Meet a 2015er: Michael Mullane

“I like to think I care about the future of the planet, I have a family. Truth is, if there’s a football match on a Saturday night on one channel and a debate about climate change on the other, I’m not watching the debate”

This is the ninth installment of our “Meet A 2015-er” series that profiles the women and men who are helping to shape the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change negotiations as they take shape this year.

Today we hear a different take on the negotiations process. We sat down with Michael Mullane, Head of Media Online at the European Broadcasting Union/Eurovision on producing a television program regarding the SDGs and climate change.

You work for the European Broadcasting Union, tell us about them.

I work for the EBU, Eurovision. I’m head of Online Media and obviously social media is a big part of that. What we are, on one level, is a professional association of public broadcasters. We have 75 member organizations in 56 countries.

We represent the BBC, Swedish radio. or ZDF in Germany, some of the biggest brands in global media. They see as part of their remit to give something back to society – in the words of a former Director-general of the BBC “to inform, educate, and entertain” and we help them to do that.

What we’re best known for is an event called the Eurovision song contest. It has a huge impact on social networks, something 6 million tweets the day of voting. It underlines and encapsulates a lot of what we do because it highlights a global conversation among all the people in all the countries where we have members.

Mullane at Social Media Workshop at Prix Italia 2014

What brings you to the UN of all places?

Our Dutch member came to us and said, we really ought to be doing something on sustainability and climate change. We hope there will be a live event on the 5th December at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris during the COP. We hope the debate will create something more lasting and more concrete in the long run.

Sounds like a daunting task! Sustainability and climate change are not exactly prime time viewing.

Journalism has not done a great job in terms of engaging people, informing them about what’s happening to this planet. Partly it’s their fault, because the job of journalism is to make people buy your paper or watch your TV show and issues like climate change and sustainability are just not sexy!

I like to think I care about the future of the planet, I have a family. Truth is, if there’s a football match on a Saturday night on one channel and a debate about climate change on the other, I’m not watching the debate.

So that’s the big, big challenge [now]. How can we take something like sustainability and make into a must-watch, must-follow on social media event.

What kind of program will it be?

In terms of the editorial content, we’re still at a very, very early stage. A lot of the early effort has to go into legal and contractual stuff, ensuring we have a venue, [etc].

We have very high production standards, so the debate will be presented by a few well-known journalists from member organizations. The kinds of guests we want are the kind of guests who have ideas to share but also thought-leaders and decision-makers. They have to be people that…have the power to actually make a difference.

The set would look a lot like a talk show set so something that’s somewhat informal. We hope to be able to tap into the leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs, media personalities who will be in Paris for the climate conference. Three mini-debates with different guests on the couch, separated by short reports or recorded interviews.

Are Conchita Wurst fans the audience for a program like this?

You’re right in that it’s not going to be a mass audience in the way the song contest is – we’re never going to get 200 million people. But if we can get a fraction of that number watching on the night, it’s enough to create momentum and get the ball rolling on a conversation. Future events may become bigger and bigger as a result.

So what ‘s the plan to partner up with the UN besides having UNESCO host? You would think they would jump at the chance for some free PR.

I’ve been trying very hard to engage with UN officials. I’ve spoken to UNESCO and I’m here in New York to try to discuss with as many people as possible. What we can deliver are channels that the UN doesn’t have access to. The UN creates a lot of it’s own high quality programs, but programs that are distributed on the UN’s own channels…and no one watches.

Sadly, I’m not saying it’s fair or right, but some people don’t trust it. They think it’s propaganda and the UN has something in particular to gain from selling you this story. The journalistic objectivity is perceived as missing.

Mike Mullane presenting at Swedish Radio
Mike Mullane presenting at Swedish Radio

What can EBU offer the UN?

What we have on our side is that the fact that our members are well-known, trusted media brands. People trust the BBC, Swedish radio, ZDF. They respect the programs and they know they’ll get serious journalism.

We have the objectivity to take this debate onto national TV screens and to reach exactly the kind of people the UN needs to engage with in order to push through their agenda. I’m convinced this is something they ought to be listening to and I hope the I have the opportunity to pitch this to more UN officials.

What if they say they are not interested in collaborating?

I’m quite happy to hear “you’re wrong, we prefer to push this content out on our own web channels,” but what I want is for them to listen to what we have to say and make an informed decision about whether to go with us or not. That really is the huge challenge, it’s being sure you reach the right people and making sure they will make a decision one way or the other. We provide the technology, find the presenters, we already have the show’s Director on board. He’s been producing all of the BBC’s election debates for the past 20 years.

I would be very happy to let the UN into that process while preserving our journalistic integrity and independence.

What does the UN need to be better at reaching a wider audience on the SDGs and climate change?

You need visibility in order to reach people and the best way to achieve that is by using names or faces that people are familiar with. If the UN can get me a coffee date with Leonardo DiCaprio that may be the kind of thing that achieves our objectives!

We think of this as broadcasters so we know it’s not enough to just be worthy and earnest – you have to grab people and surprise and entertain them. That’s something else we bring to the table. We know to create curiosity as well. We have to consider the sort of language we use. If we want to reach real people you have to speak in a language they understand, which doesn’t mean patronizing them. It means avoiding the acronyms, the UN-speak, or political language.