Thursday, 26 January 2023 — Media Lens
People in power get nervous when the population’s trust in national institutions plummets. It has often been a precursor of significant social unrest, even revolutions.
This is an underlying reason why UK prime minister Rishi Sunak proclaimed, in the face of mounting pressure over the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi, chairman of the Conservative Party and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, that:
‘Integrity and accountability are really important to me.’
Of course, it was a tragicomic assertion given that the Tory party has been embroiled in endless scandals, deceptions and calamities in recent years.
Meanwhile, the BBC, that bastion of British values – not least, its supposed world-leading position as a reliable provider of news – has had its ‘sheen’ further tarnished by revelations that BBC chairman Richard Sharp has been linked with an £800,000 personal loan made to Boris Johnson, then prime minister.
A few weeks after Sharp allegedly helped Johnson to secure a loan guarantee agreement, he was announced as the government’s choice to head the BBC. Cue much recent fulmination that even if Sharp was not directly involved in arranging the loan, ‘perceptions matter’, as BBC stalwart David Dimbleby told BBC News (interview, News at Ten, 23 January 2023).
At one time, Sharp was Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs investment bank. While PM, Johnson met Sharp six times – more than any other non-editorial media executive; once more than even Rupert Murdoch. Also, before becoming BBC Chairman, Sharp had donated £400,000 to the Tory party.
As the BBC reported of its chairman:
‘Mr Sharp is responsible for upholding and protecting the BBC’s independence, and ensuring it fulfils its mission to inform, educate and entertain.’
Nothing to see here, folks.
But nervousness among the ruling class is real. Penny Mordaunt, the Tory leader of the Commons, recently said something that approached a realistic assessment of the state of the country. In a speech at the Institute for Government conference in Westminster, she warned that:
‘Many people think things don’t work…for those with the least, the whole system can seem rigged against them.’
Mordaunt claimed, as she must, that Sunak understood the importance of ‘[public] trust as a metric’. But she also warned that:
‘The very continuation and success of capitalism and democracy hangs in the balance.’
These were quite remarkable words by a Cabinet minister. It was a rare glimpse of honesty, even if for largely self-serving reasons: namely, to give the illusion of responding to people’s concerns in order to maintain a grip on power. At the same conference, Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow ‘levelling up’ secretary, said the ‘waves of political upheaval’ felt in the UK had been ‘the sound of people demanding to take charge of their own destiny.’ Nandy claimed the ‘time for excuses is long past’ and decentralising the economy was the ‘only route out of the national malaise’.
These were also fine rhetorical words. But the notion they would ever be converted into actual, systemic-deep policies deviating sharply from corporate-driven, planet-destroying short-termism is hardly credible when Nandy is in a Shadow cabinet led by establishment stooge Sir Keir Starmer. It was he, after all, who infamously ditched his ten ‘socialist’ election pledges when he became Labour leader, doing so much to destroy the public goodwill and legacy left behind by Jeremy Corbyn, his predecessor.
But expect more of the same face-saving oratory to emerge as politicians and business leaders try to placate the public in the face of extreme hardship, class warfare and social collapse. Of course, sometimes the political rhetoric is simply brazen and unforgiving in its harshness.
Recall the elderly Holocaust survivor who bravely confronted Home Secretary Suella Braverman at a public meeting earlier this month. 83-year-old Joan Salter told Braverman that her hateful language towards those fleeing persecution at home has consequences:
‘I am a child survivor of the Holocaust. In 1943, I was forced to flee my birthplace in Belgium and went across war-torn Europe and dangerous seas until I finally was able to come to the UK in 1947.
‘When I hear you using words against refugees like “swarms” and an “invasion”, I am reminded of the language used to dehumanise and justify the murder of my family and millions of others.’
Shamefully, the Home Secretary replied:
‘I won’t apologise for the language that I have used to demonstrate the scale of the problem.’
Braverman’s cold-hearted response was even greeted by some applause from the audience. When the video of this exchange went viral, the Home Office actually asked for it to be taken down (it remains in place at the time of writing).
