reporter Akshat Rathi, where ‘two-sided journalism’ meant debating climate change’s existence. We’ve thankfully moved on from that, but what is happening now might be even more sinister.

“They’re moving on to a different kind of story,” Rathi said. “They’re trying to poke holes in the solutions that you’ll need to tackle climate change.” ULEZ charges are too expensive, heat pumps are too noisy. “All these tactics are going from what used to be climate denialism to climate delayism.” 

So what can we do to promote these solutions?

Doing away with catastrophising is step one. “You have to have hope,” says Rosamund. “For someone who advocates for young people, I have to believe that the air you breathe will get better. I for one, do not instil fear in my children.”

Step two is asking the media for solutions-focused journalism. “Catastrophe stories do sell,” admits Akshat Rathi, “journalists take feedback from what people are reading, and try to provide what service people are demanding”. If you feel like climate solutions aren’t covered enough, she said, “demand it, email them, tell them that you want solutions. That will change how journalism is done”.

Media Storm’s ‘Politics or Pollution?’ is out now

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