Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt has got the science on climate change wrong before. For instance, back in 2006, Jeff Severinghaus, Professor of Geosciences at the University of California, San Diego told Crikey “At the very least I would like it to go on record that Bolt’s abuse of my science is not done with my approval.”

But that didn’t stop Lateline from giving him air time on the subject last night.

Contained in the Lateline report about the hacked emails that were nicked from the Climatic Research Unit of the UK’s University of East Anglia last week and spread all about the web was Bolt’s take on what it all meant:

“Obviously some of the world’s top climate scientist, ones most involved in developing this theory, involved in a massive collusion stretching from America to Britain in trying dodge, fiddle with data, destroy data when others try to check it, sceptics try to check it,” says Bolt.

Here’s a snippet of Bolt’s measured comments from the many posts he’s devoted to the subject on his blog, which is presumably why Lateline felt him qualified to represent the ‘sceptics’ :

Surely these emails can’t be genuine. Surely the world’s most prominent alarmist scientists aren’t secretly exchanging emails like this, admitting privately they can’t find the warming they’ve been so loudly predicting?…

This has to be a forgery, surely. Because if it isn’t, we’re about to see the unpicking of a huge scandal.

Feel the drool.

Apparently the producers of Lateline thought it fitting to give this kind of considered commentary oxygen.

This kind of thing has been labelled the bias of balance (thanks @Lumo) by some: an overcorrection of sorts in which pundits are given airtime simply because they represent an opposing view, not because they know what they’re talking about.

Ross Gelbspan spent 31-years as a reporter and editor. He argues in his books The Heat Is On and Boiling Point that a “failed application of the ethical standard of balanced reporting on issues of fact has contributed to inadequate U.S. press coverage of global warming.”

An item dating back to 2004 on the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) website acknowledges that the journalistic norm of balanced reporting is considered one of the traditional pillars of good journalism. But:

“By giving equal time to opposing views, the major mainstream newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming. Certainly there is a need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served.”

What’s the internal directive for ABC staffers when it comes to reporting climate science and the politics of climate science? Is it to commission well informed experts on the subject, or to pursue the secret ingredient of news that journalists are taught to seek out: conflict? Because that might work for politics, but it doesn’t work for science.

There IS a distinction between reporting the science of climate change, and commenting on the politics of it. Everyone is entitled to an opinion on that, however unqualified it is, and Bolt’s theory on the significance of these emails is a point of view that shouldn’t be censored.

But if Lateline is seeking to shed light on the issue, that won’t achieve it by interviewing Bolt.

Climate science is neither left wing or right wing. There’s no pro or anti in this discussion, and the reportage surrounding it has to dig deeper and think more intelligently. None of us are climate scientists, but that doesn’t mean we can get away with relying on soundbites.

Airing the Great Global Warming Swindle was a low point for the ABC’s coverage of climate science. Can we please move on?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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