22 June 2020 — Media Lens
In his classic science fiction novel, ‘Foundation’, Isaac Asimov posited a future in which ‘psychohistorians’ could predict outcomes based on past history and the large-scale behaviour of human populations by combining psychology and the mathematics of probability. Using ‘psychohistory’, the protagonist Hari Seldon discovers that the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire will collapse in 500 years. He warns the galactic rulers of this likely fate, while explaining that an alternative future in which human knowledge is preserved can be attained. For his trouble, he is exiled to the remote planet of Terminus.
In today’s world, the prospects for human civilisation, never mind the existence of historians in the future, look bleak indeed. According to many leading climate scientists and biologists, the most likely outcome for humanity is the collapse of what is called ‘civilisation’. They warn that it may already be too late to change course.
These are the shocking expert conclusions, rooted in scientific evidence and careful rational arguments, which are routinely underplayed, marginalised or simply ignored by ‘mainstream’ news media.
Last November, the world’s most prestigious science journal, Nature, published a study by eminent climate scientists warning that nine major ‘tipping points’ which regulate global climate stability are dangerously close to being triggered. These include the slowing down of ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, massive deforestation of the Amazon, and accelerating ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet. Any one of these nine tipping points, if exceeded, could push the Earth’s climate into catastrophic runaway global warming. There could even be a ‘domino effect’ whereby one tipping point triggers another tipping point which, in turn, triggers the next one and so on, in a devastating cascade.
Given the normal custom of academics to use sober language, the warning statements in the pages of Nature were stark:
‘The growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate changes must compel [our emphasis] political and economic action on emissions.’
The researchers are clear that:
‘we are in a climate emergency and [our study of tipping points] strengthens this year’s chorus of calls for urgent climate action — from schoolchildren to scientists, cities and countries.’
In short, there is ‘an existential threat to civilization’ and ‘no amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us.’
This should have dwarfed news coverage of Brexit for months.
One of the study’s co-authors, Will Stefen, emeritus professor of climate and Earth System science at the Australian National University, told Voice of Action, an Australian publication, that all this raises the ultimate question:
‘Have we already lost control of the system? Is collapse now inevitable?’
In other words, there may simply not be enough time to stop tipping points being reached, as he explained with this metaphor:
‘If the Titanic realises that it’s in trouble and it has about 5km that it needs to slow and steer the ship, but it’s only 3km away from the iceberg, it’s already doomed.’
We searched the ProQuest media database for mentions of this particularly disturbing quote by Steffen, a world-renowned climate expert, in national UK newspapers. We found the grand total of one in a short article in the Daily Express. What could better sum up the pathology of the ‘mainstream’ news media than ignoring urgent authoritative warnings of the likely collapse of the climate system?
Scientists have been sounding the alarm for some time that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s long biological history. But this time the cause is not a natural calamity, such as a huge volcanism event or an asteroid strike, but human ‘civilisation’. Worse still, the careful evidence accrued by biologists in study after study indicates that the global mass loss of species is accelerating. In 2017, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that billions of populations of animals have disappeared from the Earth amidst what they called a ‘biological annihilation.’ They said the findings were worse than previously thought.
Earlier this month, a new study revealed that five hundred species of land animals are likely to become extinct over the next two decades. Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and lead author of the paper, declared:
‘We’re eroding the capabilities of the planet to maintain human life and life in general.’
While humans continue to destroy species and natural habitats, Ceballos and his colleagues warn of a ‘cascading series of impacts’, including more frequent occurrences of new diseases and pandemics, such as Covid-19. He summarised:
‘All of us need to understand that what we do in the next five to 10 years will define the future of humanity.’
But the crucial window for action is likely much shorter than that. And it is not just the ‘usual suspects’ of Greens and wild-eyed radicals who claim so. According to Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, the world has just six months to avert climate crisis. This is the timescale required to ‘prevent a post-lockdown rebound in greenhouse gas emissions that would overwhelm efforts to stave off climate catastrophe’.
Samuel Alexander, a lecturer with the University of Melbourne and research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, told Voice of Action that the looming end of organised human society would not be a single event. Instead, we are approaching a stage:
‘where we face decades of ongoing crises, as the existing mode of civilisation deteriorates, but then recovers as governments and civil society tries to respond, and fix things, and keep things going for a bit longer.’
‘Capitalism is quite good at dodging bullets and escaping temporary challenges to its legitimacy and viability. But its condition, I feel, is terminal.’
