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article published in Quadrant Magazine February 22 2011

ABC smothers complaints

by Des Moore

February 22, 2011

When will the ABC become “Balanced”?

On 9 February the ABC’s Lateline ran an interview with three scientists, described as leading climate experts, on what was described as “the weather conditions that may be behind the recent natural disasters”. In his introduction Presenter Tony Jones set the scene from his perspective by claiming that “climate scientists admit they’re not certain how much global warming is influencing such disasters”. This of course provided a pre-judgement on the issue.

Adding smoke to the fire, reporter Margot O’Neill’s introduction then suggested that “these extremes” are “what climate models have been predicting after all”. This was naturally right down the alley of the three experts who all love models (but who often fail to identify the differences produced in their projections). Expert Matthew England (UNSW) followed immediately with the comment that there is a significant trend “where we can see climate change on the move” and his UNSW colleague Andy Pitman suggested a change in the frequency of events over the last few decades and global warming as the “easiest explanation”. David Karoly (University of Melbourne) added that warmer conditions increased the moisture in the atmosphere, leading to more intense weather systems. 

I was waiting to hear the sceptical view, which I assumed would indicate that historical evidence suggests that the extreme weather events are neither unusual nor more frequent. But in vain: no other view was canvassed. The ABC was happy.

I decided, however, that I would send a brief complaint to the ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs asking that the Lateline program stop being one-sided and give its viewers the opportunity to hear the other side. I noted that there are numerous scientists (and others) who reject the dangerous warming theory and referred to the Oregon petition signed by over 30,000 scientists (including 9,000 with PhDs) who have done just that (there are, of course, other such documents).

On 21 February I received quite a long reply from a Mr Maley stating, inter alia, that “the ABC believes that it is accurate to state that the majority of scientific opinion favours the view that the world is warming” but at the same time indicating that the ABC’s editorial policy recognises that balance “may not always be achieved within a single program or publication”. His reply also indicated “the ABC is making changes to its self-regulatory arrangements in 2011 and the Complaints Review Executive and Independent Complaints Review Panel will be discontinued on a date to be announced.” No explanation was offered for this change. (The full text of Mr Maley’s reply is on my website.)

I judged that this reply was highly unsatisfactory and on 21 February sent a further message to Mr Maley. That reads as follows:

Thank you for your response to my complaint concerning bias in Lateline’s interview selection.

I realise, of course, that “balance” may not always be achieved within a single program. In this case, however, the Lateline program had a 3 to zero line up. One might have thought it possible to have one sceptic – all the more so as all except the extreme alarmists seem to accept that the extreme weather is a product of La Nina, a natural influence on climate.

You say that the ABC believes that the majority of scientists favour the view that the world is warming. But that of course is not the issue. The issue is whether the warming acknowledged by almost all scientists (and others) is due to emissions from usage of fossil fuels. On this the ABC seems to have nothing to say but you ignore my point that 30,000 scientists have signed a petition rejecting the theory that emissions are the cause. That compares with claims that about 1600 scientists contributed to the compilation of the last IPCC report, with about 50 actually being the main or lead authors.

Your reply also suggests that I made a contention about the availability of data. But this is puzzling as I made no such contention.

You indicate that the ABC has interviewed sceptics and refer to interviews with Professor Ian Plimer, including in debate with George Monbiot. I welcome such action and suggest that, particularly as Prime Minister Gillard has made the establishment of a carbon price a major agenda item, such interviews might be increased. With the vote by the US House of Representatives against any budget payment to the IPCC, they might include interviews with a range of scientists and others on likely developments in that country.

Coincidentally, on the same day as I sent my further reply blogger Mark Hendrickx had an article published in The Australian illustrating the disgraceful treatment given by the ABC’s environment blog to an analysis by highly respected climate analyst Stephen McIntyre, who had corrected flawed analysis in Nature (highly regarded world-wide by warmists) claiming there was unusual warming in west Antarctica due to man-made global warming. When Hendrickx (informally) drew attention to McIntyre’s analysis an anonymous posting appeared on the environment blog describing McIntyre as “a known climate denialist and extremist right-wing provocateur”.

Hendrickx’s then made a formal complaint and received a response with the same “extremist right wing provocateur” comment, plus insinuations of being associated with an organisation with (shock horrors!) “right-leaning politically conservative views”. After Hendrickx brought McIntyre into the exchanges, the anonymous posting was removed (after 20 days up) but no apology was made to McIntyre (who is far from being a right winger).

This treatment of Antarctic temperatures by the ABC reminded me that the Catalyst TV program last April included an incorrect portrayal of such temperatures by purporting to have evidence that shows that “for each decade over last fifty years ... temperatures increased by half a degree Celsius” in the Antarctic peninsula. My complaint pointed out that no reference was made to the small size of the peninsula or to the data clearly showing cooling in the Antarctic as a whole over the past 30 years. This produced a response that the ABC was satisfied that Catalyst’s program was consistent with the editorial standard for accuracy.

Tim Marchington, Managing Director of iCiX, International Compliance Information Exchange, has had more success in that he secured an admission by the ABC that they incorrectly portrayed comments by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his visit to Afghanistan. The ABC reply to Tim’s complaint included the following:

The story in question wrote that the “shit happens” phrase was a “comment on the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan”. We agree that the distinction between saying “shit happens” directly about the death of the soldier and saying it about the difficulties and confusions of a battle is important. It was central to Mr Abbott’s defence of his statement and should have been clear in the story.

The story as a whole was balanced and demonstrated no evidence of bias in its presentation or choice of material. We believe this an example of a situation where, under pressure of time, an important distinction was missed and consequently Mr Abbott’s quote was not put in its proper context.

The story was not in keeping with the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy.

ABC News apologises for the mistake and has corrected the story on the website and added an editor’s note.

Clearly a major review is needed of the ABC’s handling not only of environmental issues.

Des Moore is Director of the Institute for Private Enterprise.

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