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Broadcasting and the Environment: Communicating the Issues

Ladies and gentlemen,

The environmental movement, and concepts such as sustainable development, are still young.

In the immediate post-World War Two era, the emphasis was on economic recovery. The world’s resources seemed limitless.

Then during the 1960s the first stirrings of public concern became apparent. The spontaneous combustion of Love Canal in the US because it was so polluted, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, there are among the milestones that are seen as being the start of the modern environmental movement.

The growing concern of many the citizens, predominantly in the affluent societies of Europe and North America, ‘filtered up’ to governments. This culminated in the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which in turn led to the creation of the United Nation Environment Programme as the environmental conscience of the UN system.

UNEP’s mission is clear:

‘To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations’.

Raising public awareness of global environmental issues was therefore one of the fundamental tasks assigned to UNEP at Stockholm. This is something that UNEP has taken seriously ever since.

UNEP has always tried to adopt a sophisticated approach to media relations.

• Its Division of Communications and Public Information provides media information through press releases, backgrounders, briefings, and by organising interviews and press conferences.

• Its web site www.unep.org offers extensive background about the environment and UNEP, as well as extensive links to other environment-related web sites

• UNEP coordinates World Environment Day each year to raise awareness of the environment and what people can do, and it awards prizes such as the Global 500 awards and the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize that reward people and institutions who set outstanding examples of environmentally friendly activity.

• UNEP also runs a vigorous Children and Youth programme to engage tomorrow’s leaders in the work of UNEP, and a highly successful and visible photographic competition, Focus on your World, sponsored by Canon. The fourth Focus on Your World competition is just being launched, and those of you who travel in and out of Heathrow Airport in the next year will see several of the most powerful images displayed in Terminal 4, thanks to a collaboration between UNEP, Canon and Hewlett Packard.

• UNEP also produces a wide range of publications, including cutting edge environmental assessments such as the Global Environmental Outlook, which have received wide media coverage.

• Regularly in the news at the moment, for obvious reasons, is the work of UNEP’s post-conflict assessment unit, which has recently published studies on the war in Afghanistan and the state of the environment of the occupied territories of Palestine. It is currently engaged in a study on the potential—and actual—environmental implications of the current war in Iraq. Incidentally, all these publications are available from our UK-based distributor, SMI, or through the UNEP online bookshop.

Last, but not least, UNEP is involved, and has been since 1984, with the editorially independent Television Trust for the Environment—TVE—which produces a weekly environment bulletin—Earth Report—broadcast to an estimated 700 million homes throughout the world, principally via the BBC World channel.

I think it is worth emphasising that phrase: ‘editorially independent’.

UNEP has always respected the need for editorial independence in its dealings with the media. That is why I think we’ve had such success, not just in our relationship with TVE, but with the world media as a whole, in getting environmental stories out to the public.

TVE’s mission is to take a lead from UNEP’s programmatic priorities and turn them into stories that will stimulate the concern of a mass audience. Our shared aim is to open minds and stimulate new ways of thinking and acting.

Together, UNEP and TVE have had some noteworthy successes:

• In the 1980s, a programme called Seeds of Despair was commissioned to highlight the problem of land degradation or ‘desertification’. What it became was the first report on the famine in Ethiopia and the environmental causes behind it. The subsequent news coverage and the campaign to feed the starving was a dramatic example both of the power of the media to motivate people, and the power of ordinary people to act and make changes when they are motivated.

• Another example of successful change through the media is the TV coverage that UNEP helped to inspire about the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica. It had actually been known for several years that CFCs triggered a chemical process that was destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere. But it was only when it became headline news on TV throughout the world that governments heeded UNEP’s call to act. The result was the Montreal Protocol, which has seen the world’s governments act together to avert a crisis and enable scientists to now be able to predict that the ozone layer could be restored in a few decades.

The lesson from this latter example is twofold.

• One: that through the UN, meaningful action can indeed be taken to safeguard the environment: an important message to bear in mind in today’s climate, when cynicism about the possibility of multilateral action seems to be growing .

• Second: environmental issues are not only important to our lives, but, given the right coverage, people are interested, and the media can have a powerful impact for the good of the planet.

This message is all the more important when we consider the current state of the planet.

Because, the sad truth is that successes such as the Montreal Protocol are rare.

The state of the world’s natural resource base is far worse than when UNEP came into being over 30 years ago. With few exceptions, the trends are downwards. For most of the world, it is business as usual where the environment is concerned. Destructive development remains the norm.

However, I think we can also safely say that without three decades of environmental coverage in the media, without the action of organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, which are now household names—as well as by organisations such as UNEP, which are not!—and without the active concern of hundreds of millions of ordinary people, things would be a lot worse.

I mentioned UNEP’s GEO reports earlier. The most recent one, GEO-3, released last year prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, emphasises the many environmental challenges the world faces:

• Sever water shortages already exist in many parts of the world, and they are predicted to increase.

• Land degradation is reducing soil fertility and adding to projected difficulties in producing enough food for the Earth’s growing human population.

• The Earth’s forests are disappearing.

