Climate Change Contrarians

The complainant, Geoffrey Pounder, questioned the value and journalistic purpose of an Ideas programme called “Contrarians”. He said it was dangerous and deceptive to give air time to two climate change deniers. Part of their remarks from a conference aired on the programme. He thought it violated all the principles of CBC journalistic policy. I didn’t agree.

COMPLAINTS

You objected to an edition of Ideas broadcast on Radio One on January 22, 2016. The episode was entitled “The Contrarians,” and featured three speakers from an ideaCity Conference. You thought it was wrong of Ideas to broadcast the presentations of two of those speakers (Alex Epstein and Patrick Moore) because they are “notorious climate change deniers and fossil fuel promoters.” You said the programme was presenting “bad ideas”. You were also concerned there was not a proper warning preceding the broadcast, that the speakers were not set up properly, and therefore there was an “attempt to deceive.”

You also questioned whether it was accurate to portray Mr. Moore as one of the founders of Greenpeace. You pointed out that the organization itself denies that is the case.

You questioned the value and journalistic purpose of airing the presentations from the ideaCity Conference. You said that this is about science - ”a domain where uninformed opinion has no legitimacy.” You pointed out that Patrick Moore is not a climate scientist and therefore should not be given a platform. You were also concerned that there were no countervailing views, no challenging of Mr. Epstein nor Mr. Moore.

IDEAS failed to point out that the denialist campaign is motivated not by the pursuit of scientific truth or concerns about sustainability, but by politics, ideology, and economic imperatives: the protection of profits.

Climate change denial is inarguably political. Denialism is overwhelmingly a right-wing phenomenon -- and strongest in oil-producing regions like Alberta. Most big-name denialists are neoliberal market fundamentalists working for or on behalf of big corporations and right-wing think tanks.

What qualifications does one need to speak authoritatively about climate science and the oilsands industry? How shall we decide on a reliable guide? IDEAS offered no advice.

IDEAS failed to advise listeners to take what they were about to hear with a grain of salt.

By giving climate change deniers (and their sponsors) a platform, CBC (IDEAS) gave denialism its imprimatur. And stained its own reputation into the bargain.

You cited a programme broadcast in 2009 featuring Lawrence Solomon as evidence that Ideas has a “penchant” for climate change denial. You were so concerned about the impact of this programme that you prepared several lengthy presentations. One of them is a more detailed set of questions about the programme, the other is a detailed rebuttal to the two speakers. As my review will deal with the journalistic issue, I won’t attempt to summarize your extensive correspondence. Those who wish to, can find it here.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Greg Kelly, the Executive Producer of Ideas responded to your complaint. He responded on March 31st, and inadvertently sent it to my office but not to you. We discovered the error and passed it on to you on May 12th. My apologies for the confusion.

He provided you with some context about the purpose of the programme:

Our function is to reflect currents in contemporary thinking, even if some of those currents may strike us as objectionable. A program entitled "Ideas" must, at times, allow space for unpopular ideas, even outlier opinions about climate change, opinions which persist in the public realm, whether or not we like them or agree with them.

He told you that he did not believe that presenting the views of Patrick Moore and Alex Epstein was the same as endorsing them. He added he thought the framework was clear by titling the episode “Contrarians.” He said they also provided the associations, past and present of the speakers, which provided the necessary context.

Mr. Kelly also provided you with an extensive list of programmes, six in all, presented between 2013 and 2016 that dealt with aspects of climate change. He also told you that two more were in the works, including one on the history of climate change denial. He added:

Ideas features hundreds of programs over the course of a given year. To make room in one part of one episode to feature the views of two contrarians won't, I think, mislead or confuse our audience, especially given the overall arch of our programming.

REVIEW

In your correspondence with me, you quoted heavily from CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP). You pointed out it states that “We provide our audience with the perspectives, facts and analysis they need to understand an issue or matter of public interest. You felt this particular broadcast did not help understand climate change and therefore does not meet the test of the policy.

