In this essay, Patrick Thelwell deals with the BBC’s reporting of the Extinction Rebellion protests beginning in October 2018, concluding the sustained direct action increased the quality and depth of the BBC’s reporting on Climate Breakdown.

Over the last six months, how has the environmental movement influenced media discourse from the BBC in the United Kingdom on climate breakdown?

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the catastrophic consequences of 1.5 degrees of warming released in October 2018, and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment report released in April 2019, both make for terrifying reading.

The message is blunt: climate change (now ‘climate breakdown’), destruction of habitat, pollution and exploitation of nature will have catastrophic consequences for our civilisation: increased extreme weather events; total collapse of ecosystems; droughts leading to massive famines; displacement of millions of people; mass extinction of whole ecosystems and – without radical action – total societal collapse and potential human extinction. Despite this, the natural world continues to be exploited at a pace that will lead to the most severe and inescapable crisis. Carbon Dioxide levels continue to rise; international agreements to limit warming remain ineffective; and we are locked in inescapable and exponential temperature rises as high as 5oC by 2100. Business carries on as usual, as scientists despair.

The last decade has seen the maturing of Media Coverage of Climate Change (MCCC) into a broad interdisciplinary research field, seeking to critically analyse the trends and framing phenomena within reporting on climate change. Of particular importance in the literature of MCCC is Framing, defined as “the process by which people develop a particular conceptualisation of an issue or reorient their thinking about an issue” (Chong, D., Druckman, J. N., 2007). In relation to MCCC, different frames are applied to climate reporting with significant effects upon the emotional and political response of readers towards acting to mitigate climate breakdown. Conservative media sources in particular tend towards portraying climate breakdown in a context of uncertainty that discourages action. Research has shown that the presentation of climate breakdown across all media sources is saturated with false controversy and the legitimation of scientifically illiterate scepticism.

Boycoff (2007) influentially argued that ‘balanced’ reporting offering up two opposing scientific opinions to an uncontroversial issue would influence public perception of climate breakdown. This was confirmed by psychology tests that found “false balance can distort perceptions of expert opinion even when participants would seem to have all the information needed to correct for its influence.” (Koehler, D. J.,2016).

Climate denial is still rife in the media

Significant media attention is still given to the debate against climate change deniers, leaving less media attention for the more relevant debates about mitigating climate breakdown. There is an absence of research focused on the role of social protest movements in influencing this change. Although there is a growing body of research investigating influencing factors on climate reporting, the focus of comprehensive meta-analysis of climate change reporting has generally focused on the impact of important environmental conferences and prominent extreme weather events.

It is worth noting the research of the field of mediatisation and the role of the media in political agenda-setting, given the importance such theories have in directing the media strategy of pressure-groups such as XR. Essentially, “journalists do not entirely autonomously initiate new issues, but rather they play a role in strengthening and structuring the initiatives taken by political actors”, therefore there is profound relevance to the level of political action taken in the quality and framing of media coverage of an activist group (Reich, 2006; Wolfsfeld , Sheafer, 2006). The mechanics of this interaction between political power and the media is well worth the attention of future research, given the rapid success of XR in getting their demands on the political agenda.

Within the context of the BBC’s record on reporting on climate change, different discursive characteristics have emerged in different BBCs reports on major XR actions: the length of articles, the amount of the article dedicated to covering XR’s demands, and the depth of analysis of XR’s demands and achievements. Based on the development of these trends, XR have encouraged more depth to BBC coverage.

On the 31st of October 2018, XR declared a National Rebellion against the British government because of their failure to act to prevent catastrophic climate and biodiversity collapse. The event was almost universally ignored by the media. The group’s demands were clear: the government must “Tell the Truth” about the extent of the danger climate breakdown poses by Declaring a National Climate and Biodiversity Emergency; launch ambitious public infrastructure projects to reduce net-emissions to zero by 2025; and set up a citizen’s assembly to manage the transition to a zero-carbon economy. The BBC did not report on this protest.

However, within a week 22 XR activists were arrested at several demonstrations including a blockade of the Energy Department in London. The BBC article on the demonstrations was 875 words long; is notable for failing to use the group’s name Extinction Rebellion for the majority of the article (instead using the term “environmental activists”); and starts with an explicit defence of the establishment’s record on Climate Breakdown: “The UK is seen as a leader in policies to reduce greenhouse gases and will soon be considering tougher targets”.

