The wonderful world of state funded broadcasting and ‘truth tribunals”

Britain’s government channel 4 was recently taken to the tribunal, Ofcom for broadcasting the documentary “ The global warming swindle” after it received complaints about (among other things) its “scientific veracity”. There were apparently hundreds of complaints including a bunch of academics forming a sort of “class action” posse (lodging their objection to Swindle being televised) making the whole thing sound like the usual AGW whine fest.

I saw the Doco on the web before the ABC broadcast it here in Australia and to be perfectly honest I was a little underwhelmed as it basically presented the same old skeptical arguments we’ve heard before 1,000 times over with the same old faces.

The tribunal found for Channel 4 in the material parts of the Doco but also found they breached the code on a few technicalities. Several bloggers on both sides of the warming debate are writhing rhapsodically about the result treating it some sort of win. One is outright disembling

However this isn’t the point of the thread. Neither is this an attempt to lead an argument about AGW nor whether the Doco was right/ wrong good or bad. This complaint fest shows exactly why libertarians are rightly 110% against the idea the state should have its grubby (but well intentioned) hands on any form of broadcasting (in fact the idea is repulsive and fraught danger).

It’s even worse in the UK than it is here as they actually have inspectors skulking about residential areas trying to catch people who own a TV not paying the requisite fee. Great GDP enhancing job hey? ☺

I would to posit a hypothetical:

Wiki:

Two Australian researchers, J. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, are the 2005 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in discovering the role of ulcer bacteria in producing digestive ulcers. They were announced Monday morning in Stockholm, Sweden.

……………Before their discovery, peptic ulcer was attributed to stress and lifestyle.

And this:

More than 20 years ago Dr. Robin Warren found a link between bacteria and patients with certain types of ulcers and gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach. It was the first time such a connection had been made.

The prevailing view at the time was that ulcers were caused by stress and lifestyle or were related to aspirin and anti-arthritis drugs. Dr. Warren’s findings were dismissed and – at times – ridiculed.

Most medical professionals believed that bacteria could not survive, let alone cause disease, in the acidic conditions of the stomach.

Would it have been possible for Channel 4 to have been brought before the tribunal if it had televised a program suggesting that a number of ulcers of bacterial origin were treatable with antibiotics seeing it ran against prevailing medical wisdom?

I say yes.

This is a good example where state intervention in broadcasting can actually have the effect of potentially stifling free speech. People are now using “truth” tribunals to shut down debate.

As I said, I’m not casting any judgment on Swindle. This is a great example where public broadcasting is leading us: scientific truth tribunals, which is really back to the future like when Galileo was brought before the Inquisition to defend his scientific theories.

27 thoughts on “The wonderful world of state funded broadcasting and ‘truth tribunals”

  1. Speaking of bias, perhaps you should add a few examples of the opposite end of the spectrum, where people have erred the opposite way. There are innumerate examples of this in human history, like dams not being built high enough to stop flooding, ignoring the obvious (New Orleans), ships sinking (the Titanic) and so on. So the other hypothetical you might like to pose (in fact it isn’t even hypothetical) is why people didn’t listen to the doom mongers in these cases who also turned out to be right.

  2. Your example is misleading. The Ofcom findings were more to do with the how some scientists represented in the programme and the lack of a opportunity for these scientists to respond to serious allegations. On the actual argument with regard to AGW that the programme put forward Ofcom found no breaches.
    “Would it have been possible for Channel 4 to have been brought before the tribunal if it had televised a program suggesting that a number of ulcers of bacterial origin were treatable with antibiotics seeing it ran against prevailing medical wisdom?”

    Not if you are using the Ofcom judgement as a precedent.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/21/climatechange.carbonemissions

  3. Your example is misleading. The Ofcom findings were more to do with the how some scientists represented in the programme and the lack of a opportunity for these scientists to respond to serious allegations. On the actual argument with regard to AGW that the programme put forward Ofcom found no breaches.
    “Would it have been possible for Channel 4 to have been brought before the tribunal if it had televised a program suggesting that a number of ulcers of bacterial origin were treatable with antibiotics seeing it ran against prevailing medical wisdom?”

