COP26 coverage: Geoffrey Lean - don't let political reporters distory story

Veteran environment reporter's plea to editors : Don't let 'formulaic' political reporting distort coverage of COP26

The world’s longest-serving environmental correspondent Geoffrey Lean shares his advice for editors on coverage of COP26

First, something to celebrate. COP26 has focussed the attention of virtually all the UK’s political journalists and commentators on what is – and will continue to be – the biggest story of our age.

Newsrooms that have long seen climate change as“worthy” and of minority, mainly elite, concern, are increasingly reappraising it for what it is – a fascinating, multifaceted tale, with all the drama any hack could desire. And, as for limited interest,  91 per cent of Sun readers polled last month agreed the climate is changing.

Every British national newspaper and television channel is approaching the end of this year greener than it started it – some, like the Express and the Sun,  dramatically so.

Naturally, as someone who spent decades trying to persuade my profession of the environment’s newsworthiness, the interest being shown by political journalists in  Glasgow stimulates cheers. But just two of them. For I am concerned that the greater knowledge and experience of my successors as environment editors and correspondents will be overridden, as their political colleagues set the news agenda. The result, I fear, would be to misreport the COP and the climate story since – with honourable exceptions – they do not know a lot about them.

Take it from me, who has covered far more than my fair share: climate COPs are hard to report well. They are vast, confusing occasions, bringing together representatives of 200 nations, with widely differing interests, to negotiate behind closed doors over bewilderingly arcane text: one key environmental negotiation I covered, back in 1981, broke down over the placing of a single comma.

In my experience, no one knows all that is going on. Those that say they do, generally know the least.

Environment specialists who have struggled through cops build up a variety of contacts, who give them an authoritative, if partial (sometimes in both senses) view of what is happening. From these, with due crosschecking, they can compile an accurate report.

The political journalists in Glasgow naturally do not have those contacts. So they are likely to be thrown back on just a few, known sources, overwhelmingly from the UK Government, in Glasgow.

Indeed there are already signs that the rather simplistic, often formulaic approach, that characterises some – though by no means all – political reporting is already distorting the British debate.

There appears to be, for example, a fascination with the comparatively small group of sceptical Tory MPs gathered round Steve Baker and Craig MacKinlay, ignoring the 100 or so right across the party’s political spectrum, who subscribe to the Conservative Environment Network.

Certainly the much smaller group get the lion’s share of the coverage, giving – in my view – a badly distorted view of Tory backbench opinion. This is despite  MacKinlay himself admitting that “the overwhelming Westminster consensus” is against him.

Then there seems to be a consensus that Red Wall voters are hostile to environment measures despite polls showing that they are as green, and sometimes greener, as the rest of the country.

Tory Teeside Mayor Ben Houchen won landslide re-election in the May elections by campaigning on a green agenda, and some Brexiteer Red Wall Tory MPs are among the strongest environmentalists on the Government benches.

Again, there’s a concentration with the costs of moving to net zero. They are widely reported without any reference to the economic benefits that study after study has found (one last month put the net gain as $26 trillion)  even though a survey of  730 economists found only 12 who thought people would end up worse off.

And though some of the costs may be real and require government help, such as heat pumps (though more for the cost of installation and accompanying insulation than the capital cost, which will come down) others are not. Electric cars, for example, are already much cheaper to run, and will become cheaper to buy with mass production. Meat-eating declined by 17 per over the last year, with no fuss.

Environment specialists overwhelmingly know all these to be wrong, but they still proliferate in political writing, and seep into other coverage.

The same tendency could lead to an oversimple succeed/fail verdict on Glasgow, whereas -as UKPG recently reported Fiona Harvey of the Guardian pointing out  – the  result is almost bound to be more nuanced.

This is not, of course to deny that the skill and insights of political journalists will have an important part in the coverage of Cop26. It is just a plea to newspapers and programmes – and their editors – to listen to their environmental specialists, despite their lowlier positions in office hierarchies.

Read more: Don’t report COP26 as ‘triumph or disaster’ warning as survey reveals importance of environment to readers

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