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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.