Road to Bali: Beware of ‘Bad weather friends’!


All the environmental roads — well, actually flights — seem to lead to Bali in the coming days.

The Indonesian ‘Island of the Gods’, famed as a tourist resort, will play host to the 13th United Nations Climate Change Conference from 3 to 14 December 2007.

The Conference, hosted by the Government of Indonesia, brings together representatives of over 180 countries together with observers from inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the media. The two week period includes the sessions of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), its subsidiary bodies as well as the Meeting of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Bali meeting will be a turning point in the global response to climate change, an issue which has moved above and beyond being a simple ‘green’ concern to one with economic, security and social implications. The annual meeting returns to Asia after five years, since New Delhi, India, hosted the 8th meeting in November 2002.

In the build up to Bali, a new report released on 19 November 2007 says that without immediate action, global warming is set to reverse decades of social and economic progress across Asia, home to over 60 per cent of the world’s population.

Up in Smoke? Asia and the Pacific – with a foreword by Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, Chairman of the Nobel prize-winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – is the most extensive and concluding chapter of a unique, four-year long exercise by the Up in Smoke coalition, an alliance of the UK’s major environment and development groups.

The report shows “how the human drama of climate change will largely be played out in Asia, where almost two thirds of the world’s population live, effectively on the front line of climate change.”

When our friends at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London sent me the press release about the report last week, something caught my eye. Among the several accompanying quotes was this one concerning the media:

“In many Asian countries climate change stories don’t make it into the media, so the public are left out of the debate. The challenge for decision-makers and the media is to stimulate interest in their work and translate the complex issues into stories that capture the public’s imagination. Climate change above all requires the engagement of everyone in creating the changes required.”

This sweeping statement is attributed to Rod Harbinson, Head of Environment, Panos London.

I know Panos London well, and am surprised to read an official remark of this nature emerging from that organisation which, until recently, has tried to relate to the majority world media as a friend and supporter. In fact, the first time I had one of my own pieces internationally syndicated was by Panos Features, back in 1989.

Come to think of it, the second article I wrote for Panos Features concerned how the low-lying, Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives was preparing for adverse impacts of climate change. That was years before the web, so there’s no link I can provide.

As a development writer and journalist who has covered global climate change among other issues for two decades, I have problems with Mr Harbinson’s remark.

Photo: A family looks for shelter using a raft made of banana trees during the last Monsoon: 31 July 2007: Gaibandha, Bangladesh © Quddus Alam/DrikNews Linked from Shahidul News

I’m in full agreement on the need to ‘translate the complex issues into stories that capture the public’s imagination’. There is also no argument that climate change requires the engagement of everyone.

But I would be very interested to know on what statistical or analytical basis he says “in many Asian countries climate change stories don’t make it into the media, so the public are left out of the debate’.

Asia, as Mr Harbinson should surely know, is not just China, India and Indonesia. It is large and highly diverse region, containing five sub-regions as defined by the UN. It is home to nearly two thirds of humanity, who live in over three dozen independent states or dependent territories.

Living in Asia and trying to work at regional level, I know how difficult it is to make any generalisations about this rich and constantly changing assortment of economies, cultures and societies branded as Asia (which, taken together with the small island nations of the South Pacific, is known as the Asia Pacific). In fact, it’s wise not to speak about Asia as a whole, for there is little in common, say, between Japan and Laos, or between China and Maldives.

The Asian media are as diverse as the region, and have been undergoing rapid change in recent years. Unshackled from the state’s crushing grip in most countries, the broadcast media (radio, TV) have proliferated and emerged as the primary source of information for a majority of Asians. New media – web, mobile devices and multimedia combinations – are now changing the way many Asia’s communicate and access information.

I have always been curious how Panos London, perched at its cosy home in London’s White Lion Street, assesses what goes on in the majority world. In this case, how much of Asia does Mr Harbinson know and is really familiar with? How many Asian media outlets has he or Panos monitored, assessed and sampled before coming to this sweeping and damning conclusion about the lack of climate change stories in the Asian media?

And how many of these outlets are radio and TV, and in languages other than English? I would really like to know.

If Panos London believes in evidence-based analysis, then it owes us in Asia an explanation as to on what basis its head of environment makes such statements about an entire continent, whose media output is predominantly in Asian languages, not English. And whose principal media are broadcast, not print.

And what constitutes a climate story? Tracking the endless array of inter-governmental babble in the name of working out some compromised partial solution to the major problem? Or reporting on campaigns to clean up polluting industries or sectors (such as transport) that generate most of the greenhouse gases? Or focusing on how humble communities in remote corners of the world are finding how their lifestyles and livelihoods are suddenly threatened by something they hardly understand?

