Aqui fica a comunicação (em Inglês) do veterano Alex Kirby, antigo “correspondente climático” da BBC, durante uma acção para jornalistas promovida pelo European Journalism Centre, no dia 26 de Outubro de 2010.
JEFFREY SACHS spoke just now of “a load of crap” about climate change that’s current in the US these days. We have a saying in the United Kingdom that what happens in the US will reach us within a decade. Well, I don’t think we’ll have to wait ten years in this case, because there’s a load of crap already flying around in the UK about climate in the wake of the University of East Anglia emails, the IPCC Climategate row, and the farce, the fiasco, that was Copenhagen. In the last year the number of people in the UK who doubt the mainstream climate science has risen by about 15%. We environment and climate correspondents have never been in the front rank of the specialists, but now I foresee many of us struggling to keep our jobs at all, despite the fact that the science of climate change, the IPCC’s case, remains robust. The newsdesk is getting bored with us, and what we have to be is old-fashioned reporters, with a new twist.
On one level, our job is what it always has been, and that is to remain just simple and effective reporters. That makes a number of demands of us. Perhaps the first demand is to remember that we may be the only reliably independent source our audiences have. More and more people, some with the best of motives, want to turn us into useful megaphones. Governments, NGOs, industry, negotiating blocs, parts of the UN would all like us to join their search for a better world. I was asked a year ago by a large international organisation to speak at a conference on
“the role of broadcast media in educating audiences and setting the agenda in order to raise public awareness on climate change, stimulate the public debate and shape national policies”.
I’ve met few journalists I’d trust to set an agenda of any sort, or to shape national policies or any others. But anyway, for better or worse, that’s not journalism. Journalism is about reporting, and using our reports to hold the powerful to account – to hold their feet to the fire. One of the BBC’s best foreign correspondents was Brian Barron, who died last year. He spoke once of the increasing pressure on today’s journalists to keep viewers entertained rather than, to use his words, to “bear witness and analyse”. If we are reporters, we are not entertainers – and we cannot be campaigners either.
We need to keep telling our audiences that climate change is happening,that it’s happening fast, that scientists cannot explain what is happening unless they factor in the influence of human activities, that decisions and actions we take – or fail to take – today may have effects decades and centuries ahead, and that apart from anything else climate change will make other problems – like water shortage, hunger and species loss – even harder to solve.
In every newsroom I’ve ever worked in and for most of the audiences I’ve tried to reach, the science of climate change remains a key part of the story. The big story is still about the science. And we are one of the key ways in which many people learn about climate science. They’re not going to learn much if we don’t report much, and sometimes I think we don’t report nearly enough. Next month the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism, based in Oxford, is publishing a book, entitled Summoned by Science: Reporting Climate Change at Copenhagen and Beyond. It’s not for quotation until the publication date, which is the 17th of November. In the book’s executive summary James Painter, the author, writes:
“ …in the balance between capturing the drama of Copenhagen and explaining the essential background to the science, understandably – but perhaps regrettably – the science was under-reported”.
Of more than 400 articles published in two print media in each of 12 countries across the world about COP-15, those written principally about the science of climate change accounted for less than 10%. Partly this is because science, unlike many NGOs, often tends not to have a very loud or clear voice. The IPCC, remember, has just one paid media officer. Greenpeace’s COP-15 delegation was larger than the UK’s.
I know it’s tempting to please the newsdesk by writing up the arguments and the tantrums and the walk-outs at a climate COP, and it’s often easier to do than a science story. It’s the way many of us approach a COP, probably – one distinguished developing country journalist in Copenhagen, asked whether he considered the science worth including in his reports, replied: “I think the time for alarms was in the past. We came to the meeting for a decision.”
Of course, science doesn’t come naturally to many of us. I met an Australian journalist a few years ago, who I expect spoke for many of us. She said: “In our newsroom, it’s simple. If it’s green and wriggles, we say it’s biology. If it stinks, it’s chemistry. And if it doesn’t work, it’s physics. And that’s all there is to it.” Except that if anything will persuade people that climate change really does matter, it’s likely to be — the science.
Good reporters remember that climate change is already changing and shortening lives. It’s not just an abstraction to be argued over in Cancun, or Brussels, or wherever. It’s the thinning Arctic ice which lets hunters fall through to their deaths. It’s persistent drought and unusually frequent flooding. It’s flesh-and-blood stories that need telling, best of all through the words of the people who are living them. I remember something once said by a giant of journalism (and perhaps not co-incidentally one of the funniest writers I know), the American foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn: that she thought she should aim to be “a walking tape-recorder with eyes”. That’s Brian Barron’s “bearing witness ” if anything is. The analysing he spoke of comes in making sense of a highly complex subject in the brief time and space we’re given. I spent most of my career in broadcast news, and I used to think myself extremely lucky to be given two minutes in the bulletin to cover a story – to tell my audience not simply what had happened, but also why it was important to them. That’s why we need to tell the negative stories as well as the positive – not just the successes of adaptation and the conversion of business and industry to the mainstream science, but for instance the message of the Australian economist Clive Hamilton in his book Requiem for a Species. He accepts the science – he accepts it overwhelmingly, and thinks it will have devastating consequences. His message is simple: “It’s too late. Humanity failed.”
And we should not allow the climate sceptics to call the tune. Time and again in my early BBC environment days I would write a piece on climate and be told: “OK, now get a sceptic to provide balance.” Perhaps we’ve moved on. But those who deny the science still hold undue sway over many newsdesks. In fact the most sceptical people I know include the climate scientists themselves, because they know that’s how science works. It’s always worth asking sceptics whether they have had their claims peer-reviewed and published. And it’s worth remembering the advice of the British journalist Hannen Swaffer about our own need to be consistently sceptical. “When a journalist is speaking to a politician”, he said, “there is only one question he needs to ask himself. It is this: ‘Why is this lying bastard telling me this particular lie at this particular moment?’” He was of course speaking about British politicians in office during his lifetime, and I quote him strictly within that context. But if we are not always deeply sceptical, we shall not deserve to survive in journalism.
All that I’ve said so far is what old-fashioned reporters do anyway. So what about that new twist I mentioned earlier? I’ll try to explain by giving you two examples. The first was a journalist I met in Brazil for the Earth Summit in 1992 (she wasn’t Brazilian, and she worked for CNN). She said: “I’m an environmentalist, and I became a journalist to get my message across.” It would be professional death in my newsroom to admit that you had a message at all. The second was a very good friend of mine, a BBC reporter of deep humanity, who could not stand pretension or any hint of falsity. I remember him saying of a colleague of ours, in a tone of deep scorn: “He doesn’t just take himself seriously. He takes his subject seriously.” And that’s not what journalists are expected to do – or at least, they weren’t. What I think we have to do now is to take our subject seriously, while we continue to report with the humility to recognise that we may be wrong – because then we shall tell the story from the point of view of our audience. I hope to God I am proved wrong about climate change – few things would make me happier. Until that day dawns, though, I will try to go on being what I think anyone who reports on climate has to be, that contradictory figure, a serious reporter – a doubtful optimist, a hopeful sceptic.
I will give the last word to a sub-editor called Brian who I met soon after I began the job, a good journalist and a good friend. Often, when I walked into the newsroom, he would greet me by saying: “Hello, Alex. It’s a very quiet news day today. We might even have room for some of your climate bollocks.” Brian, sadly, died some years ago. But I guess there are many on the newsdesk today who still echo his words with feeling.