A few days ago, I received a response from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation concerning a complaint I had submitted concerning climate contrarian Ian Plimer’s outrageous “Unleashed” online column. The email, from Kirsten McLeod of ABC’s Audience & Consumer Affairs, claims that the Plimer piece was “in keeping with the ABC’s editorial requirements for opinion content” and even calls Plimer’s opinion “a legitimate voice for the debate” on climate change.
However, it appears that ABC has not followed its own requirement that “reasonable steps” be taken “to ensure factual content is accurate”. Moreover, ABC policy on opinion pieces contains a major loophole: there is no requirement to disclose past and current affiliations to lobby groups or other political organizations, even when those links are clearly relevant to the subject matter at hand. In Plimer’s case, of course, such organizations include the Australian Climate Science Coalition and its progenitors, the Australian Environment Foundation and the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs.
[Update, September 8: As detailed below, ABC is now claiming that the requirement "to ensure factual content is accurate" does not apply to opinion content, even though that specific section of ABC's Code of Practice does explicitly apply to opinion content (as opposed to news or topical programming).]
My original complaint focused on the gross factual errors in Plimer’s piece, specifically the lucicrous claim that a single volcano could emit more CO2 in one day than all of human generated emissions in the past 150 years, as well as obvious distortions of the global temperature record. ABC’s response (see complete text here) focused on the need to provide a “range of opinion” and “balance” in the climate change “debate” and presented Plimer as a credible spokesperson for the skeptic point of view.
Professor Plimer is a credentialed scientist, currently the Professor of Mining Geology at The University of Adelaide and Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne. As a high-profile participant in the climate change debate, his opinion was considered a legitimate voice for the debate, contributing to the diversity of perspectives on the topic presented on Unleashed.
As we shall see shortly, that’s problematic enough, but even more worrisome was ABC’s obfuscation of the difference between fact and opinion.
The ABC does not endorse opinions expressed in opinion content, nor present those opinions as factual content. … Unleashed provides the opportunity for readers to debate the matters raised and the merits of the argument, including disputing the facts or information on which an argument is based. In the case of Professor Plimer’s article, more than 400 posts have been published on the message board to date, with several disputing Professor Plimer’s scientific claims, such as those to which you refer … We strongly encourage you to participate in the debate on the subject and correct what you believe to be errors of fact in Professor Plimer’s article by adding a comment to the message board. [Emphasis added]
Here ABC appears to assert that scientific facts at issue are debatable, at least in the context of opinion on policy issues. Apparently, ABC holds that Plimer is “entitled to his own facts” (in Tim Lambert’s felicitous phrase), though others may “believe” that his “errors of fact” should be corrected. The letter closes with the astonishing conclusion that all this is in keeping with ABC’s Code of Practice.
Having reviewed the article in respect to your concerns, we are satisfied that it was in keeping with the ABC’s editorial requirements for opinion content.
Indeed, ABC’s Code of Practice was recently revised to provide looser strictures on opinion, instead of the more rigorous ones that apply to news and other topical programming. The section on opinion content is quite brief, as follows:
4. Opinion Content
4.1 This section applies to content categorised by the ABC as opinion content in accordance with Section 6 of the ABC Editorial Policies 2007.
4.2 Content must be signposted to audiences in advance.
4.3 The ABC is committed to impartiality and must demonstrate this through the presentation of a diversity of perspectives across a network or platform in an appropriate timeframe.
4.4 Reasonable steps will be taken to ensure factual content is accurate and that content does not misrepresent other viewpoints. [Emphasis added]
But even though there is no requirement to promptly correct errors in opinion pieces (as there is in, say, news programming), the Code certainly does not mandate a blatant disregard for factual accuracy, despite the absurd and exaggerated claims to the contrary in ABC’s response to my complaint. Indeed, it is clear that the “Unleashed” editors failed to take “reasonable steps” to “ensure factual content is accurate”, in a flagrant breach of ABC policy.