    Not if you are using the Ofcom judgement as a precedent.

  4. It appears that a link I included prevented the comment from showing. It was a Guardian summary of the judgement.

  5. Patrick,

    We know some scientists feel they were misrepresented. My question is if we really need an Inquisition. If they were misrepresented there are alternative legal remedies in civil courts.

    This type of activity chills free speech.

    Maybe next time some crank criticizes free labor markets on British television someone ought to consider the same action.

  6. “If they were misrepresented there are alternative legal remedies in civil courts.”

    I don’t think that you could take an action for being misrepresented. You would have to show defamation which I’m sure would be impossible in this case. In any case this method of complaint resolution is far cheaper.
    The question is really about the quality of the information being broadcasting and the context in which it is broadcast. I’m sure you would like to take action if you views were, for example, being selectively quoted so as to misrepresent you without defaming you. In addition I would have thought by your definition of free speech you would have to rule out defamation as well as a successful action would place a sanction on the respondent, perhaps an apology or an injunction which implies that you should not have said what you said.

    “We know some scientists feel they were misrepresented.”
    They have now had those feeling officially validated.

  7. Patrick:

    The question is really about the quality of the information being broadcasting and the context in which it is broadcast.

    yes, I’m sure that’s that’s the copybook argument used by the Inquisitors at Galileo’s hearings…. it was about the ” quality” of his work.

    Let’s go back to the two ulcer guys though. Prior to the recognition of their finding do you think the medical establishment had a reasonable argument about the quality of their research?

  8. “Prior to the recognition of their finding do you think the medical establishment had a reasonable argument about the quality of their research?”

    I’ll assume the answer to that is no, which is why they are both full professors and have had good of funding over their careers.

    Incidentally, I agree with you that people with odd scientific ideas shouldn’t be hounded for them, but I don’t see why that indemnifies them from complaints (of a scientific nature). Some of the great moments in science came because of odd believes and people challenging them (Bohr vs. Einstein being a good example).

  9. Would it have been possible for Channel 4 to have been brought before the tribunal if it had televised a program suggesting that a number of ulcers of bacterial origin were treatable with antibiotics seeing it ran against prevailing medical wisdom?

    The better analogy would be if Channel 4 today televised a program that claimed the bacterial origin of ulcers was the product of bad science and misrepresented the work of Warren and Marshall. That is similar to what it did by putting Swindle on the air.

  10. I watched the swindle, and it didn’t show much about the science. What it did do well was pick at the more alarmist claims about malaria etc.

    The ABC should be hammered by letting in the la Rouchites in the post documentary “debate”.

  11. Conrad:
    but I don’t see why that indemnifies them from complaints

    It doesn’t and it shouldn’t. However a large number of complaints including the professorial posse were objecting to “the science”.

    Tinnifar:

    You don’t have to object to Swindle by mischaracterizing the doco. If you bothered to read the Ofcom complaints you would realize the Tribunal only spent a small amount of time dealing with that. Most complaints were over the issue of the “science”.

  12. There should be no place for government “tribunals” that determine whether an argument has been fairly presented or a someone has been misrepresented. Truth, fairness and misrepresentation are none of the government’s business in civil society. Free speech is far to precious to let the government mess with it.

    If someone has been defamed and suffers damage as a result, there are civil remedies available.

    I think you are wrong to ignore the subject of the Swindle doco though. It’s precisely because it challenged the current orthodoxy on AGW that it went before the tribunal. In Galileo’s time, the producers would have been tortured until they recanted.

  13. Mark:

    Far be it for to be defending The ABC and Tony Jones as both deserve a decent kicking into privatization. However I think they were as surprised as anyone else about the La Rouchites getting their foot in the door.
    I thought it was hysterical and served them right.

    I still vividly recall Jones’ gaping mouth with some of the questions and issues those loonies raised.

  14. David:

    Thanks for making this point:

    I think you are wrong to ignore the subject of the Swindle doco though.

    I chose to ignore it because I was afraid ti would turn into another once of those the world is doomed threads which what I wanted to avoid.

    There should be no place for government “tribunals” that determine whether an argument has been fairly presented or a someone has been misrepresented.

