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How the end of the world became bite-size news

05 Dec 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
How the end of the world became bite-size news

Like all of us, the media must think beyond the short-term and start playing a bigger role in the fight against climate change, writes Raymond Snoddy

The media, and national newspapers in particular, doesn’t really cope very well with the collapse of civilisation - or civilisations, as the modern idiom has it.

The problem is civilisations didn’t collapse yesterday and almost certainly won’t collapse tomorrow, or in time to make the schedules of the special supplements and glossy magazines looking forward to a bumper Christmas.

Was there ever a more stark warning than that delivered by Sir David Attenborough at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland’s polluting capital of coal and steel, Katowice, this week?

The television naturalist who has done more than any other to highlight the disastrous impact of dumped plastics on the oceans is hardly an alarmist.

Yet he warned that unless urgent action on green house gases is taken, “the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

The presenter of Blue Planet and Dynasties went on to argue that the world was facing a man-made disaster of global scale, “our greatest threat in thousands of years - climate change.”

Sir David received only tepid applause in the conference hall and some of the television coverage included vox pop interviews with Polish coal miners who, unsurprisingly, were not too keen to lose their jobs, a position endorsed by the Polish Government.

Overall, how well did the media do in covering an important speech - such a heart-felt speech - from Sir David, who was there as a representative of us all, delivering the first “People’s Seat” speech at such a conference?

It varied greatly and you felt for news editors faced with perfectly respectable alternative distractions, many of them from the world of Theresa May, Brexit and confrontational politics in the House of Commons.

But we are talking about the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world here, and Sir David’s view was not just personal based on his own experience, considerable as it is, but delivered after consulting widely with experts and scientists.

If you take a longer term view than the twists and turns of Brexit, or Transport Secretaries getting it in the neck for letting down commuters, then it was only the Daily Mirror and the i newspaper that distinguished themselves.

“Time is Running Out To Save The Planet,” ran the Mirror’s splash headline, while the i went for the more active: “Act now - or face the collapse of civilisation.”

The Guardian was more pre-occupied with bias against Muslims in the flatshare market, although it did manage a single column devoted to Sir David on the front before covering the story properly inside.

That, as far as front pages were concerned, was it.

The Sun covered the story on page 25, but the “Time Is Nearly Up For Planet” headline is overshadowed by a scantily clad Gigi Hadid donning platinum locks to transform herself into Blondie’s Debbie Harry for a photoshoot.

Sir David was to be found on page 10 in the Daily Mail, and for The Times a solid but rather modest piece on page 17 where the story at the top of the page featured the “unwanted hugs of Ted Baker chief.”

Broadcasters on the whole did better, with BBC News leading with the story – although Sir David is one of their own and the Dynasties series is running at the moment - and both News at Ten and Channel 4 News preferred the unprecedented politics of Brexit at the top, while giving considerable coverage further into their bulletins.

Anyone could justify their coverage, or lack of it, of a single speech at a conference that will last for two weeks with most of the political big-hitters missing.

Sir David is only one person, however impressive, and according to the strictest definition of news there were no new facts in it, other than the specific words chosen to deliver his judgement. The point is not to carp or criticize but to ask: if not now, when?

The media is so much better at covering the likely effects of climate change, such as catastrophic fires in California, recurring floods that are only supposed to happen once in a century, and series of hurricanes of unprecedented intensity, rather than the underlying causes.

They are undeniably happening and happening now before our eyes, and cannot be brushed aside.

President Donald J. Trump can say, laughably, that he has “an instinct” for science while rejecting the advice of his scientists on climate change.

And the news cycle has already moved on, as it always does, perhaps best summed up again by the Daily Mirror – “63 Minutes of Mayhem” in a reference to Mrs May’s triple Brexit defeat in the Commons.

The power of the news cycle when it gets its teeth into an issue is awesome to behold, but it is obviously less good at concentrating and sustaining interest in issues that move at glacial speed - even if glaciers are moving faster than they have done in recent memory.

The media can make a difference. Sir David already has made a difference on attitudes to dumping plastics in the ocean with Blue Planet II.

The Daily Mail made a difference with its Great Plastic Pick Up campaign earlier in the summer.

The trouble with the media is that its attention tends to wander and climate change seems too huge, too immutable to do anything about on any particular day.

As far as the average layman can tell, the science has never been more settled - climate change exists and is being driven by higher average temperatures, which in turn results from mainly man-made CO2 emissions.

While action is the stuff of governments and international bodies, the media - the combined communications industries - if they put their weight behind it in a more sustained way, can change minds.

As Sir David Attenborough noted, the news is not all bad. It’s not too late to take action, although the time is late. And despite the endless cacophony of news, journalists have at least to try to take greater responsibility for the future of the planet.

The end of civilisation, or civilisations, and the extinction of much of the natural world, would be one hell of a story to miss.

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