We have heard an expert — so now we need the opinion of an ignoramus?

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When the facts and evidence is clear ‒ such as with climate change ‒ journalists should not promote controversy with meaningless counter-productive debate, writes Lyn Bender.

THERE IS A WEIRD PHENOMENON diminishing our intelligence, threatening to invade our education system and to corrupt principles of democracy.

It is the concept of ‘balance’

The rationale goes something like this: for each argument and factually based account, and all scientific evidence, an equal and opposite equivalence must be found and must be given equal prominence.

In other words, even if ninety seven per cent of scientists agree that global warming is a threat and is induced by our greenhouse gas emissions, we must find a scientist ‒ or anybody in fact ‒ who disagrees with this and present their opinion with equal weight and importance.

Better still, ask a scientist paid for by fossil fuel interests to “debate” the matter.

If you are not alarmed yet then watch this speech by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, describing this phenomenon — delivered, notably, without any caterwauling, interruption or disruption from his opponents in the house.

How dignified.

But isn’t it just plain nonsensical to require this kind of false balance

For example, should any mention of the Nazi’s Jewish Holocaust be ‘balanced’ by a holocaust denier, such as David Irving having a very prominent say? Should we be giving serious weight to the opposing view of any charlatan, such as the infamous Lord Christopher Monkton, who was caught on video advising mining companies to get hold of the media and create an Australian Fox News? In the United States, Fox News promotes the balance principle by featuring a predominance of climate contrarians over established climate science.

You can watch Lord Monkton [shown here] on Channel 7’s Sunrise program “arguing” with a climate scientist. He is introduced as “one of the world’s leading sceptics” — which actually makes him one of the world’s leading ignoramuses:

So how does giving false authenticity to any misguided or corrupt viewpoint , ensure the implementation of full fair and fearless dissemination of information?

Imagine applying this to every news editorial, interview, or in opposition to all science.

Even the BBC and the ABC have been vulnerable to the ‘balance’ principle.

After the release of the latest IPCC report, the BBC was exposed as giving more airtime to infamous climate sceptic Bob Carter than to actual non-denying experts.

And after the  IPCC report was released on the 27 September 2013, ABC Radio National featured an interview with climate denier (that is, sceptic) Bjorn Lomborg.

Listening to Lomborg with an untrained ear, he sounds plausible enough. Of course global warming is a problem, but it’s not that big a problem and there is no point in trying to cut carbon emissions.

After all,

“… people don’t burn carbon just to annoy Al Gore!”

Cue here for a rounds of chuckle at the expense of "warmist" former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Lomborg argues that as Kyoto (which he opposed) and Copenhagen haven’t worked, so trying to gain agreement to reduce global emissions should be abandoned.

Instead, he favours making renewables cheaper so that people will want to use them. He ignores the significance of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and suppression of renewables. He agrees that most good economists would favour a carbon tax to do this but, as it’s not going to happen…

Coming across as a cheerful reassuring realist, Lomborg is actually supporting the promotion of fossil fuels. His role is to quell concern and urgency using false claims.

So, how did objective factual reporting and skilled analysis get to be translated into the false balance of always featuring at least one opposing opinion?

Naomi Oreskes, with co-author Eric Conway, has detailed the sowing of doubt in her book Merchants of Doubt. It chronicles the history of the promotion of false uncertainty as to the harmful reality of tobacco, asbestos, acid rain, the depletion of atmospheric ozone and, of course, climate change.

One of the strategies used was the establishment and entrenchment by the tobacco industry of the principle of ‘balance’ in all debate — thereby prolonging a ‘jury is still out’ pseudo debate even when the facts are abundantly clear.

Even in 2014, tobacco is still finding and funding scientists, like David O’Reill, who argues that smoking is good for your health because it makes your brain work better.

But the balance misconstruction, in an even more distorted form, is creeping further into the political jargon and is decrying a supposed imbalance in the present Australian school curriculum.

It is a perfectly amazing coincidence that the newly appointed curriculum reviewer, Dr Kevin Donnelly, has previously been an education consultant to tobacco giant Phillip Morris.

