I IMAGINE only a small percentage of people reading this have had any journalism training, but don't let that stop you from pondering the following ethical question.
If you read a newspaper story that included a direct quote from someone - let's say, for instance, UK climate scientist Dr David Viner - would it be acceptable to put quotation marks on the headline of that story and claim it was a quote from Dr Viner? You can have a minute to think about it.
It might help you to know that the headline was not written by the reporter who interviewed Dr Viner and wrote the story, and certainly not by Dr Viner himself. In short, a third person - a sub-editor - wrote the headline.
You don't need a minute? Of course not: it would be unprofessional, unethical and factually wrong to pass off a sub-editor’s made-up words as Dr Viner’s.
The Australian newspaper has just published a column from UK-based climate science mangler and anti-wind farm activist James Delingpole that tries to argue that Australia's recent unprecedented heatwave and hottest month on record wasn't all that hot and that global warming “alarmists” should be answering to a court with the power to issue a death sentence (no, I don't exaggerate, but we'll get to that at the end).
In the story, Delingpole says that Dr Viner had “famously declared” in 2000 that “Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past”. But here's the thing. Dr Viner never did utter those words. He was indeed quoted in a story in the UK's The Independent newspaper which carried the headline “Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past”.
But the headline was a gross over-statement: the first paragraph makes the far more modest claim that a trend to warmer winters meant that “snow is starting to disappear from our lives”. The reporter, Charles Onians, quoted Dr Viner as saying that within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”. Note the absence of quote marks on the time frame being within a few years – they were Onians’s words, just as the headline was the sub-editor’s. So Dr Viner’s actual prediction was that at some point in the future snow could become “a very rare and exciting event”.
As well, the story paraphrases him as adding an important qualifier - that heavy snow will return occasionally and catch people unprepared. But Delingpole leaves this bit out.
Delingpole then uses the non-quote that Dr Viner didn't say as a launchpad to ridicule him. “Viner has since become a legend in his own lunchtime, frequently quoted on the internet, sometimes having his name joshingly used as a synonym for snow. This isn't because he got his prediction right, of course. It's because, like Flannery, he got it so spectacularly, hilariously, hopelessly wrong.”
Hopelessly wrong, Mr Delingpole? What, like hopelessly attributing a quote to someone who never said it? Delingpole is of course “reporting” from an unseasonably cold and recently snowbound United Kingdom, which the BBC reports has just experienced its second coldest March since records began.
Scientists are now reporting a link between the loss of sea ice in the Arctic - driven by human-caused climate change - and cold snaps in the northern hemisphere like the one experienced by the UK. A recent scientific paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explained the link.
Delingpole also says in the column that Australia's recent record-breaking summer heatwave wasn't that hot.
“The thermometers were higher when the First Fleet arrived in the Sydney summer of 1790-91,” writes Delingpole, presumably having travelled back in time to check that the First Fleet thermometer was positioned within something resembling a Stevenson screen to ensure sunlight or incorrect air flow didn't corrupt the reading.
It's possible that Delingpole based his statement from this guest blog post by Australian MP Craig Kelly on Watts Up With That, where Kelly wrote that on December 27th 1790 one of these First Fleet thermometers near Observatory Hill in Sydney recorded a temperature of 42.8C. It's a shame that Delingpole didn't go back to check this figure becuase four days after Kelly wrote that story, Sydney recorded its hottest day ever with 45.8C at Observatory Hill on 18 January - a full three degrees hotter than Kelly's favoured First Fleet thermometer. Even The Australian reported it.
But in any case, Australia's recent record breaking heatwave wasn't a heatwave confined to one temperature reading in one place. As a Bureau of Meteorology special climate statement pointed out, “maximum temperatures over the period 1–18 January have been 6 °C or more above normal over a wide area of interior central and southern Australia and 45 °C has been reached at least once during the event over 46.9 per cent of Australia.”
You might think that The Australian would be wary about using Delingpole, after the Australian Press Council recently upheld a complaint about one of his previous contributions to Australia's only national newspaper.
In that story in May last year, Delingpole quoted an un-named sheep farmer as saying that the wind farm industry was “bloody well near a pedophile ring. They're f . . king our families and knowingly doing so”. The APC said this was “highly offensive” and “the level of offensiveness is so high that it outweighs the very strong public interest in freedom of speech”.
But rather than heed the blunt-toothed press council's finding, Delingpole was given more space by The Australian to respond. He wrote: “I stand by every word of the piece - especially the bit about pedophiles. I would concede that the analogy may be somewhat offensive to the pedophile community.”
But could Delingpole top this statement for offensiveness? He has a try as he signs off his most column, where he writes: “The climate alarmist industry has some very tough questions to answer: preferably in the defendant's dock in a court of law, before a judge wearing a black cap.” To those not au fait with the traditions of the English courts, black caps were only worn by judges when handing out death sentences.
By continuing to publish such low-grade and offensive polemics, in my view the only things hanging limp from the gallows are The Australian's credibility on climate change and its professional standards.