By giving a platform to climate change sceptics, the BBC is misleading the public

The corporation is sacrificing accuracy by being impartial between facts and fictions.

Earlier this month, the BBC Trust published the latest in a series of reports about the impartiality of the broadcaster’s coverage. It exposed the woolly-minded thinking about scientific issues, such as climate change, that takes place in the upper echelons of the corporation and other British media organisations, which are dominated by graduates from non-scientific disciplines.

The Trust asked Stuart Prebble, former chief executive of ITV and an English graduate from the University of Newcastle, for an independent assessment of the breadth of opinion in the BBC’s output, particularly in relation to immigration, the EU, religion and belief. 

But Prebble’s review also criticised the way in which some of the BBC’s science and environment correspondents have covered climate change. He highlighted part of a lecture by Richard Black, a former BBC environment correspondent, which is posted on the website of the BBC College of Journalism, complaining that it was "entirely devoted to sustaining the case that climate change is effectively 'settled science' and that those who argue otherwise are simply wrong". Instead, Prebble argued, the lecture should have mentioned that "dissenters (or even sceptics) should still occasionally be heard because it is not the BBC’s role to close down this debate".

This repeats the point made in an earlier report on impartiality by John Bridcut, a documentary film-maker and former BBC journalist, which was published in June 2007. It suggested that the BBC should still provide an occasional platform for climate change 'sceptics' on the grounds that "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".

However, a review carried out in 2011 by Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science output criticised the amount of time and space that the broadcaster has devoted to covering the views of climate change 'sceptics', particularly because "the impression of active debate is sometimes promoted by statements that are not supported by the facts".

Professor Jones concluded: "For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability so to do suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story even when the internal statements of the BBC suggest that no controversy exists. There is a contrast between the clear demands for due impartiality in the BBC’s written guidelines and what sometimes emerges on air."

But it is clear that the BBC’s cadre of unscientific senior staff has simply ignored this aspect of the review by Professor Jones. In his evidence to the House of Commons select committee on science and technology on 17 July, David Jordan, director of editorial policy and standards at the BBC and a graduate of economics and politics from the University of Bristol, told MPs: "[Professor Jones] also made one recommendation which we didn’t take on board which is that we should regard climate science as settled in effect, and therefore that we shouldn’t hear from dissenting voices on the science of climate change and we didn’t agree with that because we think the BBC’s role is to reflect all views and opinions in society and we’ve continued to do that."

This is the result of erroneously believing that climate change is just a political issue, and based on a matter of opinion. But the laws of atmospheric physics are not a "point of view", and this wrong-headed approach by the BBC means it is sacrificing accuracy by being impartial between facts and fictions.

There are two consequences of this decision by the BBC to ignore the advice of Professor Jones. The first is that over-representation of the opinions of climate change 'sceptics', the overwhelming majority of whom are not scientists, misleads a large part of the public into believing that there is no scientific consensus about the causes and consequences of climate change. In fact, more than 99 per cent of scientific papers on climate change and all of the world’s major scientific organisations, agree that the Earth is warming and that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are primarily responsible. Yet, a recent opinion poll found that only 56 per cent of the UK public accept that "most scientists agree that humans are causing climate change". 

The second impact is that the BBC is disseminating inaccurate and misleading information about climate change because it allows 'sceptics' to make erroneous statements unchallenged, and some of its own staff even promote falsehoods themselves.

A clear example of this occurred on The Sunday Politics show on 14 July. The programme is hosted by Andrew Neil (a graduate in politics and economics from the University of Glasgow) and frequently includes misrepresentations of the science of climate change. 

On this particular occasion, Neil spent a whole interview quizzing the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, about recent trends in annual global average temperature. Among the many tactics adopted by Neil was to misrepresent the views of climate scientists. He falsely claimed that Professor Hans von Storch, when discussing the recent slowdown in the rise of global surface temperature in an interview with a German newspaper, indicated that "if there is a 20 year plateau, then we’ll need to have a fundamental re-examination of climate change policy, not to abandon it, but to wonder whether we should be doing it so quickly and in the way we’re doing it". In fact, Professor von Storch did not make any such statement.

Neil also made a number of false assertions, such as "the Arctic ice melt did not happen other than normally this year", when in fact the area of sea ice last summer was the lowest on record and 49 per cent below the average for the period between 1979 and 2000. 

In addition, Neil misrepresented the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, referring to "a quick and large rise in temperatures that the IPCC is predicting, their central forecast was 3% for this century". In fact, the most recent IPCC report, published in 2007, presented six scenarios, none of which indicated that temperature would rise by 3% by 2100.

When I suggested to Neil on Twitter that he had made false assertions, he responded with "Actually I didn't my little Global Warming Goebels [sic]. But if you want to tell lies ... make them big ones". 

No doubt Neil felt that he was protected by the BBC’s policy of impartiality between truth and falsehood. But the broadcaster's approach is damaging the public interest and undermining the democratic process of deciding how best to manage the risks of climate change.

The BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Getty
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change