Why the BBC will always be wrong on Climate Change

Today I had another go at the BBC for its biased coverage of ‘Climate Change’, this time venturing into the belly of the beast itself for an interview on Radio 4’s Media Show. (God I hate doing programmes on the BBC. If you want to hear me on form, listen to me on US radio where my dangerously conservative views get so much more sympathetic a reception – here, say, from my old mate Greg Garrison).

Anyway, the BBC is clearly very het up about the notion that it’s in breach of its code of impartiality – as it most definitely is in its science coverage. But trying to explain to the BBC why its coverage is skewed in a painfully left-liberal, eco-fascist direction is bit like trying to tell Attila the Hun that he errs on the side of pillage and rape: for both Attila and the BBC it’s all just instinctively right and normal.

The BBC’s current policy (thanks Yaoxx) on its climate change coverage was discussed in a recent report (June 2007) by the BBC Trust – Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century:

“The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus. But these dissenters (or even sceptics) will still be heard, as they should, because it is not the BBC’s role to close down this debate. They cannot be simply dismissed as ‘flat-earthers’ or ‘deniers’, who ‘should not be given a platform’ by the BBC. Impartiality always requires a breadth of view: for as long as minority opinions are coherently and honestly expressed, the BBC must give them appropriate space. ‘Bias by elimination’ is even more offensive today than it was in 1926. The BBC has many public purposes of both ambition and merit – but joining campaigns to save the planet is not one of them. The BBC’s best contribution is to increase public awareness of the issues and possible solutions through impartial and accurate programming. Acceptance of a basic scientific consensus only sharpens the need for hawk-eyed scrutiny of the arguments surrounding both causation and solution. It remains important that programme-makers relish the full range of debate that such a central and absorbing subject offers, scientifically, politically and ethically, and avoid being misrepresented as standard-bearers. The wagon wheel remains a model shape. But the trundle of the bandwagon is not a model sound.”

How, though, did it reach these conclusions? Tony Newberry at the Harmless Sky blog has been doing some digging and come up with some useful stuff about this “high-level” BBC Seminar. Despite Freedom of Information requests, the BBC refused to divulge which experts attended. But Newberry did find out this:

It was attended by ‘30 key BBC staff and 30 invited guests who are specialists in the area of climate change’. The event was called ‘Climate Change the Challenge to Broadcasting’ and it was hosted by Jana Bennett (then Director of Television, now Director of Vision) and Helen Boaden (Director of News BBC). The ‘key speaker’ was Lord May of Oxford. Among the aims of the seminar were ‘to offer a summary of the state of knowledge on the issue’ and ‘to consider the BBC’s role in the public debate’.The chairman was Fergal Keane.

He goes on:

Further research on the internet revealed that the seminar was one of a number of similar events organised jointly by the BBC, The International Broadcasting Trust (the IBT, an environmental lobby group), and the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme (CMEP), a rather shadowy organisation of which  the BBC’s Environment Analyst, Roger Harrabin, is a co-director. The other director is an academic and ‘environmental consultant’ called Dr Joe Smith.

Stranger still, the  IBT’s  website describes the invited guests at the 2006 climate seminar as ‘Policy Experts[1]’.  It is difficult to know how policy experts could authoritatively (in the words of the BBC’s letter) ‘offer a summary of the state of knowledge on the issue’ of climate science to senior BBC staff who were present, or how they could also be described as ‘the best scientific experts’ in the BBC Trust’s report. In the context of the climate change debate, ‘policy experts’ usually means environmental activists, politicians or policy wonks from think tanks and the eNGOs.

The IBT describes its mission as ‘lobbying Government, regulators and broadcasters’[2] as well as  ‘dialogue with the main public service broadcasters’. It has represented Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Tearfund,[3] all of which have played a high profile role in climate change activism.

It has been far more difficult to obtain information about CMEP. However this organisation has received funding from:

  • Defra, the ministry responsible for promoting government policy on global warming.
  • WWF, a leading environmental pressure group.
  • The Tyndall Centre, a climate research institute based at the University of East Anglia.[4]

But the most damning observations were provided on a guest post at Harmless Sky by the (mildly sceptical) writer Richard D North (not to be confused with the Eureferendum blogspot Dr Richard North, who is much more strongly sceptical of AGW):

I did attend the BBC climate change seminar and my impression is that it was part of the ongoing efforts by Roger Harrabin (environment analyst at the BBC) to help the corporation wrestle with the problem of balance and impartiality and robust reporting of the climate change debate.

I think Roger Harrabin has not been a good reporter or analyst of climate change. He is not the worst by any means, but he has in my view missed many tricks. However, he has been serious if not very effective (actually often rather poor) in tackling the nature of the debate itself.

By the way, my own view is that the biggest media failure has been in discussing the policy response to the science of climate change. I mean that though the discussion of the science has been bad the discussion of the policy response has been mostly abysmal. The BBC is only the worst of the offenders on this score because (a) they are paid to be the best and (b) their efforts have fallen so far short of their stated ambitions in this area.

I found the seminar frankly shocking. The BBC crew (senior executives from every branch of the corporation) were matched by an equal number of specialists, almost all (and maybe all) of whom could be said to have come from the “we must support Kyoto” school of climate change activists.

So far as I can recall I was alone in being a climate change sceptic (nothing like a denier, by the way) on both the science and policy response.

I was frankly appalled by the level of ignorance of the issue which the BBC people showed. I mean that I heard nothing that made me think any of them read any broadsheet newspaper coverage of the topic (except maybe the Guardian and that lazily). Though they purported to be aware that this was an immensely important topic, it seemed to me that none of them had shown even a modicum of professional journalistic curiosity on the subject. I am not saying that I knew what they all knew or thought, but I can say that I spent the day discussing the issue and don’t recall anyone showing any sign of having read anything serious at all.