• Biological diversity is shrinking as species become extinct.

• Many of our seas are becoming deserts due to overfishing.

• Urban air pollution is reaching crisis levels in many megacities in the developing world.

• Climate change seems to be making environmental disasters more frequent and more severe.

• Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher than they have been for 160,000 years.

• And new research shows that we seem to be destabilising the global nitrogen cycle as well.

That’s not a very happy list.

The challenge for us—for UNEP and the UN, and for you, as broadcasters—is to bring these statistics to life, to show how and why they are relevant to people’s lives—and not just to the people of the developing world who are bearing the brunt of these problems, but to everyone—to find new and interesting ways of presenting these stories, and, perhaps even more important, to find ways to inspire people to make the changes in lifestyles and in government policies that we believe are necessary for a healthier, safer and more equitable future for humankind.

That is why I think it is important that you, as broadcasters, make a conscious decision to keep environmental issues high on your reporting agenda.

People need to be informed and involved.

Your business as broadcasters is about communicating with people. They are your audience. They are your market.

UNEP’s work on the environment is ultimately also all about people. A healthy environment means a healthy society. An unhealthy environment is the cause of poverty, disease and death, and conflict.

That is why, as a society, we are concerned with things like restoring the ozone layer, with slowing global warming, with conserving biodiversity.

Environmental resources are the foundation for society’s future. The broadcast media are part—a very important part—of society.

As a former director of UNEP once said: “I know of no successful environmental action that was not preceded by public demand.”

The broadcast media is perhaps the most potent force for informing and shaping public opinion.

The lessons of the past are clear. We cannot wait for governments or the corporate world to take the lead. It has to come from civil society: from NGOs, schools, colleges, trade unions, religious groups, etc.

Above all, it has to come from the concerned individual. I don’t mean members of environmental NGOs. I mean the average person out there watching the TV or sitting at their PC.

Maybe they feel they have no influence or interest in what happens in the world.

We have to reach these people and engage them with compelling stories and attractively packaged information about the environmental issues that are shaping their lives and those of their children.

That is the challenge.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Not so long ago environment was a new, fresh issue.

Now there is perhaps a feeling that the environment is old hat. ‘Been there, done that’.

Or perhaps there’s just fatigue with the litany of depressing statistics, and the apparent failure of the international community to get to grips with some of the major issues like climate change, for instance.

Also, when environmental issues were still fresh news, there was not such a mind-blowing choice of TV channels and other media to choose from. The pace of change in information technology over the past decade has been breathtaking.

I’m not an expert on new—or old—media, so I’ll leave it to you to address the challenges presented by the breakneck pace of change in broadcasting:

• the opportunities presented by the variety of new portals open to the public, versus the chances that your efforts are dissipated because of that very variety,

• the opportunities presented by the fact that programme making is getting cheaper and easier, versus the fact that too much poor quality programming is being made to fit niche audiences.

These are very tricky questions that, thankfully, I don’t have to answer.

Nevertheless, the bottom line, whatever the delivery system, is how to grab the attention of that busy, distracted person in front of his or her TV set, or computer.

I’d just like to make this one point: the new media—Internet, interactive TV, and whatever else is in the pipeline with the coming of Broadband—present tremendous potential for building communities for environmental action.

The environmental rallying cry has always been ‘think globally, act locally’. The weakness of this invocation is: what if local action isn’t benefiting the global environment? What point is there of cleaning up your act if your neighbours don’t reciprocate? Local activists need to be in touch.

The new media—Internet, interactive TV etc—allow groups and individuals who are facing the same challenges—whether it’s primate conservation or micro-hydropower schemes—to link up, compare notes, bypass governments and coordinate action.

They also represent a vast new reservoir of stories.

Which, after all, is your business.

We hear a lot these days that people have lost interest in environmental issues.

UNEP does not subscribe to this point of view. Nor, I suspect do you..

So long as parents care about the future of their children, so long as communities plan for their future, there will be interest in the environment, and in stories about how it is being affected and, perhaps more importantly, how people are making changes for the better, improving their local environment, working for a better world.

Your job, as producers and broadcasters is to make those stories as appealing as possible.

In today’s broadcasting climate, where the scramble for attention is unprecedentedly intense, where there seems to be a tendency for ‘dumbing down’, for appealing to the lowest common denominator, that is a serious challenge.

For example:

Documentary series such as Life on Earth and Trials of Life have made David Attenborough the icon of natural history broadcasting. His programmes get the BBC’s best ratings and highest sales of all their factual programming. But, interestingly, when he tackled serious environmental coverage last year with a 90-minute special on the state of the environment prior to WSSD—which incidentally was very good, and given plenty of publicity support—it was, by Attenborough’s standards, a ratings failure, getting half his usual audience.

The reasons for that, I am sure, will form the core of today’s discussions.

I understand, from sources in the TV industry, that it is common knowledge that if you are a programme commissioner and you want to put your career at risk, run an environmental series. If you want to commit suicide, make it about ‘sustainable development’ in the developing world.

Actually, it seems that, at the moment, the tide is out on serious documentary making as a whole.

