Channel 4 cleared of bias for replacing PM with ice block in debate

Jim Waterson Media editor

Channel 4 has been cleared of bias by the media regulator after replacing Boris Johnson with a melting block of ice during last week’s leadership debate on the climate crisis.

The Conservatives had complained to Ofcom that last week’s broadcast broke strict broadcasting impartiality rules after Channel 4 News refused to accept the former environment secretary Michael Gove as a stand-in for the prime minister in the seven-way debate.

Gove then attempted to argue his way on to the programme, in a move that largely overshadowed the actual substance of the debate about the future of the planet.

(January 1, 1959) 


The physicist Edward Teller tells the American Petroleum Institute (API) a 10% increase in CO2 will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. “I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”


(January 1, 1965) 


Lyndon Johnson’s President’s Science Advisory Committee states that “pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air”, with effects that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings”. Summarising the findings, the head of the API warned the industry: “Time is running out.”


(January 2, 1970) 


Shell and BP begin funding scientific research in Britain this decade to examine climate impacts from greenhouse gases.


(January 1, 1977) 


A recently filed lawsuit claims Exxon scientists told management in 1977 there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases.


(January 1, 1981) 


An internal Exxon memo warns “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population)”.


(January 1, 1988) 


The Nasa scientist James Hansen testifies to the US Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”. In the US presidential campaign, George Bush Sr says: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect … As president, I intend to do something about it.”


(January 2, 1988) 


confidential report prepared for Shell’s environmental conservation committee finds CO2 could raise temperatures by 1C to 2C over the next 40 years with changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”. It urges rapid action by the energy industry. “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation,” it states.


(January 1, 1989) 


Exxon, Shell, BP and other fossil fuel companies establish the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group that challenges the science on global warming and delays action to reduce emissions.


(January 1, 1990) 


Exxon funds two researchers, Dr Fred Seitz and Dr Fred Singer, who dispute the mainstream consensus on climate science. Seitz and Singer were previously paid by the tobacco industry and questioned the hazards of smoking. Singer, who has denied being on the payroll of the tobacco or energy industry, has said his financial relationships do not influence his research.


(January 1, 1991) 


Shell’s public information film Climate of Concern acknowledges there is a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation”.


(January 1, 1992) 


At the Rio Earth summit, countries sign up to the world’s first international agreement to stabilise greenhouse gases and prevent dangerous manmade interference with the climate system. This establishes the UN framework convention on climate change. Bush Sr says: “The US fully intends to be the pre-eminent world leader in protecting the global environment.”


(January 1, 1997) 


Two month’s before the Kyoto climate conference, Mobil (later merged with Exxon) takes out an ad in The New York Times titled Reset the Alarm, which says: “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”


(January 1, 1998) 


The US refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocol after intense opposition from oil companies and the GCC.


(January 1, 2009) 


The US senator Jim Inhofe, whose main donors are in the oil and gas industry, leads the “Climategate” misinformation attack on scientists on the opening day of the crucial UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which ends in disarray.


(January 1, 2013) 


A study by Richard Heede, published in the journal Climatic Change, reveals 90 companies are responsible for producing two-thirds of the carbon that has entered the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age in the mid-18th century.


(January 1, 2016) 


The API removes a claim on its website that the human contribution to climate change is “uncertain”, after an outcry.


(January 1, 2017) 


Exxon, Chevron and BP each donate at least $500,000 for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.


(January 1, 2019) 


Mohammed Barkindo, secretary general of Opec, which represents Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Iran and several other oil states, says climate campaigners are the biggest threat to the industry and claims they are misleading the public with unscientific warnings about global warming.

Jonathan WattsGarry Blight and Pablo Gutiérrez


Johnson’s head of communications complained to Ofcom about the decision to exclude Gove and alleged a widespread pattern of anti-Tory bias at the channel, referencing the head of news Dorothy Byrne’s criticisms of the prime minister. Conservative party sources also threatened a review of Channel 4’s public service remit in the next parliament as retaliation.

Ofcom ruled that it was perfectly fair to insist only Johnson could represent the Conservatives given “other participants had only agreed to attend on the basis that they would be debating against other leaders”.

They also concluded the decision to replace Johnson – and the Brexit party leader Nigel Farage – with an ice sculpture did not breach due impartiality rules. Ofcom concluded this was a “relatively low-key” way of empty-chairing the politicians – hinting it could have taken a different view if, as had been suggested in advance, the ice sculptures had been carved in the shape of the politicians.


Under the first-past-the-post voting system, tactical voting is when you vote for a party that you would not normally support in order to stop another party from winning. For example, in a constituency where the result is usually tight between a party you dislike and a party you somewhat dislike, and the party you support usually comes a distant third and has no chance of winning, you might choose to lend your vote to the party you somewhat dislike. This avoids ‘“wasting” your vote on a party that cannot win the seat, and boosting the chances that the party you dislike most will lose.


Ofcom “took into account that the globe ice sculpture was not a representation of the prime minister personally, and little editorial focus was given to it, either visually or in references made by the presenter or debate participants”.

The regulator made clear there was no obligation for any of the political parties or politicians to participate in any particular programme – and broadcasters could empty-chair politicians as long as they found other ways to ensure standards of due impartiality were met.

The regulator concluded that Channel 4 had fulfilled its obligation to represent Conservative viewpoints during the programme itself, and through a subsequent report on the following evening’s Channel 4 News.


Labour's 'green new deal' - or 'green industrial revolution' - proposes a massive programme of state investment to rapidly decarbonise the economy, creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs, and transforming the way people live - from upgrading the housing stock to revitalising public transport, tackling the UK’s air pollution crisis to moving towards a more sustainable agricultural model.

Although the initial investment would be huge, advocates say that would be dwarfed by the cost of not tackling the escalating climate crisis and point to wide-ranging economic benefits in the medium term, positioning the UK at the forefront of the emerging green industries, which are expected to dominate in the coming years.

Crucially, the green new deal would tie radical environmental action to a worker-led “just transition”, where the rapid move from a carbon-based economy to a sustainable system is led by – and benefits – ordinary people. Its advocates say jobs in carbon-intensive industries would be replaced by – among others – those in wind, solar, house building and transport infrastructure.

Labour's manifesto put the green new deal at the centre of its 2019 election campaign. The idea has also been championed by leading Democratic presidential candidates in the US 2020 race. Internationally, its supporters say any such proposal must also recognise the west’s historic responsibility for the crisis - and its global nature - and support a just transition in the developing world through transfers of technology and finance, while welcoming migrants.

Matthew Taylor


Ofcom’s rules on due impartiality require coverage of alternative views that is “adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme”, rather than providing equal airtime to all sides of a debate.

Documents provided to Ofcom by Channel 4 show that the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also tried to send a deputy because of her commitment to appearing at first minister’s questions in Edinburgh on the same day, but was told that this would not be possible. Instead she dashed to the train from Holyrood and made it to the London studio just in time for the 7pm broadcast.