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.