To me, it’s all of the above — and a lot more. Climate change is akin to a prism through which many, many development issues and topics can be analysed. Just as HIV/AIDs long ago ceased to be a simple medical or health story, climate change has moved well beyond being an environmental story.

The more angles, perspectives and topics that are covered in the media, the better. And all of it need not be in that staid, cautiously balanced style of The Guardian or BBC that Panos London must be more familiar with.

Panos London, in its statement of beliefs, says ‘Freedom of information and media pluralism are essential attributes of sustainable development’. Surely, then, they realise that media pluralism includes speaking in a multitude of tongues, and analysing from many different perspectives — as happens in the Asian media 24/7, if Mr Harbinson and his colleagues care to spend more time in the region and keep their eyes and ears open.

But instead, they seem more like a group of well-meaning people with a solution in search of a problem. For the past many months, Panos London has been crying wolf about the allegedly poor coverage of climate issues in the majority world media.

That was the main thrust of a report they published in late 2005, titled Whatever the weather – media attitudes to reporting climate change.

According to Panos London website that I have accessed today, “…the survey found that there is little knowledge among journalists about these important choices and they are rarely discussed. The dramatic impacts of extreme weather events, for example, rarely feature in relation to climate change and the topic remains low on editors’ story sheets.”

The survey was based on ‘interviews conducted with journalists and media professionals in Honduras, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Zambia’ and claimed to ‘give insights into the attitudes of journalists and the status of the media in these countries.’

Well, I was one of those majority world journalists covered by the survey — and I had major reservations about how they used my responses. Being cautious, I had used email (and not the phone) to respond to their survey questions – I therefore have a complete record of everything I said. When the draft report was shared on my request, I found some of my responses being distorted or taken out of context. I had to protest very strongly before some accuracy was restored. I later regretted having agreed to be part of this dubious survey.

It was flawed in many ways. The questionnaire was very poorly conceived and structured. I actually declined to answer some questions which were worded in such a way as to elicit just the kind of response that Panos London wanted — to make a case that journalists in the majority world are so incompetent that they need help.

A glaring omission in the final report was that it carried no list of journalists interviewed. I had to ask several times before I could even find out how many others participated in the survey (apparently some three dozen). But my requests for a list of other survey respondents were repeatedly declined by Panos London, who said it was privileged information. They later took the position that European data protection laws did not allow them to disclose this information!

In an email sent to Rod Harbinson on 22 Feb 2006, I said: “I would argue that Panos London had pre-conceived notions that it wanted to present in this report, and used superficial and largely unprofessional interview surveys with a few scattered journalists as a rubber-stamping exercise to publish what it wanted to say anyway. This is further borne out by the fact that some of my more outspoken responses have been completely ignored.”

I have seen or heard nothing since to change the above view. And the contents of Whatever the weather – media attitudes to reporting climate change are consistent with what Rod Harbinson says in the IIED press release that prompted me to make this comment.

Yes, climate change is the Big Issue of our times that needs everyone to rally around and search for ‘common but differentiated’ solutions and responses. But no issue or global threat is too big to warrant the willing suspension of time-honoured journalistic or academic values of honesty, integrity and balance. Issuing lop-sided ‘survey reports’ and making sweeping negative statements do not help the cause of improving public discussion and debate on climate change.

The road to Bali and beyond is going to be an arduous journey. On that treacherous road, we in the majority world need to beware of ‘bad weather friends’ who come bearing bad surveys and self-serving offers of ‘help’.

— Nalaka Gunawardene

Note: In the spirit of communication for development and media pluralism, I invite Panos London to respond to the above critique, and offer to publish their response in full.

I remain a critical cheer-leader of the global Panos family, and serve on the Board of Panos South Asia, an entirely independent entity that has excellent relations with Panos London. Like all families, we don’t always agree – and that’s part of media pluralism!

Related blog posts:

Nov 2007: True ‘People Power’ needed to fight climate change
Nov 2007: Beyond press release journalism: Digging up an environmental business story
Oct 2007: The Al and Pachy Show: Climate Change gains public momentum

Aug 2007: Arthur Clarke’s climate friendly advice: Don’t commute; communicate!
June 2007: Sex and the warming planet: A tip for climate reporters
April 2007: Can journalists save the planet?
April 2007: Beware of Vatican Condoms and global warming
April 2007: Pacific ‘Voices from the Waves’ on climate change
April 2007: Wanted – human face of climate change!