Note: some of these words were originally written by Simon Jenkins. Some were not. Others are responsible for encouraging this.
So journalists are human after all. They are no different from bankers, politicians, lawyers, estate agents and perhaps even scientists. They cheat. They make mistakes. They suppress truth and suggest falsity, especially when a cheque or a plane ticket is on offer. As for self-criticism, that is for you, not me.
I am just ready to believe that the antics of the Sunday Times journalists, revealed in last week’s Guardian and elsewhere, have no impact on the facts of global warming. But then I must rely on those same journalists to say so. The Yamal-12 larches may be sound, the hockey stick validated and the Amazon stats subject to re-re-evaluation. But so what, they all say? The world isn’t coming to an end because we are journalists and, like Nostradamus, we know.
What any layman must find alarming is the paranoia and exclusivity of the climate change denial community. The preparation of the original Sunday Times report was apparently like that of a party manifesto. Data was suppressed and criticism ignored. The Sunday Times dismissed critics for spending up to six hours a day blogging. Dark hints are made of commercial interest, but not (yet) Holocaust denial. And the ‘apology’ for the mistake is hidden behind a subscription wall, an unsubtle hiding of history.
Climatology is not the only media taret whose dirty linen is flapping in the wind. The wildly exaggerated health stories promoted over the past decade by The Daily Mail have so undermined trust in medicine that people are refusing flu vaccination. In the case of the MMR scare, it took the General Medical Council to discipline the doctors involved, but the media gets off scot free.
Newspapers enjoys extraordinary privilege in Britain. The public treats them with the deference of a new clerisy. The BBC devotes exhaustive and uncritical coverage to their most obscure doings. Fairs and prizes are showered on budding journalists. There are no young scientists of the year, no young mathematicians, but young scribblers galore. The Guardian newspaper even boasts a whole section about the media.
I devour newspapers, finding their stories and editorials a constant delight. But the public has been asked to put faith in a single profession that it cannot sustain. It is a mystery how so many teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of learning to write. I am tempted to conclude that English teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary.
Criticise any newspaper these days and you grow accustomed to such gentilities of academic discourse from Fleet Street as, “How dare you”, “Get off our patch” and “Goldacre, you’re only doing this for the money”. If you complain about those who report on those who regard wind energy as a costly irrelevance to global warming, you cannot discern from the abuse who does and does not have a financial interest in it. (The same is true of blogs.) If you question anti-nuclear scaremongers, the threats are little short of “We know where your children live”.
Two decades of uncritical flattery appear to have eroded what should be the press’ central tenets: questioning evidence and checking sources. In the bizarre case of the iPhone recall, enough journalists wanted cataclysm to be true for none of them to question the evidence, however implausible.
What is alarming is the indifference of the leaders of the press to the damage done to their cause. The top regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission, has shown no inclination to judgment on the climate change controversy. Its website remains a bland cheerleader for self-regulation. The PCC took no steps of which I am aware to stop the dissemmination of falsehoods, other than to slap the occasional reporter on the wrist. Ethics is not a strong suit of newspaper journalism. It gets in the way of money.
Newspapers demand, and get, a weight of expectation. They want the public to regard their role in society and the economy as axiomatic – with no obligation to prove it. Government buys into this. While sciences are dismissed as “consumption goods”, communication is an “investment in society”. A student of science or engineering is a drone, but a student of media studies is a hero of the state.
If global warming is as unlikely as its champions in the newspaper community claim – and as expensive to rectify – its evidence must surely be cross-tested over and again. Yet it has been left to professional scientists and wild-cat bloggers to challenge the apparently rickety temperature sequences on which warming denialism has been built.
No professional body is checking all this. Assertions are treated as fact even when they come from such lobbyists as Lord Monckton. If their conclusions are wrong, they are demanding money with false menaces. If they are wrong, their abuse of evidence and political naivety jeopardises life on earth. The
Sunday Times’ science editor, Mark Henderson, might have opined during the election campaign that “When Britain goes to the polls a few weeks from now, it is safe to predict that science will not play much part in the outcome. It is unlikely even to be much discussed during the campaign”. What is he going to do about it?
I regard science as fallible and its regulation inadequate. But at least, like most professions, it has some. Only when journalism comes off its pedestal and joins the common herd will it see the virtue in self-criticism. Until then, sceptics must do the job as best they can.