    I agree with you 100%. However to be honest though this goes right to the heart of the issue. Just how do you avoid “truth” tribunals with government broadcasting? I really can’t see how it can be avoided.

    Government broadcasting has the effect of chilling free speech and the right to discuss views and opinions.

    No one is ever taken seriously when they object to say a “bad” program on a private network. At least they shouldn’t be taken seriously by reasonable people.

  15. Just how do you avoid “truth” tribunals with government broadcasting? I really can’t see how it can be avoided.

    I agree government broadcasters ought to be privatised, but for economic reasons rather than free speech.

    If government broadcasters were obliged to compete for audience numbers, they’d be accountable enough without a tribunal. Free speech would be safe because audiences could switch off and advertisers walk away. Viewer numbers are way down at 60 Minutes due to so many beat ups. But it doesn’t matter, because we aren’t all paying for it.

  16. David:

    That proposition works in theory but the problem is always the practice. There’s no way in hell a government station would be allowed to fail which is the implied threat in the private market.
    If they lost viewers the government pump would invariably be there ready to fill up the tank again.

  17. The government has websites why shouldn’t they have broadcasters? The real problem in broadcasting is that the licensing system restricts access and the government spends too much on the task. If there were 200 channels I wouldn’t much care if the government broadcast parliament on one of them.

  18. The government has websites why shouldn’t they have broadcasters?

    Perhaps for the tiny reason that they are not the same thing, Terje. One is advertising while the other can’t help but be polemical or perceived to be.

    The real problem in broadcasting is that the licensing system restricts access and the government spends too much on the task.

    In addition to having a government broadcaster with 15% of the media market?

    If there were 200 channels I wouldn’t much care if the government broadcast parliament on one of them.

    Perhaps, with a fixed camera that was on 24/7 and we wouldn’t have to spend money a full time crew. I might go for that.

    There’s one way to have lefties support the sale of the ABC. Have Andrew Bolt run the editorial and news content 🙂 You’d get unanimous support from the left faster than you can say AGW.

  19. I live in Sydney. I’m pretty sure I still have a TV somewhere in the house. In terms of channels it is something like this:-

    SBS – government funded with some private sponsorship
    ABC – government funded
    SEVEN – private
    NINE – private
    TEN – private
    34 – community

    In the move to HDTV there will be more channels. However the government has been careful to ensure that we don’t have any new competitors. For instance on HDTV the ABC will run two channels.

    SBS and ABC also run radio stations. As far as I know none of the private TV operators are allowed to run radio stations.

  20. In the move to HDTV there will be more channels. However the government has been careful to ensure that we don’t have any new competitors. For instance on HDTV the ABC will run two channels.

    Terje, stick to gold. Your ignorance is showing. The ABC has been broadcasting two channels for over a year.

    There is also a handful of data casting channels including four that broadcast from parliament (House, Senate and committees) on digital 44. They are provided by Broadcast Australia, part of Macquarie Communications Infrastructure Group.

    Then there’s the 50 or so channels available on Foxtel.

    I might add that the UK also has a large number of channels. That doesn’t alter the fact that the government owns the BBC and operates a “truth” tribunal, neither of which is justified.

  21. you don’t have 200 channels in Oz?

    No trinifar TV is shit is oz. In fact I gave up watching it because it’s so crappy.

    It’s like the US was in 1990.

    In the US at least HBO etc would turn into soft porn channels after 10 pm. they can’t even do that here. They also run ads on cable. What’s worse is that if you pirate cable they actually arrest you here, so i would never try that. I don’t think I ever paid for full cable in the US as like everyone else I felt I had a god given right to it for free.

  22. Ah, facts versus rhetoric. The argument strikes again.

    Fact – Channel 4 is NOT a government channel
    Fact – Ofcom, although receiving government funds is not government run.

    AGW is a con. Look at the facts and compare with the rhetoric.

  23. Not like the BBC ownership format. That’s correct. It has a US PBS format, which means it is co-funded by the government and donations.

    Ofcom, although receiving government funds is not government run.

    We know that. It has a sort of structure similar to the courts.

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