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BEN SCALLAN: Why is RTÉ a member of a climate change activism group?

Thank you to Gript’s Gary Kavanagh for helping with the research and writing of this article.

RTÉ is the only Irish member of a left-wing climate activism group which aims to “transform” the media. But how can you trust an organisation to tell you the truth when it’s siding with activists instead of scientists?

CCN, or “Covering Climate Now”, describe themselves as “a global journalism initiative committed to more and better coverage of the defining story of our time” – climate change. They say they represent the “biggest effort ever undertaken to organize the world’s press around a single topic”, and that “transforming the news media is fundamental to achieving that goal.”

CCN promotes particular ways of discussing climate change, what it calls “responsible journalistic framing”; offers members resources to help them report on climate change in a “factual” manner; produces guidelines to “educate” journalists on “the facts” about climate change; and provides databases of pre-approved experts and activists that journalists can go to when seeking a comment on climate issues.

CCN consistently say that they are “political, not partisan” and that the type of coverage CCN promotes, and provides to members, is not activism.

However, a cursory examination of the material CCN provides to members shows that CCN is a highly partisan activist organisation in every sense of the way.

The Chief Executive of the CCN, Mark Hertsgaard, himself said, in a 2019 interview that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post had all refused to get involved because “this has an aroma — in their minds — of activism.” RTE apparently did not share those concerns.

In fact, RTÉ may be the only State broadcaster featured on CCN’s partner page – even other State broadcasters like the BBC don’t feature on the list. 

CCN certainly does have the particular smell of an activism organisation about it, but some of that may be coming from Hertsgaard himself considering he has made some rather nakedly political statements. According to Hertsgaard, “Building political power is the single most important task for anyone hoping to win on climate change.”

The world, CCN says, “is burning”, and the media, they say, “are complacent.” For too long, according to CCN, the media has held itself to a “false” idea of “balance” and allowed “climate science” to be compared against “climate skepticism” which is “seldom more than thinly-veiled protections of the fossil fuel industry”.

CCN says there are “not two sides to a fact” and that “platforming” those who disagree “not only misleads the public” but is simply an inaccurate image of what is happening. “For God’s sake” they say in one of their reporting guides, “do not platform climate denialists” – there is no longer “any good faith argument against climate science.” If you must report on climate denialism or skepticism, they say, it is a reporter’s duty to make it clear that anything said, even if it comes “from the highest levels of government”, is either “counterfactual” or “rooted in bad faith”. They go on to link that bad faith to donations from the fossil fuel industry.

And it doesn’t stop at saying dissenting scientific views should not be platformed – CCN are also of the opinion that outlets should not publish any material that might “ridicule climate activism.” That material, they say, does not belong “in a serious news outlet.” So, when Extinction Rebellion glue themselves to a train, plane, or automobile members of CCN, like RTÉ, are meant to simply talk about how “if one accepts the science, one also accepts the imperative for rapid, forceful action.”

That, of course, ignores the fact that accepting the need for rapid, forceful action does not mean one has an answer to the question of what policies are most capable of stopping, or mitigating the impact of, climate change – an immensely contentious question in its own right.

But that’s what CCN don’t want to see, but what about the kind of coverage they do want to see? CCN want to see “good” climate coverage, by which they mean:

“Good climate coverage connects the dots between human-caused climate change and stronger heat waves, droughts, storms, and sea level rise and the damage caused to people and the economy.”

They’re also rather fond of the Green New Deal, unsurprisingly given the group’s political leanings, and so they promote their members “debating” the particular policies that might comprise a Green New Deal in their country. They do, of course, say that members should only allow that debate between “proponents” of those policies and “fair-minded critics.”

Rather than engaging in an open-minded investigation of the facts and going where they lead you – which is what journalism is supposed to be – “good climate coverage” entails confirming the climate biases you already hold, according to CCN.

They go on:

“Good climate coverage humanizes the story by focusing on how real people and communities are experiencing the climate crisis, and it recognizes that the poor and people of color suffer disproportionate impacts.”

A story featuring only “white voices”, according to CCN, “is simply missing the story.”

Again, does this sound like journalism to you? “Focus particularly on how it affects poor people in the third world” – in other words, “emotionally manipulate the audience.” Once again, if you’re a journalist, your job is to report the facts, not tug at the audience’s heart strings and play sad violin music.

They also say that “Good climate coverage gets sustained, prominent attention” and “we believe climate change should be a defining issue in elections everywhere on earth and at all levels of government.”

In other words, focus on this one issue and don’t shut up about it. Make sure it’s at the forefront of people’s minds all the time. Give it undue attention.

Clearly Irish media already got the memo.

Stunningly, they go on to say that publications “need not be neutral” about the issue, and calls on them to “hold political, business, and other leaders accountable for delivering the rapid emissions reductions and other measures.”

Based on all of this, it does beg the question: can we trust RTÉ to approach issues like climate change in an unbiased and fair way when they are partnered with what effectively appears to be a climate change propaganda outlet?

But this story goes even deeper again. Clearly, the Irish Green party considers climate change to be a pivotal issue, and is currently in coalition with the other government parties.

How curious then, to see that Green Party TD, Catherine Martin, was Minister for Media when the government appointed Alan Rusbridger to the Future of Media Commission – a commission which, as the name implies, was set up to examine the future direction of Irish news media.

Why is this significant, you might ask? Well, it just so happens that Rusbridger was an editor for The Guardian – one of the two founding publications of CCN. A remarkable coincidence if there ever was one, no?

There are major questions that need to be asked about the impartiality of Irish State media, and the role that the government has played in this entire affair.

Thanks again to Gary Kavanagh for help researching & writing this piece.

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