By Dom Serafini

OK, here’s a common sense question for you. On one side we have industries, such as big oil, coal, pharmaceutical, etc., that tend to pollute the environment but present pollution like it’s the best thing since sliced bread. On the other side, we have advocacy groups that try to clean up the environment by denouncing the danger posed by pollution. When talks between these two sides hit the global warming argument, who are ya gonna believe?

This introduction serves as a preamble to the recent controversy over a questionable scientific documentary first shown on U.K.’s Channel 4 on March 8, 2007.

Last July the British television watchdog agency, OFCOM, managed to criticize the network for “unfair treatment” of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was depicted in The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary it aired.

Now, my first question is: Does Channel 4 have the right to broadcast a controversial program? It certainly does. No censorship is ever wanted here. And I agree with the Guardian’s Leo Hickman, who stated, “Channel 4 was fully entitled to air a program asking critical questions about anthropocentric [man-made] climate change.” I’m also in agreement with OFCOM, which recognized Channel 4’s right to show the documentary and that broadcasters should be able to challenge orthodoxies and explore “controversial” subject matter.

Second question: Should information be considered public goods or merchandise? Third question: Does Channel 4, an over-the air licensed broadcaster, have the right to show “questionable” scientific programs? And, if by doing so, does it fulfill its general mandate for using public airwaves? The answer to this latter question could be implicit since one can argue that a “controversial” show and a “questionable” show are one and the same.

Then, let’s bring the “disinformation” factor in and, with it, the tobacco industry’s handling of a similar “controversy.” Here what comes up is that, despite the tobacco industry’s well-documented disinformation apparatus, today, no TV station would air a documentary showing that smoking doesn’t pose a danger to people. In the past, however, television stations went along with the tobacco industry’s disinformation campaign and, as we all know, the problem persisted.

Clearly the television industry, especially outlets that rely on public airwaves, has some responsibility towards the common good. But, how can one differentiate between “controversy” and “questionable” programs?

Similar to global warming, in the great debate about damage done by cigarette smoking, there were scientists with opposing viewpoints, who were willing to put their hands into the fire, like Roman soldier Mucius Scaevola did in 508 B.C., in order to prove a point.

Throughout the years, tobacco companies have worked hard to develop a system of front groups and allies that allow them to stay in the shadows and have others carry their message publicly, perhaps even unwittingly. For example, in May 2003, the British Medical Journal published a study by James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat that claimed to find only a weak association between secondhand smoke exposure and heart disease and lung cancer. The study was funded by the now-defunct Center for Indoor Air Research, which was created by several tobacco companies.

Last year, a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Change,” illustrated how ExxonMobil has adopted the tobacco industry’s disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to flout the scientific understanding of climate change. According to the UCS report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.

Now let’s go back to OFCOM’s initial ruling (Bulletin Issue No. 114), which, in essence, stated that the program manipulated and misrepresented the views of at least two of its main interviewees who had earlier complained about having their views distorted by British TV producer Martin Durkin in order to fit his central thesis that global warming is “a lie” and “the biggest scam of modern times.” Carl Wunsch of MIT, who appeared in the documentary, was quoted as saying: “A film claiming to be a science documentary that is really a nonscientific political tract is poisonous.”

This is the third time that the 46-year-old Durkin, who has been widely depicted as an ideological hater of the environmental movement, landed Channel 4 in hot water. The first time was in 1997, for his Against Nature (the environment cripples economic development) and he did it, again, in 1998 with Storm in a D-Cup (danger of silicone breast implants had been exaggerated).

OFCOM found that, although “intemperate,” the 76-minute documentary had not “materially misled the audience so as to cause harm or offense,” but it had breached its (for commercial TV) Broadcasting Code in regard to fairness and impartiality (the public broadcaster BBC has its own code of conduct).

In view of the misinformation brigade that is lurking around, every responsible TV network should be careful before transmitting programs that are questionable in their findings.