The Day of the Blogger: the Fifth Estate Comes into its Own

February 4, 2010

This from Philip Stott


In a major article in today’s ‘The Spectator’, Matt Ridley identifies the Watts Up With That? web site [picture], founded in November 2006 by a former Californian television weather forecaster, Anthony Watts, as one of the major new forces wresting legitimacy from both the mainstream media and even mainstream science in the ‘global warming’ debate. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin then comes in, right on cue, with pertinent observations about the future of the IPCC.

Today should be an uncomfortable one for both the so-called mainstream media and for so-called mainstream science. Two extremely significant comment pieces have just appeared, both indicating a partial transfer of legitimacy to the Blogoshpere, which we may increasingly come to regard as the citizens’ Fifth Estate.

Matt Ridley On The Vital Role Of Bloggers

The first article, by Matt Ridley, one of our finest science writers, is the main cover story [right] in this week’s issue of The Spectator magazine. It is entitled ‘The global warming guerrillas’, and I suspect that it may well become an important document in both the history of science and the story of science reporting in the media. In his seminal analysis, Matt argues that it is the bloggers who have changed the climate debate, while most of Fleet Street has uncritically kowtowed to the ‘green’ lobby. The mainstream media has left the real job of investigative journalism and reporting to the online amateurs, who have uncovered the spin and deception that will finally crack the artificially-contrived ‘consensus’. Matt goes on to say that the mainstream media have been left playing catch up. He further points out that this pattern is not new to journalism, but that journalists can no longer get away with it, above all because of the democratic internet:

“Of course, reporters have been going native for decades. The difference is that they cannot now get away with it. When acid rain was all the rage in the 1980s, I was a science editor and I relayed all sorts of cataclysmic predictions from scientists and greens about its effect on forests. (Stern magazine said in 1984 that a third of Germany’s forests were already dead or dying and that experts believed all  – all! – its conifers would be gone by 1990.) Today, we know that these predictions were wildly wrong and that far from dying out, forests in Germany, Sweden and North America actually thrived during that decade. I should have been more sceptical.

Yet, this time round, despite 20 years of being told they were not just factually but morally wrong, of being compared to Holocaust deniers, of being told they deserved to be tried for crimes against humanity, of being avoided at parties, climate sceptics seem to be growing in number and confidence by the day. What is the difference? In a word, the internet.”

Matt is scathing about the defensive and slow response of the mainstream media to the breaking news of ‘Climategate’, noting a sequence that I have already explored in two postings on this blog [here and here]:

“When Climategate broke, the mainstream media, like knights facing archers at Crécy, mostly ran dismissive pieces reflecting the official position of the Consensus. For example, they dutifully repeated the line that the University of East Anglia’s global temperature record was vindicated by two other ‘entirely independent’ records (from Nasa and NOAA), which was bunk: all three records draw from the same network of weather stations. Editors then found – by reading and counting the responses on their blog pages – that there was huge and educated interest in Climategate among their readers. One by one they took notice and unleashed their sniffing newshounds at last: the Daily Express went first, then the Mail and the Sunday Times, last week the Times and this week even the Guardian.”

Yet, even more significantly, Matt notes that the bloggers have not only held the mainstream media to account, they have also thrown down the gauntlet to mainstream science itself:

“‘It seems inconceivable to the commentariat,’ says Andrew Orlowski of the online newspaper of the IT industry, the Register, ‘that scientists have prejudices too, and that the publication process (peer review) is not some Kitemark of quality but is vulnerable to being hijacked.’ Chip Knappenberger, who blogs at masterresource.org, believes the rise of blogs as repositories of scientific knowledge will continue if the scientific literature becomes guarded and exclusive. ‘I can only anticipate this as throwing the state of science and the quest for scientific understanding into disarray.’”

Enter Stage Left The BBC’s Roger Harrabin

At the very end of his piece, Matt challenges Aunty itself, the good old BBC, with a throw-away hope: “Who knows, one day even BBC News may ask tough questions.”

And, right on cue, here comes the BBC environment correspondent, Roger Harrabin [left], with a second major comment, ‘Reforming the IPCC climate body’, in his Series called Harrabin’s Notes.

In this piece, Roger makes a number of worthwhile points, some of which do indeed chime in remarkably with Matt’s trenchant analysis. Three observtaions are especially noteworthy.

First, Roger highlights the extraordinary defensiveness of some of the IPCC scientists in the face of the new world order:

“The co-chairs who oversaw WGII [Working Group 2 on Impacts] have served their term. They were the British scientist Professor Martin Parry and Argentinian meteorologist Dr Osvaldo Canziani.

Professor Parry has repeatedly refused to answer my questions about the genesis of the errors, and his out-of-office assistant now says he is travelling for a month.”

Secondly, Roger rightly focuses his piece on the problems of reforming the IPCC:

“China is demanding that future IPCC reports contain ‘sceptical’ points of view, which will go some way to satisfying complaints from sceptics that their views are brushed under the carpet in the name of consensus. It will be hard to resist this demand; but if granted, it will place more onus on the main authors of the report to draw up a synthesis of opinions and explain why they favour one over another.”

Yet, thirdly, and perhaps most significantly in the light of Matt Ridley’s analysis, Roger – a BBC man remember – admits that bloggers will have to have a role in any future IPCC:

“But, for all its frequent vitriol and false accusations, the blogosphere has been proven at least partially right on occasions. Any future iteration of the IPCC will have to find a way of taking the serious bloggers seriously.”

So, as Matt devoutly hoped, some parts of the BBC are indeed beginning to ask some of the right – some of the “tough” – questions.

The Day Of The Blogger

I believe this to be a pivotal day. It has been coming for some time, but, as ever, it has taken a seminal piece of writing to bring the necessary focus.

As I said earlier, Matt Ridley’s article could well become a classic in pin-pointing the moment when the democratic internet wrested elements of legitimacy from both the mainstream media and from science itself.

This is truly the Day of the Blogger. It is precisely why I have blogged: “to ensure that the mainstream media cannot exclude critical voices which deserve to be heard.”

It now appears that bloggers are becoming a Fifth Estate, a new, and vital, balance in the realm of politics, correcting and curbing the failures and excesses of the Fourth Estate, the press, which is too frequently subservient to the forces of the State, and of their wealthy, and often ruthless, proprietors.

This is why it is absolutely necessary that the internet remains free and open to all. This is why some newspapers need to apologise, such as The Times for its shameful editorial on “village idiots”. Above all, this is why Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband should be ashamed of, and apologise for, their recent attacks on the critics of climate-change science.


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