So, that is the challenge we have to face, as environmentalists and as broadcasters.

How can we combat the apparent handicap that comes with what one UK television controller once dubbed “the dreaded ‘E’ word”?

How can we make environmental coverage attractive and compelling?

How do we get away from the perception that environmental issues have already been covered, that they are old news, that the environment is a boring subject and coverage of it is too preachy and weighed down with jargon?

Those are not easy questions to answer.

Perhaps the answer lies with the people who are being targeted. The general public.

Opinion polls consistently show that issues such as environment and health are top public concerns.

But marketing surveys also tell us that average viewing times are as little as four minutes.

So, how do we grab the attention of people who are interested and distracted?

I think the answer lies in following the basic precepts of news reporting.

Stories must be new, true and interesting.

Yes, we are mostly familiar with the environmental issues facing us. And there can often be a sense of fatigue, especially when confronted with another story of doom and gloom.

But, the environment, and society’s interaction with it, is dynamic. There are always new developments and new science to report—the new and the true.

And what about ‘the interesting’?

For me, what is perhaps most interesting is how people are rising to the challenges.

What, in our current jargon, we call ‘best practices and success stories’.

Let me just give you one example.

I mentioned earlier one of UNEP’s environment prizes—the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize. Some people liken it to the ‘environmental Nobel Prize’.

This year’s winner is a man called Ashok Khosla.

His company—Development Alternatives—is providing employment for India’s rural poor with the simple goal: to make environmentally sound development a good business proposition.

The story of Ashok Khosla is of one man with a vision, someone who is both inspired and inspiring, who is creating technologies that will not only help change the lives of India’s poor, but which can be transported and replicated across the globe, wherever environmentally-friendly technologies can appropriately be applied.

This encapsulates everything from bricks that don’t need to be fired, thus saving valuable energy, to biodegradable fuel filters made from paper manufactured from recycled cotton waste.

Incidentally, these filters are now being used by Toyota and Mercedes.

The value of people like Dr. Khosla is that they have the power to reach us all—the rural poor of countries like India, who need help in improving their livelihoods, and the wealthy of the developed world who also need help, in the form of inspirational examples as well as appropriate technology, to change our lifestyles.

They provide us with the stories we need not only to bring environmental issues to life, but to give us all little hope.

I know there are thousands of stories like that out there. I think it is our responsibility as environmentalists and broadcasters to find those stories and to share them.

Especially those stories that will, indeed, make a change.

UNEP has a new initiative to look at just this issue, because it does appear that traditional messages coming from governments and pressure groups urging the public to adopt environmentally lifestyles are not working. They need overhauling.

Messages that are piling guilt and despair on people are making them turn off from the environmental message.

Instead of trying to make people feel guilty about their lifestyles and habits, maybe we should be looking at how to make sustainable lifestyles ‘cool’ and fashionable, to show how there are real benefits to living in harmony with the planet.

For instance the European ‘Wash Right’ campaign is extolling the virtues of low-temperature clothes washing by emphasising the benefits to the clothes as well as its energy-saving potential.

Another example: a clothes company in Brazil, Copa Roca, has made a hit out of making clothes from recycled fabrics.

So, I think there are a lot of interesting, inspiring, and new environmental stories out there.

In conclusion then:

Your role as broadcasters is essential. You can bring issues before the public in ways they can understand and identify with. And, as never before, you can provide your audiences, especially by using the Internet in tandem with TV, radio, print etc., with background, with updates, and with the opportunity to interact and become involved.

You can also help governments and organisations like UNEP stay honest. You can recall promises and statements made at meetings like WSSD and let your audiences know when they have, or have not, been followed up.

The media has a crucial role to play in questioning the status quo and transmitting the success stories which can inspire us to build sustainable societies.

The goal is not to raise environmental awareness as and end in itself, but to change attitudes, bring pressure on governments, change lifestyles.

That can be done by telling good stories cleanly, simply, and interestingly.

I believe you can maintain and improve the quality of debate.

Yes, the market for serious documentaries may be limited. And that is a challenge for us all to discuss today, perhaps.

But I think there’s no doubt that people are interested in the issues that affect their lives, at home, and also in the world outside.

News coverage, in particular, has an immediacy and a relevance that is capable of generating lively interest which can then be followed up upon.

One top-running story on a domestic nightly news bulletin is worth a dozen documentaries broadcast on cable channels through the world.

True, you must get the science right. Viewers must not think you are trivialising an issue.

And you must try to cope with the complexity of the environment and development nexus.

But the most important thing is to tell a good story. Something that is new, true and interesting.

And our role, as UNEP? I think that we need, obviously, to keep coming up with the reports, the assessments, the science, on which your reporting is based.

But, beyond that, I think we need to increase the trust between ourselves, as scientists and policy advisers, and you, as media specialists.

We need to make more of an effort to package our information to attract your interest.

And we need to learn to trust your judgement about what is news, what is interesting, and to make more of an effort to provide what you need.

I hope that after today we will have a clearer idea of how we can work better with each other and how we can help each other achieve our mutually compatible goals of communicating effectively with our audience.

Thank you