Censure or Censorship?


Upon its release last September, Al Gore’s docu-lecture An Inconvenient Truth was roundly hailed as an environmental ‘call to arms’ that has since spearheaded the rapid rise in popular concern about global warming. In barely a year, climate change has risen to the top of the political agenda across the Western world and looks set to dominate this year’s Federal election in Australia.

Earlier this year, another film, peddling a more controversial view, entered the climate change debate. The Great Global Warming Swindle, by British director Martin Durkin, argues that the increase in global temperature is the result of solar activity and claims that An Inconvenient Truth ‘cooked the facts’ to exaggerate the threat of climate change.

After provoking an uproar in Britain, the documentary is due to be screened on the ABC next month. And in the mainstream media, hackles have been raised.

Writing in The Age, Juliette Hughes righteously attacked  the film by arguing that the scientists and authors interviewed by Durkin are cranks, compromised by their contrarian tendencies and personal ‘eccentricities.’ Such falsehoods, she argued, will be pushed onto our screens in July by conservative members of the ABC Board, underwritten by a sinister cabal of international oil and coal corporations desperate to counter the ‘truth’ about climate change.

British journalist George Monbiot has argued similarly that the documentary relies on scientists ‘whose findings have already been proved wrong’ and that ‘thousands [will be]misled into believing there is no problem to address.’

Some commentators have gone further, calling for Durkin to be silenced outright. In April, a group of British climate scientists addressed an open letter to Durkin’s film company, Wag TV, requesting that the DVD release of Swindle be altered to ‘correct’ its science.

This surely steps over a line: while Durkin’s arguments about climate change may be spurious, calls that portions of his work be forcibly excised in the name of ‘the public interest’ (as the authors of the letter put it) are a significant impingement on his freedom of expression and set a worrying precedent. Calls for the ABC to withdraw the film strike a similarly illiberal tone.

Such arguments are based on the mistaken assumption that the film could have a deleterious effect on efforts to tackle climate change by seducing weak-minded viewers with ‘lies’ about climate science. But this greatly overrates the effect that Swindle is likely to have on public attitudes. In a liberal society, documentary films do not cast spells; they provoke debate and stimulate discussion.

Thanks to Lukas

The view that argues for Durkin’s work to be altered is also profoundly anti-democratic: it assumes that Australians are too ignorant and simple-minded to distinguish truth from falsehood for themselves, without some sort of ‘guidance’ from the public broadcaster.

The ABC’s duty to facilitate public debate trumps any idea that it should act as an intellectual gatekeeper for the Australian public. A society that values free debate should respect the right of its citizens to make up their own minds (about Swindle and anything else). This is the very essence of democratic enfranchisement, and ABC Director of Television Kim Dalton has argued that ‘the decision to air [Swindle] reflects the intelligence and engagement of our audiences.’

Ultimately, Swindle will stand or fall on its merits. If its science is as slipshod as is claimed, there should be little fear that the film will ‘harm’ the public interest.

One might counter that the ABC wouldn’t air a film that denies the dangers posed by asbestos and smoking why should it screen one the denies human-created climate change?

The problem is the way that climate change is analogised with issues that have long been politically dormant. Unlike, say, asbestos, the purported ‘truths’ of climate science have great political currency. Those on the Left see it as confirmation of the destructive nature of global capitalism and further evidence of the Federal Government’s malfeasance. Conservatives such as Andrew Bolt, on the other hand, rail against climate change as a conspiracy of green ‘evangelism.’  Both sides, to varying degrees, play loose with the facts.

Likewise, the airing of unpopular views by the ABC has been seen by both Right and Left as evidence of systematic discrimination. Hughes’s claim of a Right-wing bias at the ABC echoes the inverse claims of some in the Federal Government that the national broadcaster’s coverage has a strong ‘Leftist’ bias. In such a highly-politicised debate, truth can be elusive.

There is a scientific consensus about the reality of human-created (anthropogenic) climate change. But consensus is just that: an indication of a trend in scientific thinking. It is not a truth so whole and unimpeachable as to justify the silencing of contrary viewpoints.

By choosing to screen Swindle, the ABC has not diverged from its duty as a public broadcaster. Given the high levels of interest that followed its British premiere, there is no sound reason moral or scientific for the broadcaster to withdraw the documentary.

While there is more than enough evidence to support the capping of carbon emissions, the censorious indignation of activists such as Hughes and Monbiot will only give skeptics like Durkin undue publicity and enhance their credibility. In a society that values open debate, there is little to fear from Swindle.

As Dalton points out, Australian viewers ‘don’t need to be shielded from unfashionable perspectives’; they should be challenged by exposure to dissenting opinions. Let The Great Global Warming Swindle air so that Australians can make up their own minds.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.