Let’s have some crime denialism
The ever interesting Sunny Hundal points out on CiF today that the BBC gave yet more air time to climate change denial on Newsnight last night. What the mainstream media describe as ‘balance’ has been a matter of concern for some time to me.
The strategy deployed by climate change denialists is interesting. It has focused on two elements. Firstly, problematising the science of climate change, and then appealing to ‘balance’ in the media to ensure coverage of their position. This is made all the more extraordinary by the lack of coverage for the other conspiracy theories Sunny mentions. Interestingly, other assumptions abound in the media and go almost wholly unmentioned. I come to that later.
A couple of weeks ago Rod Liddle, the chungwit slated as next editor of ‘The Independent’ was on the radio. He was asked about a range of his more sensationalist opinions. This included his opinions on climate change. Liddle claims not to be a climate change denier. He is, instead, a climate change ‘moderate’. This, he claims, means he refutes the extremist claims of both climate change deniers, and the extremist climate change believers.
Now this rankles with me for one reason. I couldn’t identify a single extremist climate change believer whose attitude in any way balances that of Viscount Monckton, Jeremy Clarkson and the variety of other deniers with high media profiles. Even the catastrophists like Mark Lynas don’t come close to the extremism of the denialists – their work is based on the science, rather than on wild conspiracies.
The effect of this positioning is that balance becomes a mid point between people who are on the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theory, and people who have extrapolated an eminently feasible worst case scenario. Given that Rod Liddle rose to prominence as editor of Radio Four’s Today Programme, and may become editor of a national newspaper, this is particularly concerning.
There are two closely interconnected, but separate elements to this. The first is that corporate interests have been able to buy doubt on this issue. The second is that the media have responded to a dog whistle demanding ‘balance’ on this issue.
The ability of big corporations to buy doubt is a well-evidenced – and with climate change it has been particularly evident. It’s quite simple to offer research grants for projects that can only produce one outcome. Then you’ve got doubt, and with doubt you can stop any action. Fear, uncertainty and doubt are important here because they allow big corporations, particularly oil companies, to continue with business as usual.
Many of the US based denialists believe that climate change has been invented as a threat to free market capitalism. Any action taken on climate change would destroy the economy. Of course, Nicholas Stern’s report suggests this is rubbish, but the US neo-conservative right never let facts get in the way of a good (liberal) conspiracy.
The mainstream media love fear, uncertainty and doubt. It gives a nice two-sided debate, which is entertaining for the audience – it’s a ‘talking point’.
Dog whistling is a public affairs technique most closely associated with Lynton Crosby. Crosby was the strategist responsible for John Howard’s victories in the US, for Boris Johnson’s win in London, and for the surprisingly effective 2005 Conservative campaign. In 2005 the Tory campaign dog whistled to racist voters using the “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” slogan. It was very effective.
A dog whistle works by appealing only to those who are suceptible to your message. The name comes because dog whistles are out of the audible range of humans, but are very audible to dogs. So, when climate deniers argue there needs to be ‘balance,’ this message is of most significance to journalists. They respond by giving more airspace to denialists.
The climate denialists have used a dog whistle on ‘balance’ to ensure that the strategic ground made by buying doubt is retained. This is in the face of ever increasing agreement amongst scientists about the extent of climate change.
Even if there was near unanimity amongst scientists, I’m quite sure that editors who are either lazy or who enjoy confrontation will continue to put denialists in these debates. It’s not just on climate change that this happens. And it’s where it doesn’t happen that’s interesting.
Let’s take crime as an example. The media uniformly presents criminals in one, or both, of two ways. Either they are evil. They have committed crimes because they are incapable of doing otherwise, and cannot be rehabilitated in any way. Or they are only committing crimes for personal gain. Of course, these two attributes are almost entirely incompatible. But both suit the notion that criminals should be feared, and once caught, locked up in barbaric conditions for as long as possible. And both are regularly trotted out by the media.
There are plenty of criminologists who could point to family background, psychiatric condition, class, race or gender as contributory factors in crime. In fact, they could be formed into a legion of ‘crime deniers’ who attribute crime not to evil or the rational choice of individuals, but to underlying factors. It’s interesting that the media choose not to create doubt about this, despite the massive damage imprisonment does to the families of offenders and communities.
Interestingly, the impact of imprisoning huge numbers of people is almost certainly more economically damaging than preventing climate change. It is certainly more socially damaging. A bit of balance on justice policy would really improve our society.
Maybe we should fund some clever people to question the consensus that more and longer prison sentences are a good thing?