Changing the way that environment and development issues are represented in the media
Submitting InstitutionOpen University
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Policy and Administration, Political Science, Sociology
Summary of the impact
Research by geographers at The Open University (OU) in the three research
clusters, Space and Power, Culture and Practice and Environment
and Politics, has led to changes in how global issues, including
environmental change, are portrayed in the media, particularly by the BBC.
Building on the notion of `interdependence', the research generated fresh
thinking at a strategic level, leading to changes in the tone of
broadcasts and the commissioning of new programmes, as well as introducing
discussion of `interdependence' into wider public debate. These impacts
have been rooted in geographical thinking about spatial relationships in
producing places and publics, and media representations of these
Global environmental change is one of the most pressing issues facing the
world today. Yet there seems little will to confront that challenge,
either among politicians or among publics. Research at The Open University
has addressed the mass media, specifically the BBC, as a key means by
which this inertia might be challenged. There are three main interlocking
aspects to this research.
The first is rooted in Massey's (Professor, The Open University,
1982-2009, Emeritus Professor 2009-present) theorisation of relationality
[3.3], which highlights the importance of transnational relations
in producing people and places. Recognising and communicating the
interdependencies inherent in these geographical relations is an important
part of acknowledging and representing geographies of responsibility [3.4].
It is crucial to developing the fuller social and cultural imagination,
ethics and philosophy required by the anthropocene, as the impact of human
activity on the life of the planet becomes clearer [3.2; Nigel
Clark, Senior Lecturer, The Open University, 2000-12].
The second draws on Barnett's (Reader and Professor, The Open University,
2003-13) theorisation of the relationship between media and democracy [3.1],
which highlighted the need to engage diverse publics, as well as
identifying the indeterminacy of these publics.
It is from this work that the third aspect of research has developed.
Smith (Senior Lecturer, The Open University, 2000-present) identified the
need for a new vocabulary to move debate and action about global
environmental change forward. His work confirms that there is public
disengagement from the environmental messaging of government and the
research and policy community [3.5; 3.6], and that this is not
simply because the public is not adequately informed. Smith developed an
`entangled web' model where, for example, climate change is seen as being
constructed globally through interactions between media, a host of other
actors, and diverse publics who already engage with climate change in
innovative ways. This research led to the successful (2006) Economic and
Social Research Council (ESRC) grant on Interdependence (Smith and Clark)
and to joint publications produced for academic [3.4] and
non-academic audiences [5.8].
The action research undertaken by Joe Smith between 1997 and 2013 saw him
co-directing 12 Real World seminars with senior media decision
makers, researchers and the policy community to discuss media handling of
issues such as risk, sustainability and representations of the global
South. These seminars were funded by Department of Environment (now
Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs), WWF UK, Bowring Group,
Vivendi, the Tyndall Centre and the ESRC Global Environmental Change
Programme. Building on earlier research into public disengagement from the
main environmental messaging of government and the research and policy
community [3.5] Smith used qualitative research methods
(recordings, note-taking and interviews) during the seminars, to diagnose
challenges to effective media handling of complex global issues [3.6].
Thus, drawing upon excellent research undertaken by erstwhile (Barnett,
Clark and Massey) and current (Smith) members of the Geography department
at The OU, cultural imaginations around environmental change and global
interdependencies have been opened up. The research has had impact in
directly informing richer representations of patterns of social, economic
and ecological interdependence, and of more dynamic interrelations.
References to the research
1. Barnett, C. (2003) Culture and Democracy: Media, Space and
Representation, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press. ISBN:
2. Clark, N. (2011) Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet,
London, Sage. ISBN: 0-7619-5724-3, 978-0-7619-5724-9
4. Smith J., Clark N. and Yusoff K. (2007) Interdependence, Geography
Compass vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 340-359 ISSN 1749-8198.2007.00015.x
5. Smith, J. (ed.) (2000) The Daily Globe: Environmental Change, the
Public and the Media, London, Earthscan. ISBN: 978-1853836640
All journal articles appear in peer-reviewed journals. The monographs
have also been subject to peer review prior to publication and all have
had considerable significance in their field.
*2013-2016: £461,000. Awarded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
(AHRC) to Joe Smith (Principal Investigator) and Co-Investigators: G.
Revill and Z. Zdrahal for a project entitled Earth in vision: BBC
coverage of environmental change 1960-2010.
