Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

Planet Relief: the crusade against open debate
The hysterical reaction to the BBC’s decision to scrap its climate change special exposes green crusaders’ antipathy to discussion and dissent.

At first sight, the BBC’s decision to scrap its much-heralded Planet Relief is puzzling.

Planet Relief would have been presented by Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Ross, and was set to bring together numerous celebrities to raise awareness about climate change amongst the British viewing public. The BBC has justified its decision to scrap the programme on the basis that it is not the BBC’s job to promote a crusade and ‘lead opinion on climate change’.

The notion that the BBC only presents the facts, rather than ‘raising public awareness’ about climate change, is contradicted by its record. Virtually every BBC news item on climate change comes across like a health warning about the impending catastrophe facing humanity. Anyone who watches BBC News will be left in no doubt that virtually every flood, earthquake, drought or unusual natural occurrence around the world is a direct consequence of global warming.

That the BBC is less then fervently committed to balance on the issue of climate change was confirmed by one of its spokespeople: she said that the cancellation of Planet Relief was not due to concerns over impartiality. Some observers believe that poor viewing figures for July’s Live Earth concert, which was shown on the BBC, may have influenced the decision to pull Planet Relief. And some BBC executives have noted that the public does not like being ‘lectured’ to about climate change and other fashionable causes.

Myself, I would rather that Planet Relief was not cancelled. There is nothing wrong with giving campaigners the opportunity to ‘raise consciousness’ about a problem they feel passionate about. I am far more concerned by the increasing trend to have items of consciousness-raising masquerading as news on national television. It is very difficult to have a grown-up discussion when a moral crusade, such as the one around climate change, is presented to the public as factual news.

The hysterical reaction of the moral crusaders on climate change to the scrapping of Planet Relief bears all the hallmarks of medieval religious zealotry. With their fondness for conspiracy theories, the crusaders claim that the scrapping of this programme was brought about by the nefarious activities of a ‘small but powerful cabal of climate change deniers’ (1). One of the crusaders’ arguments is that no one - including the BBC - can remain impartial on the issue of climate change. In other words, there can be only one legitimate and morally righteous view on the subject. The mildest hint of scepticism is denounced as morally unacceptable; thus the BBC has been attacked by one green writer for taking a ‘morally bankrupt decision’ in shelving Planet Relief (2).

This idea that the ‘debate on climate change is over’, and thus no dissent on the issue can be tolerated, is not confined to a tiny group of isolated illiberal fanatics. In February, Britain’s former minister for the environment declared that ‘climate change deniers’ had better shut up ‘since the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’ (3).

Shutting down debate on climate change is one of the principal objectives of many of today’s environmentalist crusaders. They have written numerous tracts denouncing the ideals of journalistic balance and objectivity, since applying such ideals to climate change assumes that there is more than one legitimate viewpoint on the subject. Journalists who seek balance on climate change are labelled ‘cowards’ for refusing to take a stand against Evil. One writer has accused the BBC of putting balance before the ‘responsibility that we all share to avert the catastrophe that is unfolding’ (4).

Exhorting the media to take sides on climate change, instead of upholding balance, green crusaders resort to cheap and superficial comparisons between climate change and slavery or the Holocaust. The implication is that anyone who thinks it is legitimate to have an open debate on climate change is a moral coward, or worse, someone who would have refused to take sides during the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, the BBC’s decision to scrap Planet Relief does not represent a brave stand against the powerful current of illiberalism towards open discussion on climate change. It’s simply a pragmatic decision motivated by the BBC’s desire to maintain its present share of the viewing public.

(1) Was the BBC right to scrap its day of special programming on climate change?, Independent, 6 September 2007

(2) Was the BBC right to scrap its day of special programming on climate change?, Independent, 6 September 2007

(3) Defra Press Release 2 February 2007, ‘Reports on report of IPCC - urgent international politics action needed’.

(4) Getting the balance wrong, Comment Is Free, 5 September 2007

First published by spiked, 6 September 2007