Ofcom’s verdict on ‘Great Global Warming Swindle’ angers scientists.

22/7/2008 Guardian Ofcom Regulator accused of letting makers off the hook.
“Rules were broken ‘but viewers were not misled”.   C4′s The Great Global Warming Swindle claimed man-made global warming was a conspiracy. Ofcom said guidelines on impartiality were breached. Channel 4 broke rules on impartiality and misrepresented the views of the government’s former chief scientist in a controversial documentary that became the focal point of a furious debate over the causes of climate change, the media watchdog has ruled.
Following a 15-month investigation, Ofcom yesterday found that The Great Global Warming Swindle broke its guidelines on impartiality in the concluding part of the 90-minute polemic, which claimed man-made global warming was a conspiracy and a fraud. But despite “certain reservations” on the part of the regulator, Channel 4 was “on balance” cleared of “materially misleading the audience so as to cause harm or offence”.
The programme sparked 265 complaints from members of the public, plus a detailed “group complaint” from scientists and concerned individuals that ran to 176 pages and accused Channel 4 of seriously misleading viewers.
George Monbiot: ‘It was nonsense and propaganda’ As revealed in the Guardian on Saturday, Ofcom found that Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist, had been misrepresented and that the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Carl Wunsch, a professor at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been treated unfairly.
But the media regulator also said that while it had concerns about “aspects of the presentation (and omission) of fact and views within the programme, it did not believe, given the nature of the programme, that this led to the audience being materially misled”.
That decision was immediately criticised by scientists, who accused the regulator of letting the broadcaster off the hook “on a technicality”. But Channel 4 seized on the ruling as evidence it was right to broadcast the programme under its remit and remained unrepentant.
Some broadcasting industry insiders believe the complainants misunderstood Ofcom’s role and said it was not for the regulator to decide whether or not the claims made within the programme were accurate.
Although news programmes are required to display “due accuracy”, offering equal weight to all sides of the debate, there is no such requirement on documentary programmes.
As such, Ofcom could only consider whether or not the programme “materially misleads the audience so as to cause harm or offence”. It said the test of whether or not a programme had caused harm or offence was
“necessarily high”. Under its impartiality rules, balance must be afforded to “matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy”. Ofcom said that because the case for man-made climate change had been almost universally accepted by governments around the world, the majority of the programme did not fall into that category.
But the final part of the programme, which explored whether developing countries should be forced to reduce their emissions and accused western governments of holding back their growth, did and therefore breached the rules. Dave Rado, the member of the public who collated the responses of a host of
well-respected climate scientists into the “group complaint” that alleged 67 different breaches of the Ofcom code, said he was “disappointed that Channel 4 has been let off on the questionable technicality that the inaccuracies in the programme did not cause harm or offence”.
Bob Ward, a former spokesman for the Royal Society, who submitted one of the complaints received by Ofcom, said: “The commissioning and broadcasting of this programme was clearly a calamitous mistake and revealed serious management failures at Channel 4. It is very disappointing that Ofcom has failed to fully uphold the public interest, and the ruling raises very serious doubts about the ability of the broadcasting regulator to recognise the harm caused by misrepresentations of the scientific evidence on climate change.”
Ward and Rado are both expected to appeal to Ofcom, claiming that there is evidence the programme has done significant harm to the public’s perception of the climate change debate.
Prof John Mitchell, director of climate science at the Met Office, said the programme had “put the message about man-made global warming back by 10 years in the public’s mind”. King had been misquoted in the concluding frames of the programme, in which climate change sceptic Prof Fred Singer accused him of saying that by the end of the century “the only habitable place on earth will be the Antarctic. And
humanity may survive thanks to some breeding couples who moved to the Antarctic… it would be hilarious actually if it weren’t so sad.” But King said his views had been exaggerated. Channel 4 also admitted the reference to “breeding couples” came from a different statement by scientist Sir James Lovelock and that Singer had conflated the two. “We are pleased that Ofcom has ruled the film did not materially mislead the
audience,” said Hamish Mykura, the Channel 4 head of documentaries. “The film acknowledged the majority scientific and journalistic consensus in support of man-made global warming, but legitimately sought to present the viewpoint of the small minority of scientists who do not believe global warming is caused by anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide.”
He was unrepentant about the parts of the film that breached the code and the treatment of King and other individuals. “We appealed these rulings and are disappointed that Ofcom has rejected our arguments and decided to uphold or uphold in part these complaints. However, we note that they do not believe that any unfairness to contributors resulted in the programme misleading the audience.”
The programme was subsequently sold to 21 other countries including Australia, where its subject matter caused a similar storm of protest. It was also released on DVD, despite a move by several scientists to block the release.

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