*2011-12: £65,000. Awarded by the AHRC)/Department for Culture Media and
Sport Placement Fellowship Scheme to Joe Smith (Principal Investigator;
Appointed Fellow: Bradon Smith) for a project entitled Culture and
2011-12: £7,500. Awarded by Frederick Soddy Trust to Joe Smith (Principal
Investigator) and Co-Investigators: R. Tyszczuk, N. Clark, M. Butcher) for
a project entitled Atlas of Interdependence.
Awarded by the Ashden Trust Culture and Climate Change to Joe Smith
(Principal Investigator); for a PhD studentship (Student: K.C. Payne),
publication and podcasts.
2009: £7000. Awarded by the Geographical
Association to Joe Smith (Principal Investigator) for a project entitled Interdependence
*2008-10: £15,000. Awarded by the ESRC to Janet Newman (Principal
Investigator) and Co-Investigators: J. Clarke, C. Barnett for a Research
Seminar Series entitled Emergent Publics.
*2006-08: £22,000. Awarded by Natural Environment Research Council
(NERC)/ESRC Research Seminar to Joe Smith (Principal Investigator) and
Co-Investigator: N. Clark for a Seminar Series entitled Interdependence
2001-03: £16,000. Awarded by Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
to Joe Smith (Principal Investigator) for a project entitled Cambridge
Media and Environment Programme Seminars.
*1996-97: £5,000. Awarded by the ESRC Global Environmental Change
programme to Joe Smith (Principal Investigator) in support of the first Cambridge
Media and Environment seminars, which became the BBC Real World
* These grants were awarded at the end of a competitive process. All
grants were peer reviewed.
Details of the impact
Impacts of research at The Open University on environment, development
and the media fall into three areas:
A. Communicating `interdependence' and global environmental
change in wider media
The notion of `interdependence' as a way of theorising transnational
relations has informed public debates via:
i. a series of sell-out public Interdependence Day events held at the
Royal Geographic Society (RGS) (350 participants on each occasion) and
Southbank's Bargehouse (1000 participants);
ii. three Interdependence Reports, produced with the New
Economics Foundation (the last in 2009; 5.6), which gained wide
attention and obtained coverage in a range of news outlets. The Secretary
for State for International Development at the time, Hilary Benn, who
contributed to the volume Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth [5.7]
which directly drew on their arguments (e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8461727.stm,
17 January 2010). The reports thus shaped modes of political thought.
B. Impacts on content and tone of mainstream programming
Since 2008, Smith's arguments about the need to expand the range of tones
and voices on climate change [5.3; 5.5] have led to a shift in the
BBC's approach to programming. Specific seasons and programmes widened the
range of contributors and perspectives (more global; more varied in
content; more direct testimony and thus engaging diverse publics) in
response to the seminars and the research underpinning them.
Complementing his work on the Real World seminars, Smith worked
as a consultant on climate change for BBC Vision and News. Since 2004 he
has advised senior decision makers on climate change in order to foster
the cultural imaginations required in the contemporary anthropocene
period. Smith and colleagues' seminar work underpinned the commissioning
of groundbreaking material such as the world's first climate change
political thriller, Burn Up (BBC 2, 2008), and a Springwatch
Special (BBC 2, 2010). Burn Up launched with 2.6 million
viewers and 12.3% market share (46% higher than BBC 2's prime time
average), and average viewing figures for the Springwatch Special
were 2 million. Smith was academic adviser for both programmes. TV
producer John Lloyd (originator Blackadder and QI), who
participated at the Real World seminars, stressed their
`astonishing' impact, commenting that `none of this would have happened
without Joe Smith' and concluding that `It is a textbook example of how
essential it is to continue funding "pure" academic research because,
without it, the "practical" world would hardly change at all'.
Shifts in BBC programming have been directly attributed to the seminars
organised by Smith, and often specifically to him, by academics [5.4];
5.9]; reports [5.1]; and media, including two Mail on
Sunday stories (19 November 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2063737/BBCs-Mr-Climate-Change-15-000-grants-university-rocked-global-warning-scandal.html;
26 November 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2066706/BBC-sought-advice-global-warming-scientists-economy-drama-music--game-shows.html).
