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24th Apr 2019

Boulton, Boris and Brendan, you are responsible for this climate crisis

Insults, finger-pointing and bigotry - media men are just as culpable for the climate emergency as a coal factory in Nottingham

Katie Hodgetts

Envrionmental campaigners from the "Extinction Rebellion" group prepare to block a section of Parliament Square as part of their ongoing actions and protests across the capital, on April 24, 2019 in London, England. Now in it's tenth day, the protests have involved roadblocks, sit-ins and the halting of sections of the public transport system, in a bid to highlight environmental concerns. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Insults, finger-pointing and bigotry – media men are just as culpable for the climate emergency as a coal power station in Nottingham

Instead of worrying about the planet’s imminent incineration, we’re throwing insults at a 16-year-old girl with Asperger’s.

More than halfway through the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests and it seems a poignant moment to reflect on what we’ve seen so far: over 1,000 people arrested trying to communicate the message of climate breakdown, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg speaking more sense in parliament than its members, that the might of the British police force can be tickled by a giant pink boat and some superglue.

A less articulated moment but still brought into focus is the grand failure of the British tabloids and broader media. We’ve seen them denying the reality of ecological collapse and the role the United Kingdom government has played in fuelling this. Coverage has been saturated by denouncing ‘climate loons’ rather than scrutinising the government and climate science accordingly.

So whilst activists have articulated the charge against government tirelessly, as Michael Gove quipped ‘we’ve got the message,’ it is time to hold the media to the same standard.

Denying climate change outright is now dangerous territory, considering there is a 98 per cent consensus from the scientific community that it is here and human-caused. Rather, media outlets have used alternative artillery to delegitimise the environmental movement. There have been insults, finger-pointing and bigotry.

Cue Adam Boulton.

In this handout image provided by Sky News, Adam Boulton prepares to deliver the referendum results on June 23, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Lobina/Sky News via Getty Images)

Last week on Sky News, Boulton’s interview with XR activist Robin Boardman was unprofessional and uncomfortable. After interrogating the young man until he walked off the set, the finishing blow from Boulton was a vindictive jibe. Boardman and his peers are “a load of incompetent, middle class, self-indulgent people who want to tell us how to live our lives.”

Rather than an intellectual assessment of the movement’s aims, Boulton’s visceral disdain for Boardman’s piety brought institutional contempt into sharp view. Sky may portray itself as an environmental ally, see the rotating coverage of its Ocean Rescue campaign, but this interview illuminated the perennial institutional prejudice found in the British press.

By focusing on the ‘fruits not the roots’ of Extinction Rebellion, Boulton shrunk space for more pressing questions. Here are a couple, off the top of my head.

How is the government failing on its environmental commitments?

Why is a passionate middle-class man being lambasted for taking action, by an inactive, wealthier middle-class man (might I add privately and Oxford educated)?

Why is Boulton’s complicity left unaddressed? For me, leaving these questions unchallenged is lazy journalism.

Cue Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson delivers a speech at JCB World Headquarters on January 18, 2019 in Rocester, Staffordshire. After defeating a vote of no confidence in her government, Theresa May has called on MPs to break the Brexit deadlock by conducting cross-party Brexit talks. The speech by the former Foreign Secretary is being widely acknowledged as a Tory leadership bid. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

On Tuesday the Telegraph published Johnson’s weekly column in which he launched another attack on XR, describing the group as “smug, irritating and disruptive.” Skirting around the issue of an impending climate catastrophe, he recommends “taking your boat to China” for an alternative. Evading responsibility as opposed to scrutinising your own performance.

After the personal insults are done, Boris praises the government for being a climate leader. I must digress momentarily to fact-check this outlandish claim.

The UK ranks fifth in terms of the countries with the largest cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750. We have historically exploited the Global South for the sake of progress. We are set to miss our emissions reduction target. Last year our government pushed fracking and a Heathrow expansion. Gove tried to get climate change off the syllabus years ago.

What about this insinuates climate leadership? Johnson is hyperbolic and defiant.

Cue Brendan O’Neill.

The final charge is delivered to O’Neill, editor of Spiked, a news outlet funded by actual climate deniers, the billionaire Koch Brothers.

Whilst the refrain from addressing climate change is expected, his recent piece is morally repugnant. He writes a scathing account of 16-year old-activist Greta Thunberg that does not need repeating, before taking aim at Extinction Rebellion for employing the “politics of fear.”

In the same breath he reveals Extinction Rebellion to be a “march against people…They detest mass society… when it is putting pressure on the government, it is really asking it to punish us.” He concludes that the point of the green movement is to “immiserate us.”

This is irresponsible, petty and symptomatic of a disease across tabloid journalism: the issue here is our communal climate disaster, yet it is always the last thing – if at all – to be mentioned.

Time for perspective. Who are the real “middle class, self-indulgent people who want to tell us how to live our lives.” What makes this boys club so terrified of this new spate of non-violent protests? What makes the elephant fear the mouse? The answer is logical and it’s not about climate change.

The green movement in its wider setting demands more than environmental action. It calls for collective consciousness, a curbing of GDP growth and an interrogation on mass-consumption and production. It asks for increased regulations to guide us in making more ecological and sustainable choices. It asks to dismantle and wane the strong forces of masculinity, whose desire for mastery and machinery has led to the destruction of the environment.

Effectively it challenges the basic fundaments of neoliberalism: individualism, deregulation, consumption. It challenges the systems that have afforded men great power.  It challenges a dominant ideology.

This is clearly at odds with identity markers of key media figureheads. Understanding and observing these webs of political interest may not hold our media accountable or alter coverage, but it’s an important place to start.

Failing that, consider why Boulton, Boris and Brendan are so affronted, so enraged. In their arena of ego and machismo, they have been upstaged by a 16-year-old girl in a bobble hat.

  • Katie is an environmental activist, campaigning for the UK Youth Climate Coalition and Bristol Youth Strike for Climate. She tweets personally at @KTClimate.