In an interview afterwards, Ms Salter emphasised her point:
‘I feel very strongly that the Holocaust ended in the death camps but it started with words, with othering the Jewish people, blaming them for all the problems in Germany, and I am afraid that the actions and words of our home secretary is very, very similar.’
Political commentator Umair Haque pointed out that this episode is symptomatic of ‘a collapsing Britain’. He observed:
‘This is the state of modern Britain. This is where the nation actually is. The government tells off Holocaust survivors, to cheers and applause. If that isn’t chilling, I don’t know what is.’
‘Nobody should treat a Holocaust survivor as if they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to rising fascism. This episode reeks of anti-Semitism. Of xenophobia. Does Britain’s government really know better than…people who survived history’s greatest genocide? Seriously? Can anybody accept that as logical, sane, or moral? When a Holocaust survivor says, out loud, hey, this is beginning to remind me of what I escaped…is it really correct to… ignore… minimize… gaslight… demonize them? Isn’t that proof positive that something’s gone incredibly badly wrong in a society?’
More proof of the deterioration of the ‘United’ Kingdom is the recent damning verdict by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its World Report 2023. The UK government had ‘repeatedly sought to damage and undermine human rights protections in 2022’. Yasmine Ahmed, UK director at HRW, said that last year:
‘saw the most significant assault on human rights protections in the UK in decades. From your right to protest to your ability to hold institutions to account, fundamental and hard-won rights are being systematically dismantled.’
The Tory government has:
‘introduced laws that stripped rights of asylum seekers and other vulnerable people, encouraged voter disenfranchisement, limited judicial oversight of government actions, and placed new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.’
But it gets worse:
‘As these rights were being stripped away, the United Kingdom was hit hard by a cost-of-living crisis, with inflation reaching 11.1 percent by the end of October and official data showing that low-income households disproportionately felt the impact of rising energy and food prices.’
‘The government’s refusal to reverse a social security cut made in 2021, and a November 2022 announcement that social security support would not increase to meet inflation until April 2023 breach the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living. [our emphasis]’
From our searches of the Lexis news database, there appears to have been zero coverage of the HRW report in the national press. We certainly could find no trace of a UK government response to HRW’s damning verdict on the country.
The Most ‘Valuable’ Economic Activity Is Ecocide
But the biggest issue that the UK government has shamefully failed to address responsibly is the climate emergency. Its appalling lack of commitment to tackling the climate crisis is exemplified by its decision last month to open the first new coal mine in the country in 30 years in Cumbria. There are yet more examples. While the UK hosted the UN Climate Summit COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, it decided not to join an an alliance of countries vowing to stop new oil and gas projects. Towards the end of that same year, it was reported that the UK government had given the oil and gas industry £13.6 billion in subsidies since the landmark Paris climate accord was signed in 2015. (The Paris agreement was to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels.)
The UK has just held a new North Sea licensing round for oil and gas companies, attracting 115 bids. The purported objective is:
‘to boost domestic hydrocarbon output as Europe weans itself off Russian fuel.’
The government is aiming to develop Rosebank, located north west of Shetland, potentially the biggest undeveloped oil and gas field in the North Sea. It is thought to be twice the size of the controversial Cambo development, and could produce almost 70,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak.
The Scottish Green Party opposes the development, noting:
‘Rosebank is a climate disaster waiting to happen, we are already past the point when we should have been moving away from oil and gas, yet Westminster is doubling down on it…We cannot realise our renewable potential as long as we are tied to a Tory government that is more concerned with the profits of its friends in the fossil fuel industry than it is with our environment.’
All this is happening despite the impressive campaigns by the environment movement – notably Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain – in ramping up public concern over climate. Dr Oscar Berglund, a lecturer in international public and social policy at the University of Bristol who researches climate change activism and Extinction Rebellion (XR) said:
‘It’s important to remember what [XR] has achieved. The British public are way more concerned about climate change than they were before, that’s a lasting impact. How climate change is talked about in society has changed for the better and there’s much less climate change denialism.’
More widely, three in four people now view climate change as a major threat, according to a 2022 survey of more than 24,000 people across 19 countries by the Pew Research Center.
A summary of the state of the global climate in 2022, prepared by the authoritative website Carbon Brief, reveals that many new records were set last year. These include:
- Greenhouse gases: Concentrations reached record levels for carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
- Surface temperature: It was between the fifth and sixth warmest year on record for surface temperature for the world as a whole, at between 1.1C and 1.3C above pre-industrial levels across different temperature datasets. The last eight years have been the eight warmest years since records began in the mid-1800s.
- Warming over land: It was the warmest year on record in 28 countries – including China, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and the UK – and in areas where 850 million people live.
- Ocean heat content: It was the warmest year on record for ocean heat content, which increased notably between 2021 and 2022.
- Extreme weather: 2022 saw extreme heatwaves over Europe, China, India, Pakistan and South America, as well as catastrophic flooding in Pakistan, Brazil, West Africa and South Africa.
- Sea level rise: Sea levels reached new record highs, with notable acceleration over the past three decades.
In April 2022, Carbon Brief published an in-depth analysis of 1,300 UK newspaper editorials on climate since 2011. Their study showed that the number of editorials calling for more action to tackle climate change had quadrupled in the space of three years. This mirrored a wider increase in news coverage of the topic. However, the key findings of their study said nothing about whether the scale and urgency of the climate crisis had been properly addressed by the British media.
Journalists Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, co-founders of Covering Climate Now, have pointed out that, in fact, the media is still mostly failing to convey the urgency of the climate crisis:
‘To convey to audiences that civilization is literally under attack, news outlets should play the climate story much bigger, running more stories – especially about how climate change is increasingly affecting weather, economics, politics and other spheres of life – and running those stories at the top, not the bottom, of a homepage or broadcast. News reports should also speak much more plainly, presenting climate change as an imminent, deadly threat.’
Just Stop Oil made similar observations:
‘In 2023, it’s time for those working in the media to go beyond just telling us about record-breaking temperatures, floods and droughts. It’s time to shout about why this is happening and what it will mean for all of us alive today. Civil resistance means confronting the vested interests, the profiteering, and the complicity of all those in the pay of the oil industry.’
Of course, one of the appalling truths behind the climate crisis is that it has long been known that the planet would heat dangerously without serious, radical action. Indeed, leaked internal documents reveal that, in the 1970s, scientists at oil giant Exxon (then Esso) accurately predicted the rise in global temperature.
Geoffrey Supran at Harvard University, together with colleagues, analysed all publicly available internal documents and research publications disclosed by the company between 1977 and 2014. They concluded that:
‘Excellent scientists [at Exxon] modelled and predicted global warming with shocking skill and accuracy, only for the company to spend the next couple of decades denying that very climate science.’
The criminal dishonesty of this approach beggars belief, with the mass death of many species, perhaps humanity itself, the likely consequence. Meanwhile, last year, oil companies were heading for profits of almost $200 billion.
As Umair Haque noted:
‘This isn’t late stage capitalism anymore. Now it’s end stage capitalism.’
‘Now we’re in a stage of capitalism where the very institutions responsible for destroying life on planet earth and causing a mass extinction — one of only five previous ones in all of deep history, billions of years of it — are making record-breaking, eye-watering windfall profits. In other words, we’re now at the stage of capitalism where the most “valuable” activity in the economy is…ecocide.’
Economist and former politician Yanis Varoufakis, who famously resigned from his post as Greece’s minister of finance in 2015, put it bluntly in a new documentary series:
‘Either we move beyond capitalism – or we die.’
Of Love, Hope And Wonder
As we have previously noted, many climate scientists – including senior, previously cautious figures – are expressing their fears in increasingly anguished tones. But it may still be too little, too late.
US climate scientist Rose Abramoff was recently fired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory after urging fellow scientists to take action on climate change. She wrote in the New York Times:
‘At the American Geophysical Union meeting in December, just before speakers took the stage for a plenary session, my fellow climate scientist Peter Kalmus and I unfurled a banner that read “Out of the lab & into the streets.” In the few seconds before the banner was ripped from our hands, we implored our colleagues to use their leverage as scientists to wake the public up to the dying planet.’