For instance, a storm of climate contrarian newspaper and blog activity
around the seminars charged Smith and his BBC partners with shaping BBC
policy on climate change:
`Billed as its "scientific adviser" was Dr Joe Smith of The Open
University, the self-described "action researcher" who, as Harrabin's
partner in the CMEP [Cambridge Media Environment Programme], had helped
organise all those seminars to brief BBC staff on climate issues, notably
the gathering in 2006 which played such an important part in leading the
BBC to adopt a more committed stance in its coverage of global warming.'
(Booker, 2011, p. 73; 5.2)
(Also see: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100223342/the-bbc-long-ago-became-a-mouthpiece-for-green-lunatics-why-does-it-pretend-otherwise/.)
failing to represent the nature of the meetings accurately, these pieces
do demonstrate the continued and ongoing impact of Smith's research on BBC
C. Directly commissioning new work
Based on research insights about the need to engage diverse publics in
new ways, Smith also co-commissioned five hours of BBC World Service radio
programming as part of the Creative Climate project (Climate
Connections, 2009 and 2010,
and six BBC World News broadcasts (Hope in a Changing Climate,
& and Earth Reporters, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-radio-and-tv-13359848).
These programmes covered pressing issues at the intersection of
environmental research and action.
The reach of these programmes is evidenced by the audience figures:
advertisers on the channel accept viewing figures of 70 million on first
BBC World transmissions, and the BBC World Service Radio slots reached
approximately 40 million listeners. The TV and radio shows reached further
audiences (tens of thousands) via their free online screening on the Open
University, BBC and TVE platforms. These commissions were directly
informed by the research outputs outlined in section 2. They pursued the
research conclusions regarding the need for more plural and dynamic
representations of environmental change by means of a diary motif that is
threaded throughout the broadcast and web content in the Creative Climate
In a mould-breaking move, the research and policy communities are
represented in the films by a much more diverse body of leading
contributors, including researchers and policy experts based in the global
South and, specifically, young women scientists. Smith (working with BBC
Comedy Executive Producer Jon Plowman) also commissioned ten short films
arising out of a competition for young film-making talent http://www.bbc.co.uk/filmnetwork/features/creative_climate_shorts_2.
Collectively, these have been viewed at least 20,000 times online, and
screened at film festivals, including the British Film Institute Festival,
Futures Film Festival (winner) and Screentest 2013, and are evidence of
Smith's role in producing new cultural imaginations of environmental
Sources to corroborate the impact
- BBC Trust (2011) BBC Trust Review of Impartiality and Accuracy of
the BBC's Coverage of Science, London, BBC Trust. Available at:
- Booker, C. (2011) The BBC and Climate Change: A Triple Betrayal,
London, The Global Warming Policy Foundation. Available at: http://www.thegwpf.org/images/stories/gwpf-reports/booker-bbc.pdf
- Butler, R., Smith, J., Margolies, E and Tyszczuk, R. (2011) Culture
and Climate Change: Recordings, Cambridge, Shed.
- Hulme, M. (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change,
Cambridge University Press (Section 7.2).
- International Broadcasting Trust (IBT) (2011) Submission to the BBC
Trust's Review of Impartiality Science Reporting, IBT London.
- Simms, A., Johnson, V. and Smith, J. (2009) The Consumption
Explosion: The Third UK Interdependence Report, London/Milton
Keynes, New Economics Foundation and The Open University.
- Simms, A. and Smith, J. (2008) Do Good Lives have to Cost the
Earth? London, Constable Robinson. It has chapters from 18
`household names' including David Cameron and Hilary Benn. David
Miliband, as Foreign Secretary, has reflected on the term
`interdependence' in his speeches from 2008 (for a recent example see
conclusion of this speech http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/07/david-milibands-ditchley-lecture-after-decade-war/,
- Tyszczuk, R., Smith, J., Butcher, M. and Clark, N. (2012) ATLAS of
Interdependence: Architecture, Geography and Change in an
Interdependent World, London, Black Dog Publications. Won external
funding to support visual elements and web version.
- Blogs: http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2011/11/20/who-is-joe-smith.html
- Individuals that can be contacted: BBC Environment Analyst (the impact
on BBC News), Director, International Broadcasting Trust (commissioned
research and IBT briefings from Smith, and collaborated with him in
organising the seminars), CEO Quite Interesting Limited (impact on
programme makers), President AE Networks (how the research informed
strategic thinking at BBC), and Professor, Kings College (the research
and its relationship with the seminars, consultancy and impact of