Activists answer the call to “rebel for life”

Whilst it does list XR’s demands, it took an overwhelmingly cynical outlook to them, dedicating significant attention towards a critical commentary on their achievability. The following extract is notable for the use of paradoxical assertive language as well as an appeal to uncited ‘experts’: “But experts say achieving a zero-emissions economy by 2025 isn’t in any scenario. It would need a revolution in transport, home insulation, energy efficiency, agriculture and more” (BBC, 2018). The sentence explicitly denies there are any scenarios that could achieve the emissions cuts, before immediately describing an entirely plausible set of infrastructure investments that are scientifically necessary to avoid civilisational collapse.

The BBC was reprimanded in 2011 by a BBC Trust Committee for giving too much attention to climate sceptics, however in September 2018 they were forced to circulate an editorial policy memo on false-bias following an interview with climate sceptic Nigel Lawson which was found by Ofcom to be in breach of broadcasting rules for failing to challenge his claims that there was no warming over the last century.

In October 2018, Extinction Rebellion blocked five bridges in London and 82 activists were arrested. The BBC’s article was only 467 words long, despite the event capturing national media focus, and did not list XR’s demands. 161 words of the coverage was dedicated to a derisory opinion piece by Roger Harrabin, a BBC Environmental Correspondent, who wrote:

“XR thinks marching with placards has failed, so it’s aiming to make mayhem instead. But have the protestors picked the right target? The UK is in the leading pack of nations in cutting the CO2 emissions that are over-heating the planet… The protesters say the targets will be breached if the government spends £30bn on new roads, encourages fracking and looks to expand aviation even further. Climate change demands a seismic shift in society, they say. And they’re not seeing that yet.” 

There is a notable improvement in the construction of a dialogue between government policy and XR criticism, however the conditional language frames scientific facts as things that “XR thinks”, “the protestors say” and “they say”. This fails to adequately convey to the reader that in June 2018, the Committee on Climate Change concluded that “the fact is that we’re off track to meet our own emissions targets in the 2020s and 2030s.”

Within a few months XR launched the biggest wave of civil disobedience in British history, and catapulted climate breakdown to the top of a stagnant national political discourse dominated by Brexit. XR’s protests reached a crescendo on April 15th with an International Rebellion, in which over 1000 activists were arrested and a lesser number charged in a systematic Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) campaign, the aim of which was to force the government to the negotiating table and generate media attention. XR succeeded on both fronts.

On 16th April, the BBC published a comprehensive 1,086 word article titled “Extinction Rebellion: What do they want and is it realistic?” which detailed all of the groups aims as well as relevant scientific debate. The most significant editorial shift is away from extreme language towards objective analysis, as well as a change in author and an obvious accompanying shift in tone.

There is a notable change from editorialising XR’s message towards using quotation marks to allow the group to present its own case. This shifts the overall article away from an opinion piece style towards a constructive and informative presentation to the reader, which is ultimately much more sympathetic to the reasons for XR’s actions, rather than an explicit focus and false outrage about the disruption the actions caused. By describing them as a positive solution rather than using aggressive framing, XR’s demands appear constructive and non-confrontational.

In a 726-word article describing the end of the International Rebellion, the BBC concluded with a summary of the impact the protests had had on respected political figures:

“Environment Minister Michael Gove said the activists’ “point had been made”. He added it was time to have “a serious conversation about what we can do to collectively deal with this problem”. Mr Milliband said global warming would get “far worse” if the government did not act with “greater urgency”.   

This essentially is a legitimation from figures of authority of XR’s actions and gives clear indication as to how far the national political discourse was affected by the tactics of sustained civil disobedience.

Conclusion

The above research indicates that the quality of the BBC’s MCCC increased significantly over the course of the six months of XR Non-Violent Direct Action. Research into the mediazation of politics and the role of the media in setting the political agenda would support the inference that the paradigm shift in media perception and reporting on XR helped establish its legitimacy as a political and social force and lead to their demands being achieved in Parliament.

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