‘The scientific community has tried writing dutiful reports for decades, with no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels to show for it. It is time to try something new. We must work to change the culture of our institutions, be honest about our values, advocate for climate justice and experiment. Great experiments push at the boundaries of knowledge and propriety. They are risky, volatile, blasphemous. But when they work, the world changes.’
One small but significant step is to ban fossil fuel companies from recruiting students through university career services. This is having some success in the UK, with three more universities now joining the ban. The University of the Arts London, University of Bedfordshire, and Wrexham Glyndwr University have followed the example set by Birkbeck, University of London, which was the first to adopt a fossil-free careers service policy last September.
The student-led group People & Planet, which is active in dozens of universities, said that universities have been ‘propping up the companies most responsible for destroying the planet’, while the climate crisis was ‘the defining issue of most students’ lifetimes’.
Climate protests are continuing all around the world. In Germany, the village of Lützerath has been emptied of its residents to make way for the Garzweiler coalmine. Police have been deployed against protesters attempting to stop or slow down the expansion of the mine.
Videos showed the police getting stuck in mud while trying to evict protesters. Behind the hilarious Monty Pythonesque antics, however, was the serious message expressed by Just Stop Oil:
‘Give the police stupid tasks and they’ll look stupid — and attempting to force hundreds of protestors from a village, just so it can be destroyed by a coal mine is stupid.
‘But the politicians who are pushing for more fossil fuels are worse than stupid. They are genocidal.’
What motivates these brave climate protesters, so often sneered at by ‘mainstream’ media as ‘misguided’, ‘selfish’, ‘naïve’ or worse? Louise Harris is the 24-year-old Just Stop Oil activist who climbed up a gantry on the M25 last November. While there, she made an impassioned plea for government climate action in a video that was widely seen. After she was arrested, she spent eight days in prison.
She wrote recently:
‘I was emotional in that video, because losing my life at the hands of my own government, is emotional for me. Realising that I may not live past 40 years old, because there might not be enough food or water, is emotional for me. Realising that children born today might grow up in a world filled with war and conflict – not daisy chains, laughter, and games – is emotional for me.’
‘I started bawling, with what I now recognise as grief.’
At root, the motivation for her climate activism is love for people, life and the planet:
‘Because when you feel love, you take risks. When you feel love, you fight. When you feel love, you put everything you have on the line – to save it.’
This is a powerful message and worth bearing in mind when we are assailed by hard truths about the state of our home planet. Australian writer and political analyst Caitlin Johnstone tackled this theme in a recent piece:
‘I often hear talk of how depressing it is to learn the truth about what’s really going on in our society and in our world…I’m always being asked for advice on how to keep going on when everything seems so dismal.’
‘I usually say something about the importance of inner work, healing old traumas and purging the many illusions which distort our perception of reality. And to a certain extent that’s true; such work gives you a foundation of inner peace from which to function and a clarity of perspective that makes it much easier to see through the bullshit.’
Then Johnstone added:
‘But upon reflection I think equanimity when dealing with harsh truths also comes from a much simpler foundation: that there is always hope, and that there is always wonder.’
As Johnstone observed, we cannot say with certainty how things will turn out. We cannot be sure that nothing can solve or ameliorate the crisis we are in.
Climate scientist Bill McGuire provides vital perspective on the importance of not giving up:
‘The failure of the Cop process to avert the arrival of Hothouse Earth conditions doesn’t mean that it’s all over, that the battle is lost. Far from it. Above and beyond 1.5C, each and every 0.1C rise in global average temperature that we can forestall becomes critical; every ton of carbon dioxide or methane we can prevent being emitted becomes a vital win. Knowing that the world we are leaving to our kids and their kids is certain to be grim, we should be motivated to do everything in our power to ensure that we don’t hurtle past the 2C marker, too, allowing global heating to continue until wholesale climate mayhem becomes unavoidable.’
There is, therefore, always a reason for carrying on; to try to make things less worse than they would otherwise be. In the meantime, there is love and hope and wonder in the beauty and magic of the people and world around us.