The education package he designed for them promoted material on smoking to children as though the jury was not fully in on the habit. He promoted it as a resilience building and independent thinking program, although it omitted information on the harm to health. The information, about harm, was added to the package after objections. Its aim was to provide tools for children as to how to choose or not choose to smoke — yet it failed to protect or warn vulnerable children ‒ a captive audience ‒ about the severe dangers or smoking.

Dr Donnelly argued recently that

'… the cultural left has taken the long march through the education system and enforced its biased, ideological world view on schools.’

Dr Donnelly plans to undo this with his own tramp through the school curriculum, such as by making comments about some alleged attempt to airbrush our Judeo-Christian heritage from the history syllabus.

Educational experts have expressed concern at the prospect of this review creating confusion in the painstakingly achieved current consensus over the curriculum. Dr Donnelly’s despicable record in soft peddling tobacco in schools should, in itself, disqualify him from going anywhere near the school curriculum. I, for one, would not want him in any way involved in the instruction of my children or grandchildren.

The tobacco industry’s concern here is to act proactively to avoid the loss of profit that will be incurred by regulations against marketing tobacco to youth. Youth, after all, may represent forty or so years of custom until tobacco would likely bring about their premature demise. For that same reason ‒ loss of custom ‒ big tobacco has also opposed plain packaging of cigarettes.

So, perhaps we should be worried about the proposals of Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg to houseclean pesky regulations that are an impediment to business.

Two ‘repeal days’ are planned. The first is set for 19 March 2014.

I have an image of a titanic skip outside Parliament House full of unread files.

Will the baby be thrown out with the bath water? Call me paranoid, but I know only too well how hasty throwouts, however well intentioned, can lead to mistakes. I am left wondering how much red tape will be shed with regard to social wellbeing programs? Will it be balanced?

But that is a whole other can of worms and the balance principle does not seem to have been applied in the media (with a few exceptions) to the importance of retaining or discarding red tape — that is, regulation.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of irony that Peter Reith ‒ of Children Overboard and phone card fraud fame ‒ was published on ABC’s The Drum giving his point of view on the uncovering of Liberal travel rorts.

In his piece, ironically or provocatively entitledTo claim or not to claim’ he reaffirms the need for a ‘balanced’ view of the issue.

The public needed to understand, he declares, that politicians are always at work and that, therefore, there could be no travel rorts ipso facto. Reith is a [very] frequent contributor on The Drum, providing “balance” for the ABC.

But, of course, so does his former cabinet colleague Amanda Vanstone, with her weekly show Counterpoint on ABC Radio National.

Recently, she examined the question — Should we abolish the Human Rights Commission? Interestingly, this question answered in the affirmative by Abbott’s recent Human Rights Commissioner appointment Tim Wilson. Wilson has also been appointed incidentally, to provide balance in the Human Rights Commission, which has until now been in favour of human rights and its own continuance.

Tim Wilson was formerly a policy director at the IPA (Institute of Public Affairs), a body which also previously called for the abolition of the commission for which Wilson is now working.

But if weekly Counterpoint is not enough balance from loyal former Howard minister Vanstone, you can also read her in Fairfax news with a plethora of “balanced” articles, such as: ‘At last, the grown ups are back in charge’, ‘The look at me G-G’ and Gillard brought voters’ contempt upon herself.

I could continue with other examples, but I hope I have exhibited more that enough balance in citing and providing links to the many neo-conservatives and denier’s points of view.

In fact, it’s hard to avoid this balance thing.

We are saturated in an overabundance of faux ‘balance’ when the entire Murdoch Press is included. From political to environmental, from Britain to the U.S. and all the way to Australia, the Murdoch media machine has relentlessly pushed an agenda that looks like, sounds like and reads like unmitigated one-eyed propaganda.

So what is the answer to this imbroglio?

As Media Watch Jonathan Holmes declared:

“False evidence leads to confusion. To put it bluntly, there’s evidence, and there’s bull dust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’. Especially when people’s health is at risk. That’s my view.”

Mine too.

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