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

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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.

Drik/Majorityworld
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!

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7 Responses to “Road to Bali: Beware of ‘Bad weather friends’!”

  1. kalpana sharma Says:

    Nalaka, that was a very interesting take on the issue. I have just downloaded the Panos report but haven’t read it in detail. But I too believe that the desire to “educate” the media by NGOs and others is often misplaced and arises from an absence of understanding of how the media work. Of course, the media need more information on these issues. But I don’t think they need people to talk down to them, or treat them as imbeciles who know nothing of science or environment. Also, there is an unrealistic expectation about what the media should do. I find that exasperating. The fact that different levels of media play different roles is simply not understood by those outside who demand that media play a “role” in informing the debate on issues like global warming. Much more on this needs to be written and debated. But sadly all we get most of the time is either generalisations, based on surveys that might not be entirely representative, or statements about what the media should or should not do.

  2. Sandra Says:

    The two Cs of Climate Change are a handful – we don’t need Panos London or anyone else to add another C – of Cololialism – to this mix.

  3. Ayesha Says:

    Talking of surveys, there have been several surveys in recent years showing how little the nuances of climate change are understood in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps Panos London should look closer home, and identify a useful role for themselves in Europe itself? If there are Panos organisations in Asia and Africa, why is Panos London so keen to impose its questionable solutions on the developing world?

  4. Moving Images Says:

    Keya Acharya, an experienced environmental journalist based in Bangalore, India, read my blog post and sent me an email. With her permission, I am reproducing that email in full, without any editing:

    Hi Nalaka,

    I too have been associated for many years with Panos, London and had enjoyed working with them in previous years. And I too, am not in agreement with the procedures that Panos is now applying to its Climate Change research.

    I went with Panos to the last CC meet at Nairobi in 2006 and I was disappointed with the editorial, and other, standards, of Panos at the meet. From my editorial dealings with Panos, I got the distinct impression of ‘preconceived’ viewpoints; sometimes too ‘ngo-ish’ to be either of relevance, or accuracy, in its application to the Indian scenario. What, for instance, holds good for Latin American countries in field like, say, biofuels, cannot be applied to Indian, and South Asia, because they’re not similar, and this view of mine comes from many years of active reporting as an environmental and development journalist in India. But I wasn’t given much choice to either put my views across, or write them..

    There was also, coupled with the above, inadequate knowledge of India by the Panos editorial. And this, too got applied to my writings.

    I put all these misgivings down in a questionnaire (can’t remember whether it was the survey you spoke of, though I do remember giving in my views in some survey), but I’ve no way of knowing whether the points were taken note of.

    As mentioned earlier, I have enjoyed working with Panos in previous years on development-related themes. The editors at London would, even if they didn’t agree with my view, respect it and allow me to write it in my articles.

    I hope, in the interests of accurate journalism on development themes from Asia, that Panos views this criticism of mine in the constructive spirit it has been intended for.

    Keya

  5. FN Says:

    Interesting issues indeed!

  6. Vir Singh Says:

    Nalaka,

    Firstly, hello. We met in Yogyakarta last year. I am not going to be in Bali but there is really so much to write, just sitting here in Delhi. You could say I’m being carbon neutral by not flying and instead focusing on challenges at home!

    Now, about your comments. I agree with your analysis and share your concern. It is very important that people from developing countries are heard, and I’m sure your remarks will echo far and wide. Yes, it is critical that sweeping statements not be allowed to pass without at least some examination. After a point, though, I do feel that we cannot focus too much on what Panos London says or does not say. Is this organization really that influential in shaping public opinion?

    Also, just what is a “climate change” story? Reading the papers these days, it seems nearly every story is! What I have concluded that CC is to a large extent the latest garb in which to present a whole raft of long lived development issues.

    Now, moving on to Bali. One thing that I would like to see examined is not so much whether or not large developing countries are going to accept the demands of industrialized countries but what voluntary actions the former are willing to take. For instance, India has said it is prepared to undertake “sectoral” actions in, say, cement, steel, power etc. where some of its plants are supposedly world class. Well, exactly what new and additional steps are India, China, Brazil and even some of the smaller developing countries willing to take to address that part of climate change that is caused by human activity? And will these new and additional steps amount to very much in the next five to ten years?

    Please ask these questions to whoever you meet, please do keep me and other ‘non-attendees’ posted about what happens, and keep up the good work!

    Cheers,
    Vir

  7. Moving Images Says:

    It’s more than 10 days since this blog post was written, and I know from reliable mutual friends that the post was brought to the notice of Panos London. However, I’ve had no response from Panos London explaining their side of the story. No doubt they’ve been busy preparing to train southern journalists in Bali, but I sincerely hope Panos London – which upholds the value of discussion and debate everywhere – will join this discussion at least belatedly. Let it not be said that Panos London, one of the first international organisations to take up global disparities related to climate change, left the discussion (and the room) just when things were hotting up.


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