Channel 4 misrepresented the views of a group of leading scientists and failed to act with “due impartiality” in a controversial documentary on climate change last year, the broadcast regulator has ruled today.
Ofcom received 265 viewer complaints about The Great Global Warming Swindle, which aired on Channel 4 in March 2007 and sought to challenge the theory that human activity is the major cause of global warming.
The regulator also received complaints from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the former Government chief scientist Sir David King, and Professor Carl Wunsch, who claimed they had been unfairly treated by the makers of the programme.
In its ruling, Ofcom concluded that although the Channel 4 documentary did not mislead the audience, it made “significant allegations” about the scientists and misrepresented or exaggerated earlier comments made by them, without offering them an opportunity to respond.
“The programme was required to include an appropriate wide range of the significant views. The programme-makers failed to do this,” Ofcom said.
The Government’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, complained that a comment he made in a House of Commons select committee hearing had been taken out of context, and used in the programme to suggest that “by the end of the century the only habitable place on the earth will be the Antarctic”.
He also said he had been wrongly attributed as saying: “Humanity may survive thanks to some breeding couples who moved to the Antarctic.”
“[The] comment amounted to a significant allegation which called into question Sir David’s scientific views and his credibility as a scientist,” Ofcom ruled. “Sir David should have been offered an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond.”
Ofcom also ruled in favour of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which claimed Channel 4 had made six “false and misleading claims” about its work, including the “strong and potentially damaging” allegation that the organisation was “politically driven”.
And Professor Carl Wunsch, an oceanographer, was also found to have been unfairly treated. He complained that he had been “misled about the nature and likely content of the programme”.
Ofcom also received a number of complaints from viewers that the data and literature included in the programme had been misinterpreted, but ruled that it was “impractical and inappropriate” for it to exmaine every individual claim.
In its response, Channel 4 disputed that facts and views in the programme were distorted to mislead the audience.
The documentary included contributions from a wide range of scientists and other commentators who argued that the current consensus on the causes of global warming was based on unsound science and was politically motivated.
Channel 4 defended the credibility of the contributors chosen for the programme, arguing that they were established, reputable and had had work published in scientific journals.
It also added it was made clear at the beginning of the programme that the documentary would take a polemical approach and include controversial content.
Although Ofcom ruled that the first four parts of the five-section documentary were not covered by impartiality guidelines because it did not deal with “a matter of political or industry controversy”, it said the final part – which discussed the policies followed by the UN and Western governments – failed to include a broad range of views.
Channel 4 has been ordered to broadcast a summary of Ofcom’s findings on the channel and on digital sister channel More4.
In a statement, Channel 4 said it welcomed Ofcom’s ruling that the documentary did not materially mislead the audience.
The Channel 4 head of documentaries, Hamish Mykura, said: “This film made a valid contribution to the debate on climate change. Ofcom’s ruling explicitly recognises Channel 4’s right to show the programme and the paramount importance of broadcasters being able to challenge orthodoxies and explore controversial subject matter.
On the impartiality ruling, Mykura added: “We accept Ofcom’s judgement that we should have included alternative views within part five of the programme which dealt specifically with matters of public policy.”
But he said the broadcaster was “disappointed” that Ofcom upheld the fairness complaints, and insisted the programme-makers had acted responsibly.
“We believe the programme-makers’ pre-broadcast correspondence with [Professor Wunsch] spelt out in the clearest possible terms the programme’s content and nature.
“The IPCC were given the opportunity to respond to matters raised in the programme but did not respond to or acknowledge the programme- makers’ approach.
“The comments attributed to Sir David King by one of the contributors to the programme were based on widespread press reports that had not been challenged or corrected prior to the programme’s broadcast.”