Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 15:06 UK

Opinion: A reluctant whistle-blower

Channel 4's The Great Global Warming Swindle documentary, broadcast in March 2007, broke Ofcom rules, the UK media regulator has ruled.

The controversial programme, which presented the view that climate change was not primarily caused by burning fossil fuels, attracted a range of criticisms from viewers, including a number of leading climate scientists.

Dave Rado, who co-ordinated a formal complaint to Ofcom, explains why he felt compelled to challenge the programme's contents.

The climate "hockey stick"
The film suggested global warming was not down to burning fossil fuels

When I sat down to watch the screening of Martin Durkin's The Great Global Warming Swindle on Channel 4 in March last year, I had no idea how much of an impact it would have on my life.

Fifteen months later, after a 176-page complaint involving more than 20 scientists and other distinguished academics, the film's contents have now been scrutinised by the UK media regulator.

I was initially wary of doing anything public regarding my involvement with the Ofcom complaint - I'm merely a concerned citizen, and what's important is the quality of the other contributors, who include many of the world's most respected climate scientists.

But when I was told that it was possible that the film-maker might try to portray himself as the "David", being ganged up against by the "Goliath" of the scientific establishment, I reconsidered.

I'm simply a person, unconnected with any environmental or scientific group, who believes that a public service broadcaster should not be allowed to deceive the public about science - particularly on issues that have profound implications for our future.

Natural Sceptic

My interest in climate science and my subsequent involvement in this project were sparked several years ago.

Channel 4 logo (Getty Images)
Channel 4 said it aired the film to show that the climate debate was not over

A friend told me there was a global conspiracy involving nearly all of the world's governments, most of the world's scientists and the media to convince the public that there is a major human influence on climate when they were well aware there was no evidence for this.

I am a natural sceptic, and find it hard to take conspiracy theories seriously; but out of respect for my friend I decided to research the issue in depth.

After reading hundreds of scientific papers and summaries I was struck by the quite extraordinary amount of evidence - and more importantly, the many completely independent lines of evidence that all point in the same direction - that human greenhouse gas emissions are indeed profoundly changing the climate, and that the problem is going to become extremely serious in the long run unless emissions are cut drastically.

Moreover, all of the papers I read disputing this premise used the cherry picking of evidence as a tactic. Many of them recycled long discredited myths, while others used statistically flawed techniques, in an apparent attempt to massage data in order to support their desired conclusions.

This also led me to find a number of high profile websites devoted entirely to peddling misinformation about climate - many of them run by, and most of them funded by, lobby groups that campaign against action on climate change. Many of these lobby groups are partly funded by sections of the fossil fuel industry.

So my friend was right that there are many people actively engaged in a well-funded attempt to subvert mainstream science and to mislead the public; although he seems to have been mistaken about which side is doing most of the subverting.

So by the time I watched Swindle, after all the reading I'd done, I was flabbergasted by both its brazenness and its unprecedented number of deceptions.

I hope that in some small way the complaint...provides inspiration to others who would challenge questionable assertions made by certain sections of the media

We have a right to expect broadcasters not to set out to mislead us; yet to me, this was exactly what Channel 4 and Wag TV appeared to be doing.

Where Channel 4 claimed the film was an attempt to give a minority a voice, I saw it as a systematic attempt to deceive the public, an out and out propaganda piece masquerading as a science documentary.

The morning after the broadcast, I posted on the blog of the British Antarctic Survey's scientist William Connolley, saying that I wanted to complain to Ofcom and asking whether any scientists could help me write a comprehensive complaint.

Nathan Rive and Brian Jackson responded to my post and became my two co-lead authors. William Connolley also agreed to peer review it. I wrote the same morning to Carl Wunsch, who confirmed to me what I suspected - that he had been duped.

There followed a frantic three months, in which most of my spare time was devoted to co-ordinating, editing, recruiting authors and peer reviewers, and managing the peer review process.

Humbling experience

I was astounded by how many of the world's most distinguished scientists and other academics in relevant fields were willing to devote time to the project.

Ofcom logo (Getty Images)

For example, Bert Bolin, widely regarded as the world's most distinguished climate scientist until his sad death from cancer last December, agreed to peer review some sections. Many other academics of similar standing also made huge and very time-consuming contributions, in some cases giving up several weekends in order to do so.

I found this very humbling.

The complaint was submitted in early June last year. Much of it related to individuals and organisations having had their views unfairly misrepresented without being given an opportunity to respond in the film.

In October, after receiving the sections of our complaint relating to former UK chief scientific adviser Sir David King and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Channel 4 responded with a very long document that we felt was packed with misinformation. Our response was written and reviewed by as distinguished a group of scientists as the original complaint had been, including one former and one current IPCC Co-Chair.

Largely because of Channel 4's tactics - which included trying to have our complaint thrown out - the entire process dragged on for more than a year, a huge waste of public money.

The experience has left me feeling that the odds are greatly stacked in the broadcasters' favour.

How often would ordinary members of the public have the time, inclination or support from scientists to jump over so many hurdles? And unlike the anti-Al Gore court case, there has been no rich benefactor behind this complaint - just the time and goodwill of a large number of academics who object to their fields of study being misrepresented.

In February, I began building a website called Ofcom Swindle Complaint containing our complaint, which I hope will become an educational resource for the public.

Given that many of the inaccuracies and misleading arguments in the Swindle are widely used elsewhere, I thought that the detailed response in our complaint, with thousands of links to supporting evidence, should be available to the public in an easily accessible format. I'll continue to improve the website as time goes on.

Mixed feelings

Now that Ofcom has published its ruling, I'm looking forward to getting back to my life again.

While I am very pleased that the regulators upheld our complaint that a number of scientists who contributed to the programme were unfairly treated, I am surprised and disappointed by its accuracy verdict.

Ofcom says that it was only able to consider the documentary's accuracy in terms of whether it was misleading enough to cause harm.

The issue of whether or not a programme is factually accurate only applies to news media, they explained.

Because The Great Global Warming Swindle fell outside of this category, they were not in a position to make a ruling on the accuracy of some of the assertions that the programme presented as fact.

If this is the case, then I would argue that Ofcom's remit needs to be revised in order to protect the public when it comes to programmes' accuracy on matters of science.

It's been 15 months of major highs and lows. The best parts were working with wonderful people, such as Professors Jim McCarthy and Bert Bolin, who gave their time and expertise.

The worst were the deaths of three people who made major contributions before the ruling was published. Bert Bolin was a very special person as well as a great scientist.

Also, my co-lead author Brian Jackson died last August. His involvement was immensely valuable to the complaint and he had his whole life before him.

And Chris Curtis, one of the world's leading malaria mosquito experts, died in May this year after a brief and unexpected illness. He was an exceptionally compassionate person.

I'm very saddened by their deaths and grateful to have known such wonderful, selfless people.

I hope that in some small way the complaint honours their memories and provides inspiration to others who would challenge questionable assertions made by certain sections of the media that could result in political or commercial gain.

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