[Update, September 8: As noted above, ABC’s Kirsten McLeod now claims that section 4.4 requiring ABC to take “reasonable steps … to ensure factual content is accurate” does not apply to opinion content. She writes:
The opinions expressed in opinion content are not endorsed by the ABC, nor are they presented as factual content. Accordingly, section 4.4 of the ABC’s Code of Practice is not applicable to the views expressed by Professor Plimer in the opinion piece.
Yet section 4 is clearly labeled as applying to opinion content, and sub-section 4.1 states categorically: “This section [i.e. all of section 4] applies to content categorised by the ABC as opinion content.” Section 4.4 may not apply to the Plimer’s views on ETS, say, but it most certainly does apply to the material asserted by Plimer to be scientific facts.
Ms. McLeod and the nameless, faceless “Unleashed” editors have obviously misinterpreted their own Code of Practice.]
By now, Plimer’s history of prevarication and deception is arguably unsurpassed among contrarian scientists (and that’s saying something). Since the release of Plimer’s execrable tome, Heaven and Earth, his myriad claims have come under scrutiny and attack by a wide range of scientists and journalists:
- In a devastating critique of Heaven and Earth, astrophysicist Michael Ashley pointed out innumerable errors and fallacies, including Plimer’s wild claim of unreliability in the hitherto widely accepted smooth rise in CO2 atmospheric concentration, and the “loony” assertion that the sun is not composed of 98% hydrogen and helium, but “is instead similar in composition to a meteorite”.
- Plimer has consistently refused to provide sources, or indeed any substantiation whatsoever, for several of his most ludicrous contentions, as detailed in a series of columns by George Monbiot.
- [Updated and corrected, Sept. 5]: As Michael Ashley pointed out in his piece and in comments below, Plimer has claimed to have “numerous publications in professional and academy journals on climate”. But Ashley was unable to identify a single one of these. Plimer’s University of Adelaide web page shows 17 publications since 1994, none of which appear to be relevant to the study of climate change.
- Well before the Unleashed piece, Plimer’s fanciful science had also been debunked in great detail in columns by Tim Lambert, Ian Enting and Barry Brook.
- Finally, ABC itself has broadcast several enumerations of Plimer’s factual inacuracy. ABC science shows have featured scathing reviews of Heaven and Earth by University of Melbourne professor David Karoly and Professor Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science. And Lateline journalist Tony Jones caught Plimer out in a series of evasions and deceptions, including the utterly ridiculous claim that “in the 1930s, it was much hotter”.
“Unleashed” editors can not have been unaware of Plimer’s scurrilous record of deception and evasion when they tapped Plimer for a column. And yet they proceeded with reckless disregard, knowing full well that Plimer’s “facts” were no more than unsubstantiated and widely debunked contrarian talking points with no scientific basis whatsoever.
“Unleashed” has also done a great disservice to ABC’s online audience by failing to disclose Plimer’s long-standing links to climate contrarian lobby groups. Plimer is scientific advisor to the Australian Climate Science Coalition, a lobby group rabidly opposed to regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The Coalition is wholly owned by the Australian Environment Foundation, a non-profit group that was fast-tracked for a full range of tax advantages by the previous Australian Liberal government headed by climate change skeptic PM John Howard.
In turn, the Foundation is a spinoff of the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, which also has strong links to the Liberal party. Plimer’s biography still appears on the Institute’s website, although his current status as an Instute associate is unclear. Nevertheless, the launch of Heaven and Earth was sponsored by the Institute. According to Plimer’s biography, he is also “director of a UK and Australian listed public companies”. Clearly, then, ABC’s biography of Plimer has left out a great deal of relevant information.
Nor is this the first time that “Unleashed” editors have failed to provide such key information in contributors’ biographies. Engineer David Evans, another oponnent of greenhouse gas regulation, is another Australian Climate Science Coalition advisor, but that link was also omitted in ABC’s online thumbnail biography.
ABC apparently has a formal complaint appeal process that involves review of a rejected complaint by a high-level ABC manager with no direct connection to the affected ABC department. I hope that that process will go some way to restoring confidence in ABC’s respect for minimal journalistic standards of accuracy and disclosure. ABC’s handling of the Plimer fiasco, together with its regrettable decison to air the Great Global Warming Swindle, is an unfortunate stain on an organization that has hitherto enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for incisive journalism.