Rex Murphy on "Climategate"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Rex Murphy's commentary about the “Climategate” affair

You wrote initially in December, 2009, to complain about a Rex Murphy commentary on The National. The specific item, aired on December 3rd, concerned what had come to be called the “Climategate” affair. You suggested that his items needed to be fact-checked: “He is entitled to his opinion, but if he is going to appear with the news, his opinion should not contradict known facts. You would never allow him to seriously suggest, for example, that this whole ‘cancer thing' is overblown and anyone who has cancer should just ignore it…”

Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National, replied. He said that Mr. Murphy's segment is opinion, not news and that the CBC had an obligation “to present differing views fairly and accurately.” He also pointed out that the program has reported “hundreds of stories in the past two years alone” on the subject of climate change.

You responded further suggesting that were “Rex to suggest the Holocaust was exaggerated, or that parents should not get their children vaccinated, I would hope you would not allow that to be aired.”

You took exception to Mr. Harrison writing that “it is not CBC's obligation to determine what is ‘truth' or what views are ‘acceptable'….but only to present differing views fairly and accurately…” You inquired whether Mr. Harrison believed that “there is no such thing as truth, or that all truth is subjective.”

You asked for a review.


First of all, I think we should revisit some of the basic principles of CBC's journalism:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

In another section, the policy speaks to the Range of Opinions that should be carried:

A journalistic organization, to achieve balance and fairness, should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed. Almost any opinion may contain a grain of truth that helps to illuminate the whole truth. But proper account must also be taken of the weight of opinion which holds these views and its significance or potential significance. The challenging of accepted orthodoxies should be reported but so also should the established views be clearly put. Moreover, the range of views and the weight of opinion are changing and these dynamics of change must be reflected. Nor are range and breadth of presentation sufficient in journalistic programming: there must also be depth, the capturing of dimensions and nuances. Without these elements, the programming becomes too simplistic to permit adequate comprehension of issues put before the public. If the media are to do their work of reflecting and revealing reality properly, there will at times be tensions between the media and different elements of society. This should not inhibit the CBC, so long as the Corporation in its information programming is carrying out this essential task of informing the public in accordance with its established journalistic standards.

We should also acknowledge the section on “Guest Commentators” which would appear to cover Mr. Murphy's appearances on The National:

The guest commentator is by definition engaged to pass judgment on public affairs. Because of its character as a publicly-owned institution, the CBC does not adopt as its own the opinions of those commentators whom it invites to articulate the various shades of current opinion on a given subject. The CBC's concern is to ensure the presentation of a wide spectrum of opinion, particularly when the matter is sharply controversial and, where relevant, to reflect the different regions of the country. The CBC therefore seeks to select commentators whose backgrounds qualify them to give expert opinion based on accurate information. Any relevant aspects of a commentator's credentials must be clearly summarized so that the audience may have a perspective from which to appraise the speaker's view.

I should point out that Mr. Murphy is in a somewhat unique position of being a regular guest commentator; he comments on a wide-range of subjects and most viewers know something of his background. He may not be an expert in a particular field, but his commentary about how the subjects are handled would seem to be within his expertise.

The commentary at issue was not, actually, a scientific judgment on climate change, which Mr. Murphy is clearly unable to pass. It was, however, a commentary on what appeared to be the actions of some of the scientists at the heart of the research into Anthropomorphic Global Warming. At the time of the commentary, there was considerable controversy over the meaning of the leaked e-mails. Mr. Murphy, who, I think it safe to say, appears to fall in the “sceptic” category, rather forcefully claimed that the e-mails appeared to show that “science has gone to bed with advocacy” and, in his view, undermined some of the basic claims of the proponents of AGW.

We know that subsequently several credible scientific panels have found that the e-mails do not do any such thing. However, it would appear to me that Mr. Murphy was entitled to his opinion that they appeared to, based on the evidence available at the time.

Had Mr. Murphy's exercise in hyperbole been the only offering by The National on this subject, you would indeed have grounds for finding against the program on this issue. However, any examination of the coverage over the last several years would show that appropriate time has been given over to the science underlying the theory on AGW. In fact, the overwhelming bulk of the communications I have received on this subject suggest that coverage is unbalanced in favour of the scientific consensus. For your information, I will attach a recent review I did on the subject.

I think if you ponder for a moment the import of your analogies to the Holocaust or cancer you would realize that no such analogy exists. As you will note in my review, there are some basic differences in the projection of a conclusion and the grounding of a conclusion on observable evidence in history or science

It is a program's responsibility to take the relative weight of the science into account, but to claim that a significant scientific consensus amounts to an immutable truth is, well, unscientific, not to mention illogical.

I do note Mr. Murphy's claim that, on this question, science has given way to “advocacy.” It appears he is ignoring the clear fact that many of the early and still active opponents of the AGW hypothesis were clearly paid advocates of the fossil fuel industry. However, in presenting an opinion there is no requirement that the views of the “other side” must also be presented in the same piece. Other elements of the CBC (notably The Fifth Estate, as well as The National) have done solid work on this question. Although I may be stretching beyond my mandate, I would hope that when Mr. Murphy returns to the air, he might wish to re-address the subject in light of the subsequent investigation.

Conclusion

Mr. Murphy is not a news reporter, but a commentator. He was expressing his opinion on a matter that appears to have some scope for disagreement. AGW, while supported by a strong and significant scientific consensus, is not a scientific fact comparable to evolution or the presence of cancer cells. One may strongly disagree with Mr. Murphy's opinion, but his presentation does not appear to violate CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman