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Climate Swindle film: bruised egos, but no offence

So says Ofcom

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British regulator Ofcom has rejected complaints that the popular polemical film, The Great Global Warming Swindle, misled viewers. The regulator said it was paramount that the public received alternative points of view - even if these were not endorsed by institutions or the major political parties.

While some aspects of the presentation "caused some concern", the regulator notes, such as failing to give guests time to respond after broadcast, the errors were "of such insignificance" that they could not be judged to mislead the audience.

Ofcom said it couldn't judge the validity of the facts on each side of the argument, but rather that its job was to decide whether the programme breached the Broadcasting Code, in which programmes must not mislead viewers in order to cause offence.

"Ofcom considers that it is important, in line with freedom of expression, that broadcasters are able to challenge current orthodoxy. It is self-evident that there will be strong disagreements over the ‘facts’ on an issue such as the causes of global warming - where some scientists disagree. Some may wish to challenge the evidence and the conclusions drawn from it. Channel 4, however, had the right to show this programme provided it remained within the Code and – despite certain reservations – Ofcom has determined that it did not breach Rule 2.2. On balance it did not materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence."

The hour long programme, directed and narrated by Martin Durkin, was screened in March 2007, and has subsequently become a hit on DVD. Environmental activists blame the film, and the broadcaster Channel 4, for undermining public confidence in the theory that human CO2 emissions are primarily responsible for increasing temperatures in the late 20th century.

Ofcom ruled that Swindle did not pretend to represent the mainstream view, and clearly labelled its contents; it did not dispute that temperatures were rising (something it could legitimately have done, as temperatures have been steady for almost a decade, the British climate research centres Hadley and the Climatic Research Unit now agree).

The regulator quotes the Stern Report to back its belief that the science was "settled" before the documentary was broadcast:

"This view of human activity as the major cause of global warming does not appear to be challenged by any of the established political parties or other significant domestic or international institutions. "

Boiling point

Yet Ofcom said it "considers it of paramount importance that broadcasters, such as Channel 4, continue to explore controversial subject matter. While such programmes can polarise opinion, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us and are amongst the most important content that broadcasters produce. It is inevitable such programmes will have a high profile and may lead to a large number of complaints."

Ofcom agreed with a complaint from the former scientific advisor to the Government, David King, who complained he had been treated unfairly. The programme attributed a quote to him that he never made, and failed to give him a chance to respond after the programme had been broadcast.

Fred Singer, professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, was broadcast claiming that the UK's chief scientific advisor had said "that by the end of the century the only habitable place on the earth will be the Antarctic. And humanity may survive thanks to some breeding couples who moved to the Antarctic".

In fact, in May 2004 King had said that "Antarctica is likely to be the world’s only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked" and that the earth was entering "the first hot period for 60m years" when there was no ice on the planet and “the rest of the globe could not sustain human life".

Swindle received 265 complaints after being broadcast, although Channel 4 says calls to the station supporting the programme outnumbered those complaining by 6 to 1.

Details of Ofcom's adjudication were leaked the The Guardian newspaper on Friday, earning the headline in Saturday's edition "Channel 4 to be censured over controversial climate film". You can judge the accuracy of that headline for yourselves, by downloading the adjudication here [HTML].®

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