January 16th, 2019
RTE is set to greatly increase its climate coverage in 2019 in response to a growing demand from its audience to cover the topic of our generation, according to the head of the national broadcaster.
RTE has come under increasing scrutiny for its coverage of climate change in recent years. In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report which suggested that the Irish broadcast media could be doing more to report on climate issues.
Only three per cent of stories on broadcast media were devoted to climate change or sustainability issues during peak time for climate change news analysed by the agency, the report found.
RTÉ News and Prime Time were singled out for a lack of any “thematic coverage” of climate change or sustainability issues that, the EPA said, “require a certain level of unpacking over time”.
The broadcaster’s Director-General Dee Forbes, however, today said that coverage of climate change and environmental issues has been “regularly reflected” in both news and current affairs coverage.
Speaking before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, she said that RTÉ is making “genuine efforts to engage” with climate change across a range of programmes such as Eco Eye, Ear to the Ground and through “consistent analysis” from environmental correspondent George Lee.
“In terms of our own editorial contribution, we are trying our best to ensure that [climate change] is explored and discussed from many perspectives to meet the needs of different audiences,” Ms Forbes added.
She said that given the growing levels of public interest and concern around this issue, the topic of climate change “will be a thematic priority in our news and current affairs coverage” going forward.
By way of example, Ms Forbes said almost one-third of the nation tuned into RTE’s programme on waste – How Ireland Cleans up – on Monday evening.
Climate change may also feature as the theme of one of RTE’s Big Picture projects in 2019 where it would receive week-long programming “with depth and range” across all of RTE’s platforms, Ms Forbes said. She added that several standalone climate-related documentaries are also in the works for 2019.
Managing director of RTE’s News and Current Affairs, John Williams said that his department is also responding to this increased demand. He said that the broadcaster “would be mad not to respond” to the demands of its audience for focus on the likes of climate change and waste.
Mr Williams was questioned about the lack of RTE editorial guidelines about how its journalists should cover climate change in light of the BBC’s recently released four-page guideline and training for its staff.
Mr William’s said that the BBC only issued their guidelines after it breached rules of the UK’s media watchdog Ofcom during a radio interview with climate change sceptic Lord Nigel Lawson last August.
He added that the Broadcasting Act calls on RTE to be fair and impartial across a range of areas, including climate change, and that the broadcaster has never been found in breach of Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) guidelines.
There have, however, been complaints to RTE in the past in relation to its coverage of climate change on Prime Time and other standalone programs, such as last year’s Turf Life show. RTE was criticised by the BAI for failing to disclose to its audience that the program on our bogs was financed by Bord na Mona.
“The productions, services and trademark of the sponsor Bord na Mona were built into the narrative of the programme and there appeared to be a link between the programme content and the commercial arrangement,” the Authority said.
Donegal deputy Thomas Pringle also raised an analysis released last November by the environmental NGO Gluaiseacht of two weeks of broadcasts from RTE’s flagship radio show Morning Ireland.
The analysis found that less than one per cent of air time during two weeks of broadcast in April and October was dedicated to environmental or climate matters, compared to over 12 per cent for sports, 10 per cent for Brexit and five per cent for business news.
Mr Williams said that a two-week period “doesn’t strike me as terribly representative” of the programme’s coverage and covers only 10 out of 250 days that it was on air last year.
“400,000 people are listening to it every day and they can judge for themselves,” he said, adding that the show recently had several climate segments, including interviews with the Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton and former president and climate justice expert Mary Robinson.
Lack of climate legislation coverage
Ms Forbes also raised the issue of a need for more ambition at the political level to create “mass awareness on climate change”, adding that there is “no substitute for bespoke public information campaigns”.
“As a broader point, if there is little by way of action on climate change in terms of legislative change, policy initiatives, parliamentary debate and business innovation; regrettably there is less for the media as a whole to report on,” she added.
Several deputies including deputies Brian Stanley and Brid Smith, however, raised a lack of coverage of several environmental and climate-related Bills that they have brought, including Mr Smith’s recent Climate Emergency Measures Bill.
The Bill – currently held up in limbo at a separate climate change committee – seeks to amend the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act to limit the issuing of new licenses for the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels.
In general, Ms Smith said that she has not seen any real attempt by the broadcaster to engage with and examine corporate behaviour in relation to the likes of oil and gas exploration off the Irish coast.
Mr Williams said that RTE trying to cover such issues as best it can but that the “reality is that there is a limited amount of air time” to cover the range of stories that come across an editor’s desk every day.