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Michael McCarthy: Ofcom's judgement failed to address the key question... was this programme accurate?

Tuesday 22 July 2008 00:00 BST

Forget the headlines for a moment. The essence of a matter often lies in the small print, and the most fascinating aspect of the Ofcom judgement on The Great Global Warming Swindle is that the broadcasting regulator declares itself – quite remarkably, one might think – unable to pronounce on whether the contents of the programme were accurate or not.

You have to plough through screeds of type to page 14 to find it, but there it is, in the third paragraph. Ofcom only takes a view on the accuracy of news programmes – Ofcom's italics. It is not required to set accuracy standards for "other types of programming", which, it says, covers Martin Durkin's documentary.

So what the regulator proceeds to do is make a weird judgement, based on its remit for protecting the public from "offensive and harmful material" – what, freak shows? dog-fighting films? – and find that the Durkin programme did not "materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence".

Sounds at first like a victory for the boys at Channel 4, eh? But never mind the harm and offence, did TGGWS mislead the audience or didn't it? That's the point, and it's the point that Ofcom shies away from answering.

For although the issues of fairness and impartiality are of course very important, the essence of the complaints about the programme from many of Britain's senior scientists was about accuracy. They alleged, in enormous detail, and with reams of backup evidence, that what was stated was, in many cases, simply not true. Ofcom has refused them judgement.

The appeal of Durkin's programme to some people, especially on the right, is understandable. One of its core contentions, that global warming has gone from being a scientific theory to a political ideology, is largely true – let's not kid ourselves – and the allegation that dissent is often not tolerated is true also. But it is a world away from that, to proclaiming that the current scientific theory is falsified; and if you are calling people liars, you need to have accurate information on your own side.

Ofcom has at least performed the service of underlining how the programme misrepresented the views of the chief scientist, treated other scientists unfairly and was in breach of the Broadcasting Code with regard to impartiality. But truth matters most of all, and in failing to pronounce on the vital matter of accuracy, Ofcom has given a classic example of a national standard-setting body failing lamentably to live up to what was expected of it.

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