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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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