Here is what else CBC journalism policy has to say:

To serve the public interest

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.

To reflect diversity

We are committed to reflecting accurately the range of experiences and points of view of all citizens. All Canadians, of whatever origins, perspectives and beliefs, should feel that our news and current affairs coverage is relevant to them and lives up to our Values.

There is also a commitment to truth and accuracy. And as you noted, I have ruled that there is no obligation to provide an opposing view of climate change when it is discussed. In fact, I have said that that would be providing false equivalence. All that is true - but nowhere have I ever written that CBC journalists and producers censor opinions or positions that are not mainstream. As Mr. Kelly pointed out to you, Ideas is a very broad-ranging and occasionally iconoclastic programme. It explores thoughts and ideas outside the usual range. If these presentations had been on The National or any other news programme without any context, that might be a different matter. I agree with Mr. Kelly that labelling the programme “Contrarians” signals the views to be heard will not be the usual ones.

This was not framed as a scientific discussion, but rather as excerpts from an ideaCity conference, known for presenting views outside the mainstream. Some of the affiliations and associations of the speakers were provided, as is warranted in the JSP:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

Alex Epstein is described this way on the Ideas web page for this episode:

Alex Epstein is an expert in energy and industrial policy. His writings on energy and energy policy have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investor's Business Daily, and dozens of other prominent publications. He has become the leading free-market energy debater, having debated Bill McKibben, Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street, and other environmentalist groups. He is a Principal blogger for MasterResource, the leading free-market energy blog. Mr. Epstein's monthly podcast, "Power Hour," features discussions with leading energy thinkers.

Mr. Moore is described in this way, and introduced on the broadcast in fairly similar terms:

Dr. Patrick Moore has been a leader in the international environmental field for over 40 years. He is a co-founder of Greenpeace and served for nine years as President of Greenpeace Canada and seven years as a Director of Greenpeace International. As the leader of many campaigns Dr. Moore was a driving force shaping policy and direction for 15 years while Greenpeace became the world's largest environmental activist organization. In recent years, Dr. Moore has been focused on the promotion of sustainability and consensus building among competing concerns.

There appears to be some controversy around Patrick Moore’s status as a co-founder of Greenpeace. I note the Greenpeace website has this to say:

Patrick Moore Did Not Found Greenpeace

Patrick Moore frequently portrays himself as a founder or co-founder of Greenpeace, and many news outlets have repeated this characterization. Although Mr. Moore played a significant role in Greenpeace Canada for several years, he did not found Greenpeace. Phil Cotes, Irving Stowe, and Jim Bohlen founded Greenpeace in 1970. Patrick Moore applied for a berth on the Phyllis Cormack in March, 1971 after the organization had already been in existence for a year. A copy of his application letter and Greenpeace's response are available here (PDF).

It is not my job to re-report the story, but in the interests of accuracy, the Ideas team might want to note this discrepancy in identifying Mr. Moore.

I do not share your concern that Canadians will be confused by this broadcast. It is one of hundreds on the various platforms of CBC that have dealt with the issues of climate change. Freedom of expression, even for positions you find objectionable, is also an underlying value of CBC News, and indeed any democratic society. While this may not be a programme you or I think was of great value, it does not mean that it violated CBC journalistic policy. I noticed, when reviewing the episode on the programme’s website, there were commenters who agreed with you that it should not have been broadcast. Another observed that listening to contrary views “helps us to refine our thinking.” You drew a set of conclusions from this broadcast. I am sure others shared your view, and those that question climate change found two people who could validate their position. That is what democracy means.

In the interests of full disclosure, Mr. Kelly shared with me that at the time of the broadcast there was a partnership agreement between ideaCity and CBC Radio to air some of its material. He also told me the agreement is no longer in place, although the decision to end it had nothing to do with this episode or this complaint.

Airing an episode that presents the thinking of those who deny climate change does not violate CBC Journalistic Policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman