A changing climate for news reporting
With scientific guidance, it's time senior editors stood back to think about how complex and longer-term global issues are reported, writes Raymond Snoddy
One of the more significant stories of recent weeks appeared in a single column in The Times on page 15 of the edition of July 25th.
You will remember there was quite a lot going on at the time. Boris Johnson, the least experienced Prime Minister of modern times, was busy weeding out anyone who knew what they were doing from the Cabinet and replacing them almost exclusively with Brexiteer loyalists.
It was a huge story and no-one could or should have possibly ignored it.
But now that the dust has hardly settled but at least moved on, it is worth returning for a moment to page 15 of The Times - a page devoted to weather stories and that single column piece on climate change.
Railway tracks were buckling on the UK's hottest day, hundreds were trapped in 40°C heat as the Eurostar broke down and in Paris everyone was said to be at risk in the continuing French heatwave.
That was weather albeit of the extreme variety, but it was the single column piece of seven paragraphs which was totally arresting.
The more respectable sceptics of climate change - not crazy people like Donald Trump who has denounced it as a hoax - have to a very considerable extent relied on the fact climate has varied in the past with cold and warm spells before industrialisation.
There was a medieval warm period when there was a flourishing wine industry in England and cold spells when fairs were held on a frozen Thames.
The argument that we were just in another of those spells was just about tenable for the scientifically untutored.
No longer. The research reported initially in Nature magazine involved analysing temperature changes in tree rings, coral, ice cores and cave deposits over 2,000 years.
They showed, apparently for the first time that although there were warm and cold periods, they occurred across no more than 40 per cent of the earth and not at the same time.
The scientists found that by way of contrast, the late 20th century was the warmest on record for 98 per cent of the globe.
Raphael Neukom, from the University of Bern, noted: "Maybe it is correct to say we had warm periods in certain places. For instance in the Alps glaciers were maybe shorter in Roman times which could point to high temperature regionally. But not globally."
Something of an unprecedented nature is happening here that puts even the activities of Boris Johnson in the shade - and maybe raises questions about whether the media is also being left behind.
Of course there is coverage - August on holiday is possibly not the best time to access how successful it is.
Anyone abroad could catch an excellent BBC World report from Siberia about unprecedented levels of peat fires in the Tundra accompanied by equally unprecedented floods in Siberia. There are also always forest fires in the Amazon but this year they were worse than any in living memory.
When the UN International Panel on Climate Change produced a report after two years of study involving 107 scientists from 50 countries that the food supplies of 500 million people were seriously affected by desertification linked to climate change, it understandably did not make the splash in any UK national newspaper. It was covered of course, but everything from 'Boris Blitz on Violent Thugs' to 'Johnson Spending Spree' were preferred and the Daily Mail most bizarrely splashed on reports that church authorities were attacking Wayne Rooney, who had just joined Derby County, for the fact the club promoted gambling on their shirts.
While news is always news and what happened ten minutes ago always receives greater prominence than the greater, slower movements of human destiny, maybe it is time to stand back a moment and think about the longer term issues that will affect our children and grandchildren and how they are reported in the media.
Progress has been made particularly by the BBC. Their idea of balance on Brexit has been sadly misguided and is only now just managing to recover from years of tacit acceptance of a version of Brexit means Brexit, and has lost many natural supporters as a result.
On climate change, with the help of scientific guidance, nearly a decade ago the BBC moved to a system of due impartiality that recognised that the vast majority of scientific evidence strongly suggested the reality of human created climate change and that therefore there was no need to balance top scientists with the likes of Lord Lawson saying climate change was nonsense.
Others will have to follow that example and remember that the scale of the threats facing society argues strongly for continued serious funding of public service broadcasting, rather than giving way to endless streams of entertainment which could turn out to be the modern equivalent of Roman bread and circuses.
As for the rest, it is difficult to know what to suggest other than find ways of gradually changing news culture over time.
Senior editors should make more space and time available for stories of significance on climate change and its effects because they simply have to.
Newspapers and radio stations which do not have a reporter dedicated to the issue should do so straight away.
They should be reporters with enough scientific knowledge to explain the pressing current realities to their readers, particularly on the popular newspapers. Most of them have failed to inform their readers properly on the impact of Brexit on their lives. It will be much more serious if they fail on climate change.
Well done to The Times for carrying the Nature story at all. Pity it was on page 15 in a single column. Maybe next time such a story and its implications will receive much more prominence.