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On Journalism, Skepticism & a Lawsuit

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Journalists are supposed to be skeptical of everything and everyone.

Three days ago, the National Post ran a news article that made me sit up a bit straighter. Titled Climate agency accused of cooling on global warming as new report lowers predicted temperature increase, it presented a diversity of perspectives regarding climate change and the soon-to-be-released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Journalists are supposed to be skeptical of everything and everyone. We receive dozens of press releases a day from individuals and organizations pushing ideas, causes, and products. Those of us who don’t view the world through a skeptical lens end up being mere regurgitators of someone else’s sales pitch.

In recent years, climate change has been a litmus test for journalists, and the results have been distressing. Rather than remaining skeptical of the-world-is-turning-into-a-fireball rhetoric, rather than informing the public of the ongoing and vigorous climate debate, far too many of my colleagues failed in their duty.

They chose sides. They decided that some experienced, credentialed, and measured voices didn’t deserve to be heard – merely because those voices conflicted with establishment/conventional views.

Joseph Brean, the author of the above-mentioned article, took a different path. Readers therefore encountered these paragraphs toward the end of his article:

Bruce Pardy, an expert on environmental law and governance at Queen’s University, said the IPCC “has run into difficulty again. That is not surprising, since the IPCC claims to be a scientific body that in reality is an intensely political organization.”

He said their mandate to offer policymakers a consensus view from scientists was “asking for trouble” all along, because science is not done by consensus, “but requires independence, disagreement and debate. Climate science is notoriously uncertain.. Moreover, the IPCC appears to believe that it has a role in developing or influencing policy, which is not a scientific matter. Policy depends on values. Values are not scientific. When scientists take positions on policy, they forfeit their claim of being objective observers. Instead, they reflect their own preferences, and can no longer be relied upon as neutral sources of facts.” [ellipsis in the original; article backed up here]

I’ve not heard of Pardy before, but my goodness, this man is talking sense. Bravo for him, for reporter Brean, and for the National Post.

Last week, when my new book, Into the Dustbin, was discussed by Judith Curry and Anthony Watts on their respective blogs, a person named Grant A. Brown left comments suggesting that I lost my job with the National Post as a result of a defamation lawsuit. The implication was that I am careless, that I am persona non grata at the Post, and that the public should therefore think twice about buying my books.

Brown claims to be one of the lawyers on the other side of a libel lawsuit that was launched in 2001 and then dragged on for eight years (the complainant cycled through a number of lawyers during that time).

Twelve years after the article in question was published, and four years after a settlement was reached (in which I admitted to no wrongdoing), one of the lawyers involved is still trying to harm my ability to earn a living. This is not professional conduct.

I have written a response to his false allegations, which may be seen here. The two most important points are these:

1. I was one of more than 100 National Post staffers who received a severance package and a layoff notice weeks after the newspaper was sold in September 2001.

2.  It isn’t unusual for investigative journalists to be threatened with lawsuits and, indeed, to be sued. The article in question was carefully vetted by the newspaper’s experienced libel lawyer prior to publication. Confident in the accuracy of our facts, and that the piece would withstand a legal challenge, we believed the story served the public interest. We therefore published it, despite having been threatened with legal action by one of the individuals it discussed.

For the record, I don’t know National Post reporter Joseph Brean and don’t believe we’ve ever been in contact.

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