‘Apocalypse my arse’
Martin Durkin, director of The Great Global Warming Swindle, on green intolerance, soft censorship and his ‘dodgy’ Marxist background.
‘I wanted to call it “Apocalypse My Arse”, but in the end we decided on “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. It’s a provocative title, which helps with ratings.’
Martin Durkin has a hangover. And a cold. He spent last night, Thursday 8 March, watching the Channel 4 screening of his film The Great Global Warming Swindle in a pub with friends and colleagues. ‘It’s better than watching it at home. That can be an isolating experience. You become convinced you’re the only person in the country watching it.’ Now, this morning, he has some things to get off his chest – about the green movement’s demonisation of him for daring to question environmentalist orthodoxy; the ‘soft censorship’ of his earlier programmes; and the endless revelations that he had an apparently dodgy Marxist background.
‘Shock, horror’, he says. ‘Exposing that a journalist has a Marxist background is like exposing that he wears trousers.’
Durkin’s latest film has won him the accolade – or perhaps slur – of being the ‘anti-Al Gore’. Where the American president-who-never-was transformed his rather dull PowerPoint presentation on the threat of global warming into a marginally less dull big box office flick – An Inconvenient Truth – Durkin has directed a 90-minute made-for-TV movie that basically says: ‘Everything you know about global warming is wrong!’
Its title a knowing, punk-rebellious nod to the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, The Great Global Warming Swindle featured scientists questioning whether global warming is manmade. Some of them argued that the Sun – directly, or through its effect on cosmic rays – causes global warming. Others claimed that CO2 levels are influenced by changes in temperature rather than the other way around. If this were the case, it would turn on its head every fundamental assumption underpinning not just the green movement but also national and international politics, a whole new genre of global warming literature and research, and much of the newly greened education system in Britain: those assumptions being that a rise in CO2 is causing the Earth to warm, that man is responsible for that rise in CO2, and thus we must rein man in. No wonder many seem miffed by Durkin’s film.
Whatever viewers may have thought about the new theories put forward in Swindle to explain global warming (personally, I found the replacement of the widespread, all-encompassing manmade theory with an all-encompassing cosmic ray theory – sort of ‘It’s the Sun wot done it!’ – a little unconvincing), there’s no denying that the film poked some very big holes in the global warming consensus.
Professor Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, one of the world’s leading experts on malaria, was a revelation. He explained how he had to threaten legal action against the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to have his name removed from the list of ‘2,000 of the world’s leading scientists’ who apparently backed its summary published last month. The problem? Professor Reiter didn’t back it, instead arguing that it was a ‘sham’. The IPCC ‘make it seem that all the top scientists are agreed, but it’s not true’, he said.
And leaving to one side the science of global warming, there was also some stirring stuff on the impact of the environmentalist ethos on political debate and human ambition – especially in relation to the developing world. Many of the talking heads argued that our obsession with restraining development in order to ‘save the planet’ will consign the world’s poorest to a life of grime and squalor. And, ironically, pollution. As one contributor pointed out, the smoke from cowshit and other items that some in the developing world burn in order to warm their homes – because they don’t have electricity and because the only solution put forward for their predicament is that they should use expensive and ineffectual ‘sustainable’ solar and wind power – is recognised by the World Health Organisation as one of the worst pollutants in the world. Tens of thousands of children in the developing world die every year from respiratory problems brought on by such in-house smog. It is peasantry, rather than modernity, that kills them; shit, not cars.
Watching The Great Global Warming Swindle felt a little bit naughty, even subversive. You simply never hear stark criticisms of the politics of global warming in the mainstream media very much. And yet, as Durkin points out, the response to his film has pretty much been a shrill: How can Channel 4 show this stuff?!
‘Some people seem really outraged that 90 minutes of airtime was given to “the other side”’, he says. He describes as ‘surreal’ the accusation that Channel 4, in airing his film, is somehow distorting the debate about global warming. One commentator declared: ‘Channel 4 has done a huge public disservice. Or are they planning to show a follow-up that takes apart last night’s wayward thesis?’ (1) ‘These people talk about balance, but the environmentalist view is everywhere!’, says Durkin. Indeed, even Durkin’s film was not allowed to stand alone: earlier in the week Channel 4 showed a Dispatches documentary made by green Guardian columnist George Monbiot to ‘balance out’ Durkin’s film, and then repeated it again last night after Durkin’s film. So even when you get to criticise the prevailing view, you have to be sandwiched in between two slabs of Monbiot.
