No need to hold the front page

The Daily Globe
August 11, 2000

Pictures of a scuba-diving John Prescott breaking the waters off the Maldive Islands are among the more entertaining political images of the past few years. The deputy prime minister and environment secretary made a passably impressive sea mammal: well insulated, buoyant and surprisingly mobile. But it was all a bit of a cock-up, as BBC Radio environment reporter Roger Harrabin records in one chapter of Joe Smith's stimulating study of the love-hate relationship between the media and the environment.

Harrabin dreamt up the idea of taking Prescott under water as a way of bringing attention to the global epidemic of coral "bleaching" in the warm oceans of 1998. The bleaching - in which coral loses its colour and may die - seems to be one more sign of global warming, a topic that has brought out the best in Prescott as a rumbustious, no-nonsense late-night negotiator at numerous conferences of the Climate Change Convention.

Prescott was on a trip to India. The Maldives, hit badly by the bleaching,were only a few hours away. Prescott agreed to the photo opportunity. But while Harrabin had found an ingenious way of getting an abstruse environmental topic near the top of The Nine O'clock News , he records that "in the print media the initiative backfired badly as leader writers condemned Mr Prescott for enjoying himself at the taxpayer's expense. The story was written by political correspondents, rather than environment correspondents."

The episode illustrates several themes that recur in this book in contributions from journalists, academics, pollsters, campaigning PR professionals and others. There is the increasing deviousness needed by environment reporters to promote their stories at a time of declining interest among news editors. There is the distorting effect of the constant need to personalise the news, and to find dramatic pictures and short-term disasters to give immediacy to what are often long-term trends. And there is the constant irritation at the ring-fencing of topics by rival correspondents. The interesting environmental issues are often also about energy or agriculture, transport or economics, politics or diplomacy.So which correspondent gets the story? This is usually vital to the way it gets treated. The worst fate is to have a subject hijacked by other correspondents only to be buried without trace. Why is environmental economics discussed so rarely in the mainstream media? Why did it take forever to discuss the environmental impact of transport? You might have heard Harrabin get a word in edgeways on the Today programme, but it was a long slog from one of the corporation's worthiest foot soldiers.

Harrabin is contemptuous of the "newsroom culture" of "drama, conflict and novelty". Both he and Paul Brown, environment correspondent of The Guardian , discuss their strategies for getting stories into the news, and their frustration at the fickleness and ignorance of their editors. Never mention a phrase such as "sustainable development", however central it may be to the subject in hand. Even the word environment "has a high boredom threshold", Brown says. "In fact, if I do not want to do a story, the useful key phrase (to editors) is 'of course, this is an important environment story'."

Always offer a story with a "clear moral message", Harrabin says. His television programme on Third World big dams - which I remember as a model of clarity and thoughtfulness on a topic often marred by megaphone campaigning - apparently went down badly at the Beeb because "the story was complex, and the conclusions ambivalent".

Sometimes environment correspondents complain too much. Brown notes that "the Genetically Modified foods story has fallen firmly in the lap of environment correspondents". Well, fair enough in that they had been trying for years to get editors to take the issue seriously. But it was only when an obscure British scientist with a foreign-sounding name made some highly inflammatory and ultimately rather dubious claims about genetically modified potatoes on a television programme that editors finally took notice and the "Frankenstein foods" story was born.

The environmental takeover of the GM food debate sent a generation of science correspondents into apoplexy as they were systematically kept off the story. This time, of course, it was the science hacks who wanted to underline the ambivalence and complexity of the issue, while most of the environment correspondents favoured the "clear moral message" approach.

One reason environment correspondents went over the top on the GM foods story was that it was their first whiff of a front-page splash since Brent Spar. They had to make the most of it. Some no doubt feared for their jobs if they did not. The fate of Geoffrey Lean, the doyen of the troupe, still hung in the air. As the Irish Times 's Frank McDonald relates, after more than two decades at The Observer , Lean arrived in the office one Tuesday morning to offer news editors his selection of the week's stories, only to be told "we've had enough of all that eco-bollocks". His angry resignation note was hurriedly accepted. He now has a new berth at the Independent on Sunday , but the shock waves are still felt.

This book chronicles a mid-life crisis for environmental journalism. A few correspondents, notably Lean, go back to the pioneering days of the 1970s, when almost every story was fresh. Most gained their jobs in the late 1980s, when green stories were all the rage among editors. They were not necessarily new stories, but the editors were hearing them for the first time. Then came the high point, the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. But after the summit, environmental concern had become the new orthodoxy. "The simple, big stories had all been told," Brown says. For those of us writing in media where we can assume a reasonable attention span from readers and editors, that has meant shifting to stories founded in complexity and, sometimes, in outright revisionism. But most do not have that luxury. I feel for them.

Fred Pearce is environment consultant for New Scientist .

The Daily Globe

Editor - Joe Smith
ISBN - 1 85383 664 8
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £14.95
Pages - 263

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