Meanwhile, Steffen believes that current mass protests, such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, are not yet a sign of collapse but one of ‘growing instability’. Alexander concurs, saying that it is a sign of ‘steam building up within a closed system’. Without large-scale grassroots action and radical shifts in government policies, we are ‘likely to see explosions of civil unrest increasingly as things continue to deteriorate’. However, he offered hope that, with sufficient public pressure, the future could still be ‘post-growth / post capitalist / post-industrial in some form.’
Graham Turner, a former senior Australian government research scientist, observed:
‘I think if we all manage to live a simpler and arguably more fulfilling life then it would be possible still with some technological advances to have a sustainable future, but it would seem that it’s more likely … that we are headed towards or perhaps on the cusp of a sort of global collapse.’
He fears that the public as a whole will only demand change once ‘they’re actually losing their jobs or losing their life or seeing their children directly suffer’.
One positive practical step that people could take, he says, is to push for changes in the law governing corporations:
‘so that corporations don’t have more legal rights than people, and are not compelled to make a profit for shareholders.’
Meanwhile, Siberia, of all places, is undergoing a prolonged heatwave, described by one climate scientist as ‘undoubtedly alarming’, which is driving 2020 towards being the globally hottest year on record.
Media ‘Failure’ Is Default Media Performance
Many new and dramatic climate findings are, of course, reported in the science and environment sections of newspapers. But the compelling case for a radical shift in society towards sustainability are barely touched upon in corporate news media, for obvious reasons.
In particular, the imminent threat of climate collapse rarely intrudes into the numerous pages devoted to ‘politics’, business and the economy. These pages feature a whole slew of correspondents, columnists and commentators who are rewarded for not questioning the status quo.
Worse, no leading political editor – the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston spring to mind – ever seriously challenges the Prime Minister, or other senior politicians, on the huge risk of climate breakdown. The Westminster ‘village’ – surely as insular a social bubble as has ever existed in this country – is almost entirely divorced from the reality of onrushing climate chaos.
As independent journalist Rebecca Fisher, formerly of Corporate Watch, noted recently:
‘UK’s current form of “democracy” cannot protect the public. The “Westminster model” was developed to promote unregulated economic growth and prevent the public from real participation in how society is run.’
And yet, unlike the power-hungry Westminster navel-gazers, the public does believe climate is an urgent issue. A new survey of 80,000 people conducted across forty countries reveals that fewer than three per cent believe climate change is not serious at all.
But, as we and others have long argued, a fundamental obstacle to shifting to a saner, more democratic society is the narrow concentration of media ownership; a structural impediment in today’s world to truly free and open debate. This extreme state of affairs has been tracked in the UK by the independent Media Reform Coalition which represents several groups and individuals committed to promoting journalism and communications that work for the benefit of the public. The MRC is currently chaired by Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.
The coalition’s most recent report on UK media ownership, published in 2019, revealed that the problem is now even worse than at the time of its previous report in 2015. Just three companies – Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach (publisher of the Mirror titles) dominate 83 per cent of the national newspaper market (up from 71 per cent in 2015). When online readers are included, just five companies – News UK, Daily Mail Group, Reach, Guardian and Telegraph – dominate nearly 80 per cent of the market.
The report’s authors warned:
‘We believe that concentration in news and information markets in particular has reached endemic levels in the UK and that we urgently need effective remedies. Concentrated ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations can amass vast political and economic power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests.’
The warning is further backed up in a forthcoming book, ‘The Media Manifesto’ (Polity Books, August 2020), by Fenton and co-authors Des Freedman, Justin Schlosberg and Lina Dencik. They emphasise a crucial point that is a longstanding characteristic of rational media analysis: we must stop using the misleading framework of media ‘failures’. As Noam Chomsky observed many years ago in describing media performance:
‘The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.’ (‘Deterring Democracy’, Hill & Wang, 1992, p. 79)
It is therefore not a ‘failure’ when newspapers and broadcasters neglect to scrutinise state-corporate power. Granting a free pass to power is virtually their raison d’être. Or, as ‘The Media Manifesto’ observes:
‘[The] inability to hold power to account shouldn’t be seen as an unprecedented “failure” of the media to perform its democratic role when, in fact, this has long been the media’s normal role under capitalism: to naturalize and legitimize existing and unequal social relations.’
The authors continue with examples:
‘It’s not about failing to hold banks to account but about the complicity of financial journalists and commentators in celebrating neoliberal economics ahead of the 2008 financial crash; it’s not about failing to be tough on racism but about the media’s historic perpetuation of racist stereotypes and promotion of anti-immigrant frames; it’s not about failing to recognize the challenges of apocalyptic climate change but about repeating tropes about “natural” disasters such as hurricanes, heatwaves and forest fires, together with routine “balanced” debates between climate change scientists and deniers. These are not examples of the media’s malfunctioning but of its default behaviour.’