TV has been well and truly greened: there are hectoring lifestyle shows like No Waste Like Home and It’s Not Easy Being Green, the greening of various soap characters, the unwritten law that says all wildlife documentaries must pass comment on how man has endangered tigers/whales/polar bears (usually polar bears), and news programmes frequently leading on The Threat of Global Warming to Life As We Know It, complete with Peter Snow-style swingometer graphics showing creeping deserts, disappearing glaciers and, of course, stranded bloody polar bears.
And yet some have branded Channel 4 as irresponsible for showing a 90-minute critical film which Durkin says he struggled for 10 years to have commissioned.
‘It shows that environmentalists and journalists can be utterly intolerant’, he says. ‘They simply will not tolerate any dissenting view. Straight away they try to take it down. You can see that in the kind of language they use – they say “the jury is in” on global warming, or “the science is done and dusted”, or you’re a “denier” if you question the consensus. This is not about having a debate but about shutting down debate.’
Indeed, many of Durkin’s critics have responded to The Great Global Warming Swindle by trying to slur Durkin and the participants in the film. Or they have gone running to the Office of Communications (Ofcom) to demand that it rap Durkin’s knuckles – a bit like overgrown school sissies squealing to teacher about the boy they don’t like in the hope that teacher will give him a jolly good thrashing.
Before the film aired, a contributor to a green-leaning website advised fellow contributors to keep an eye out for who is due to appear in the film ‘and more importantly who they work for’ (my italics). This sums up the approach of trying to demolish the arguer rather than his argument, to expose people’s alleged funding or leanings rather than to take up the substance of what they say. (For what it’s worth, most of the participants in the film said they hadn’t received a penny from oil companies, much as they would have liked to.)
In today’s Guardian, Zoe Williams seems to make a sly dig at one of the participants (Professor Tim Ball) on the basis that he is from Winnipeg. Apparently, being based on Farringdon Road in central London is a far better qualification for commenting on climate change, even if you are a ditzy la-la columnist and the weird Winnipeg man a professor of climatology (2). (Durkin points out the irony of people ‘exposing’ that he doesn’t have a background in science. If everyone who doesn’t have a background in science was forbidden from researching or talking about global warming, he says, then that would mean silencing some of the leading environmentalist thinkers and just about every newspaper columnist, who can always be relied upon to churn out an ‘I’m Scared of Global Warming and So Should You Be!’ column despite not knowing what a test tube is.)
On Wednesday, before the film even aired, a left-leaning website provided readers with a link to Ofcom’s website and the instruction: ‘Please do complain [about The Great Global Warming Swindle], and please do publicise this link and ask others to complain.’ It gave a link to the Channel 4 complaints website, too, saying that if Channel 4 ‘get a number of complaints then they will find it harder to commission future programmes from Durkin’ (3). This represents a new low in the discussion of environmentalism. Instead of having an upfront, open debate about the science, and the social and political courses of action that might be required to alleviate pollution while still meeting people’s needs and desires, some try to have a film written off by the suited and booted powers-that-be at Ofcom and a director excommunicated from the world of TV.
Durkin has been here before. His 1997 series, Against Nature, also an impassioned critique of environmentalism, was similarly the subject of a concerted complaints effort. This led to the Independent Television Commission (subsequently superseded by Ofcom) chastising Durkin and Channel 4 for using ‘underhand editing techniques’.
‘It is soft censorship’, Durkin insists. ‘If there is a huge response to a programme, then the ITC and now Ofcom feel the need to do something. So they end up censuring seriously controversial work. I mean, Channel 4 shows a lot of rubbish, like “wank week”. But because hardly anyone complains about that, Ofcom doesn’t say anything. And then people complain about my work, which is serious, and these bodies take action. It might not be formal censorship, but it is a kind of invisible censorship. The end result is phoney controversialism on TV but not much real controversialism. Ofcom is supposed to uphold standards but it does the opposite.’
