For a few evenings now I have watched repeats of the same TV ad for an insurer, to the effect ‘that’s why more people insure their homes with XXXX’. As an old numbers person, I kept asking my patient and long-suffering wife ‘More than whom? More than a thousand? More than what?’ She declined to provide an answer.
It reminded me of that old ad for a particular toothpaste: ‘Nine out of ten dentists recommend XXXX’. Which set of ten dentists was that? Who chose them? Why them? Why not my dentist, who doesn’t recommend toothpastes of any kind? Indeed, none of my dentists has ever recommended a particular brand of toothpaste. And none of my doctors (I’ve really only had three since 1961) has ever recommended a particular brand of any pharmaceutical product. To me, those pictures of men in white coats with a smile and a product are bogus.
The point is that these claims use a form of language (in this case, numbers) to induce us to buy a service or a product, and they are put forward as though their validity is perfect. But it’s just advertising. Maybe no one believes these claims, but they get repeated and repeated.
It seems to me that ‘selling the brand’ is moving into the way our media report things, too. To take an obvious example, Channel 9 has invested heavily into sport on television, and its news broadcasts put an inordinate amount of time into Rugby League. Quite minor events, what’s going on about a coach, the family sagas of footballers, club news and the like make up quite a portion of what counts as ‘news’, but it’s actually advertising the station’s product, which is one code of football.
When we get into what counts as ‘news’ in the wider world you can see the same drift. I was struck by the language in a number of news sources over a ‘climate change’ event last week. The event was another in the never-ending series of conferences in preparation for the Paris talks at the end of the year. What happens is that officials gather to prepare an agenda. Then another set of officials gathers to look at the shape of the proposed agreement. Then yet another set of officials meets to draft such an agreement, which requires negotiation. The most recent meeting was in Bonn. Then the leaders arrive to bless the document, and we have a global agreement. Or not.
Apparently there has been a ‘stalemate’. It is ‘crunch time’. The negotiations have ‘bogged down’, and there have been ‘roadblocks’ (I’m just plucking phrases from press statements), and the lack of success in getting anywhere has prompted a group of well-known oldies, or former persons of power, like Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson, to call for world leaders to step into these negotiations, remove the roadblocks, and ‘lay the groundwork’ for a Paris climate deal’. They call themselves The Elders, which seems pretentious to me.
‘[This year] will conclude two of the most important international processes of our times [sustainable development goals, and a Paris agreement],’ the group said, addressing heads of government. ‘You can prove to be a historic generation of leaders who will have a profound and positive impact that echoes through the century.’ Wow.
There’s not a lot of information about exactly what has caused the roadblock and the bog, but the tone of the reporting is clear. Now The Guardian is well known as an expositor of the threat of global warming and ‘climate change’, and some of the inverted commas above surrounded Guardian talk. The newspaper summarised the situation like this: the latest round of pre-Paris negotiations ended with many key issues left open. That stalemate leaves only five official negotiating days left before the Paris climate conference, at which governments are supposed to forge a new global climate change agreement to take effect from 2020.
The message in this news report is that the people doing the negotiations don’t know how important this all is, and need to be reminded. Now you might expect that stance from The Guardian. But what about Agence France-Presse, which is a news service from Paris, and the third largest in the world after AP and Reuters? Its golden rules, according to its website are truth, impartiality and plurality… These values guarantee rigorous, verified news, free from political or commercial influence. That’s pretty straightforward.
How did it report the roadblock? Well, one story tells the reader that The Paris agreement is meant to slow the march of dangerous global warming by slashing climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions from mankind’s unbridled burning of fossil fuels. You couldn’t ask for anything more impartial and evidence-based that that, could you.
Another AFP story about the same event has these balanced sentences: The all-too-real prospect of climate catastrophe on a horizon of decades, not centuries, coupled with a rising tide of expectations, would seem to be powerful incentives to forge an agreement that is truly up to the task. Science makes it clear that the laissez-faire alternative is a climate-addled future of mega-storms, drought, water wars and mass migration. It is also a reminder that the window of opportunity for acting is barely ajar — if human emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases don’t peak very soon and drop very swiftly, it may soon slam shut.
But don’t blame the diplomats, the writer urges: Without clear instructions from their ministers and, at the top of the political food chain, state leaders, they can only go so far in removing the logjams that have beleaguered climate talks for years.
What typifies prose like this, in the context of a news-gathering organisation, is the lack of interest in details. Why is there a log-jam, a bog and a road-block? Because it is not clear at all that there is any real climate challenge. Some of the poorer countries are in there for the money they hope might flow from the rich nations to the poor, if there is an agreement. None of the rich countries is interested in passing over large amounts of money to anyone. A lot of the ‘developed nations’ are not in a position to ‘transition’ to the green world of alternative and renewable energy (actually, no country is, but some pretend they are).
Nations that are not in the poor and angry group are in a difficult position. The orthodoxy says that they must combat ‘climate change’, and no leader yet is prepared to say publicly and firmly that the evidence doesn’t support the need to do so, at least now, if at all. So their representatives find something to dicker about, because there is no hope of a real agreement. The news media, having accepted the orthodoxy, and having little money to spend on investigative journalism (or anything else, for that matter), wave their hands and say that ‘something must be done’.
The amount of money wasted on this most unproductive endeavour keeps growing and growing. I hope the Abbott Government has only spent the minimum necessary, and that our representative at the Paris talks will be a middle-level public servant.
Footnote: While The Guardian story was easy to find, I could not trace back the AFP stories to their source because the link failed: my machine told me that it could not locate the server, and when I tried to bypass and go straight to AFP (4 September) I got the same message. The source that I used was the Global Warming Policy Foundations’s news brief of 5 September. You can get that easily.