But, goes up the cry from the back row, what about ‘our’ blessed BBC? It is, after all, obliged by its Royal Charter to report objectively and impartially, untrammelled by billionaire ownership or tawdry commercialisation. Right? Not so.
As Des Freedman observes of the BBC:
‘[It] is a compromised version of a potentially noble ideal: far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able to offer an effective challenge to them’. (‘The Media Manifesto’, op. cit., p. 88)
As can be seen every day of the week, the BBC typically follows a similar agenda to UK newspapers in its own news coverage. Freedman adds:
‘Far from retaining its autonomy from all vested interests, and delivering a critical and robust public interest journalism, the BBC has been a key institutional mechanism for reinforcing establishment “common sense” and has represented the strategic interests of the powerful more than the disparate views of ordinary audiences.’
‘It has reached the point where even the accomplished former World Service journalist, Owen Bennett-Jones, has condemned the BBC’s dependence on official sources and argues that “there is plenty of evidence that the BBC, in both its international and domestic manifestations, deserves the epithet ‘state broadcaster’.” Without significant reform, public service media are, in reality, just as likely to be embroiled in the reproduction of media power as their commercial counterparts and therefore just as likely to be part of the problem rather than the solution.’ (pp. 23-24)
Fenton emphasises the point later in the book:
‘despite its claims to be impartial and independent, the BBC has always sided with the elite and been in thrall to those in power.’ (p. 88)
Regular readers will be aware that, since we began publishing media alerts in 2001, we have examined in depth hundreds of examples of the BBC doing exactly this. If you include those examples that we highlight almost daily on Twitter and Facebook, they undoubtedly number in the thousands. Many of the most insidious examples of such bias, omission and distortion in BBC News have been expanded upon in several of our books. There is no shortage of evidence that BBC News functions as a propaganda outlet for state and corporate interests.
A fundamental obstacle to radical societal change to avert climate breakdown, therefore, is that ‘mainstream’ media, including BBC News, exist primarily to uphold the interests of capital and, in addition, particularly in the case of the BBC, the state:
‘Modern capitalism resides on the complex relationship between the neoliberal market and the neoliberal state. To address meaningfully the consequences of climate change, massively reduce inequality and eradicate poverty, would destabilize the power relations that underpin finance-led growth. For example, if the mainstream [sic] press industries do not attempt to maximise their profits in any way they can today, they will probably not exist tomorrow.’ (pp. 84-85)
In a sane world, if senior scientists who normally use understated academic language start warning of an ‘existential threat’ to human civilisation, then responsible news media would leap into action with huge headlines and in-depth coverage. There would be extensive interviews with scientists on BBC News at Ten, ITV News, Channel 4 News, Newsnight, Good Morning Britain, BBC Radio 4 Today, and other major programmes. They would all follow up with urgent analysis of what needs to be done immediately in the realms of politics and economics to avert the climate threat, or at least minimise the serious consequences of that threat. Instead, state-corporate media have, in effect, exiled scientists to a distant planet in a remote part of the Galaxy where they can be ignored.
Billionaire-owned media, controlled by corporate boards and dependent on corporate ad revenue, and a state broadcaster forever hobbled by bowing to corporate-beholden governments, can never provide the answers to climate breakdown. As ‘The Media Manifesto’ argues, with detailed recommendations, we need properly accountable, public-interest news media that are truly democratic, diverse and sustainable.
All the citizen movements that we see today, including Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, will not succeed unless common aims are sought across diverse campaigns with a united goal; namely, dismantling the state-corporate media that are the propaganda wing for destructive state-corporate power, and replacing such media with news organisations that serve the public interest.
We must be clear that the powerful need to be challenged directly; non-violently, yes, but with strength, persistence and wisdom on the basis of clear strategic aims. Meekly asking for change and accepting weak compromises will not work given the gravity of the climate crisis. Media academic Robert McChesney put it well:
‘Many liberals who wish to reform and humanize capitalism are uncomfortable with seemingly radical movements, and often work to distance themselves from them, lest respectable people in power cast a withering eye at them. “Shhh,” they say to people like me. “If we antagonize or scare those in power we will lose our seat at the table and not be able to win any reforms.” Yet these same liberal reformers often are dismayed at how they are politically ineffectual. Therein lies a great irony, because to enact significant reforms requires a mass movement (or the credible prospect of a mass movement) that does indeed threaten the powerful.’ (Robert McChesney, ‘Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy’, Monthly Review Press, 2014, pp. 26-27)
In short, the powerful need to have their power – originally stolen from us anyway – taken away from them in order to ensure human survival.