Posted by: Jon | 08/12/2009

Tel un monde, telle une voix…

The Guardian newspaper yesterday achieved something quite historic. 56 newspapers across 45 countries published in 20 different languages the same editorial to announce to the world in one united voice that humanity is now facing ‘a profound emergency’.

Earlier this year I was disappointed when the Guardian dropped the weekly environment pages from its printed edition. It was only later that I realised that this was because environmental issues were no longer seen as a niche interest and now feature throughout the paper.

In my view the Guardian has consistently provided balanced reporting of environmental issues, distinguishing clearly between what is factual news, what is legitimate debate and what is personal comment and opinion. In yesterday’s edition its deputy editor, Ian Katz, explained the challenges of reporting ‘the scale and urgency of the issue in the normal register of journalism’.

In my blog post, RIP Albi, I was scathing of the ‘cognitive dissonance’ created and perpetuated by biased press reporting. But I should have differentiated between the editorial policies of local newspaper groups (who habitually overstate the social capital of local communities and avoid publishing anything even mildly controversial or challenging to the status quo) and the editorial policies of a distinct independent voice like the Guardian.

This is not to say that I don’t still have a difficulty with climate change coverage sitting side-by-side with adverts for cheap air-travel or exotic destinations in the travel supplement. But I am not so naive as to imagine that a newspaper can survive, particularly as new media information technologies gather pace, without its advertising or the range of articles and features that attract its readership.

Nonetheless, the narratives presented to us by the mainstream media do serve to normalise and reinforce the cultural and societal assumptions that we live by. This remains the dilemma of communicating the unprecedented urgency of climate change to a lay-public that is typically mistrusting of the press and demands not only to be informed but also to be entertained, diverted, and reassured.

So, as an estimated 5,000 journalists from across the world are converging upon Copenhagen, what stance are other UK papers now taking on the issues?

Well, the Telegraph has acknowledged in an editorial that we are beyond the stage of questioning the science – whilst at the same time cautioning us not to over-react (because the science might still be wrong!) and continuing to provide a platform for the scornful voices of Christopher Booker, James Delingpole, Christopher Monckton, et al. Anticipated reader response: Let’s be sensible about this and leave the knee-jerks and hysterics to the bleeding heart environmentalists. We’ll just concentrate on getting the economy back to normal.   

I’ve not seen a Copenhagen editorial in the Independent, but the Independent on Sunday took up the ‘one world’ theme and published an 8-page special supplement. On its front cover, David Randall provided a ‘concerned citizen’s guide to global warming’ which concluded that whilst we should ‘reduce if we can our carbon emissions’, salvation actually lies in developing ‘radical new technologies’. Anticipated reader response: That’s okay then – we can leave it to the inventors and innovators so there’s still no need to get personally involved. (Although in fairness the Independent did recently print a strong editorial on the need to relocalise our futures).

The leader in the Times acknowledged the scale of the climate problem and focused on the challenges of negotiating between conflicting national interests. Whilst recognising that ‘reducing waste’ at home and turning off the lights in ‘unused rooms’ are still worthy actions, the Times concluded that only a ‘credible deal with India and China’ has any real chance of securing a sustainable future. Anticipated reader response: We’ll just go ahead with the (made in China) Christmas illuminations then until they start reducing their emissions.   

Meanwhile the Daily Mail chose to lead with the news that the Copenhagen conference will generate ‘as much greenhouse gas as an entire African country‘. I couldn’t find any editorial comment on the Copenhagen summit although the paper does question the sums of money involved in tackling climate change and asks how many other climate scientists might also be ‘hiding inconvenient truths’. Anticipated reader response: What a scandalous waste of time and money!

The Sun, (with a readership of up to ten times larger than the broadsheets), reported that 50% of Britons still believe there is no evidence for man-made global warming and brings us up to speed with Lord Lawson’s sceptical views and the latest on the leaked emails. Whilst elsewhere the paper gave us the benefit of more of Jeremy Clarkson’s saloon bar pearls of wisdom. Anticipated reader response: Zero – went straight to the sports pages.

No other UK newspapers joined with the Guardian in publishing their historic editorial. Two Australian papers had committed themselves but, following the political upheaval of the election of a noted climate sceptic as leader of the country’s liberal opposition, decided not to proceed. Of US papers only the Miami Herald participated in this international action towards global solidarity, but editors in Russia, India, China, Canada, South Korea and many other countries all committed to it.  I expect we can learn as much about national public attitudes from noting which countries’ press did not take part as from which countries’ did

As with their earlier commitment to launch Franny Armstrong’s 10:10  campaign, once again the Guardian have led the way. It is reassuring to know that 55 influential newspapers across the world are all in accord with the paper – and with little me (because I can still sometimes be led to doubt my own conviction) – that this is indeed a global climate emergency.

The outcomes of the long-awaited and portentous politics now being acted out in Copenhagen seem unlikely to provide us with any clearer leadership or direction. This editorial is a declaration that it is incumbent upon each one of us to stop prevaricating and insisting we know better than the science. It is a call to unite together as human beings in a common purpose and cohesive action.


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