He believes that such official chastisement – which was widely celebrated by some greens in relation to Against Nature and which is being demanded again for The Great Global Warming Swindle – has a ‘chilling effect’ on TV output. The big broadcasters, desperate to avoid being ticked off by Ofcom, will avoid showing anything liable to invite large numbers of complaints. So they stick with the wankers of ‘wank week’ instead. A far safer bet.
Durkin’s experiences with Against Nature also showed that the cheap and conspiratorial shot of denouncing someone by associating them with others can be used to stifle genuine debate. Who was he sinisterly associated with over the Against Nature controversy? Why, LM, the predecessor magazine to spiked which was edited by Mick Hume.
Scour the web for commentary on Against Nature (only if you have absolutely nothing else to do – seriously) and you will find shrill, green-ink enviro-babble about how we sinister Marxists at LM pulled the puppet-strings of Against Nature in order to do big business’s bidding against the poor, beleaguered environmentalist movement. Or something. In fact, a few people who contributed articles to LM appeared as talking heads on Against Nature. That’s all. Not as exciting as the crazed and wide-eyed web conspiracy theories make it sound, I know. Sorry.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the anti-LM conspiracy-mongering from making a comeback to coincide with the airing of The Great Global Warming Swindle – 10 years after Against Nature was first shown and seven years since LM was forced to close following a libel action brought by ITN. The new Channel 4 film has been described as ‘The Great LM Swindle’. Anti-globalisation author Paul Kingsnorth has written a satirical skit about what might have happened at the Channel 4 offices when they decided to commission Durkin’s latest film. It ends with one of the C4 bosses saying: ‘Brilliant work everyone. Lunch at the Groucho to celebrate? spiked is paying.’ (4) As well as being spectacularly unfunny (miserabilists can’t do satire), the skit is, of course, pure fantasy: spiked had no involvement in The Great Global Warming Swindle and we never buy anyone lunch. Our petty cash is so petty it doesn’t stretch to that.
Durkin laughs about the fact that many environmentalists fancy themselves as leftists, yet ‘they are always exposing me…as a leftist!’
It is indeed surreal – pure madness, in fact – for environmentalist writers, activists, politicians, TV-makers and the rest to complain about the showing of Durkin’s film, when their arguments are so widespread and so rarely challenged. Talking to Durkin, it is clear he is nobody’s stooge – not Big Oil’s, not Big Science’s, and certainly not mine or spiked’s. Whether he’s exposing the origins of environmentalism, the scare about GM food or the global warming consensus, he makes film about things that he believes in; it’s just that his beliefs don’t chime with what we’re ‘supposed’ to believe today. In these uncritical, unquestioning times, we could do with more anti-conformist films from ‘mavericks’ like Durkin.
The various attempts to have him shut up, denounced, sacked or whatever speak to a worryingly censorious climate in the climate change debate. And whatever the sceptics in the Swindle film might think, such a climate has not come about as a result of a handful of greens conspiratorially plotting to take down Durkin and anyone else who stands in their way. Rather, it is a product of a broader, society-wide attitude of ‘You can’t say that!’ in relation to discussions of global warming, development, man’s intervention in nature and the future of humanity itself. If we want a proper debate about these issues, we need an open and rigorous public life, rather than sneaky accusations of secret conspiracies and demands for censure.
Brendan O’Neill attacked the demonisation of climate change sceptics as deniers. Frank Furedi argued that the ‘denier’ tag is now used to brand various modern-day heretics as being beyond the pale. James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinksy exposed the chasm between the IPCC’s fairly sober summary of climate change science and the media’s hysterical treatment of the summary, and Rob Lyons noted that increasingly shrill war-style tub-thumping is being used to push through the climate change consensus. Or read more at: spiked issue Environment.
(1) Egg on Channel 4’s face, David Cromwell, Medialens, 9 March 2007
(2) Last night’s TV, Zoe Williams, Guardian, 9 March 2007
(3) The Great RCP Swindle, Socialist Unity Blog, 7 March 2007
(4) In your face, eco-hairies!, Paul Kingsnorth, 4 March 2007