The Daily Mail and the rest of the right-wing press is having a jolly time highlighting how the BBC’s climate editor, Justin Rowlatt, made some incorrect statements in a Panorama documentary about extreme weather disasters and deaths. He was pulled up by the BBC executive complaints unit (ECU) for two misstatements.
Firstly, Rowlatt’s statement that “the death toll is rising around the world and the forecast is that worse is to come” risked giving the impression that the rate of deaths from extreme weather-related events was increasing, concluded the ECU. The frequency of floods, storms and drought has increased significantly in the past 50 years, research by the World Meteorological Organisation has shown, but the number of deaths caused by them has fallen because of improved early warnings and disaster management.
Secondly, Rawlatt repeated a claim made by the UN World Food Programme that Madagascar was on the brink of the world’s first climate-induced famine. “Other evidence… suggested there were additional factors which made a significant contribution to the shortage of food,” said the ECU. It remains fact, nonetheless, that southern Madagascar has suffered lower than average seasonal rainfall in recent years and that climate change is a factor contributing to famine in the country.
Sticking to the facts is vital for journalists. Exaggerating the impacts of climate change in any way undermines the position of everyone reporting on the issue — and it is also totally unnecessary given the plethora of grim, factual data on the effects of a warming world on people’s lives.
However, it’s worth pointing out that these misstatements were not made out of a cynical desire to misrepresent the issue, and were not wholly unsubstantiated: the claim relating to Madagascar had been made by a UN agency. Moreover, it’s worth noting that any newspaper that feels to the need to draw attention to Rowlatt’s very slight faux pas might have its own, less climate-action friendly, agenda to push. Tabloids in particular have been historically notorious for their climate scepticism. Most of all, Rowlatt knows his stuff when it comes to climate science and journalism more generally. An experienced BBC hack, in 2006 when he was dubbed “ethical man” and he and his family spent a year trying to cut their carbon emissions and reporting on the exercise for Newsnight.
A first complaint was upheld about Rowlatt’s coverage last June, when he described the UK offshore wind industry as “now virtually subsidy free”. The ECU admitted that he did not make it clear that he was referring only to recently approved projects, and the story was subsequently cheerfully reported in the Mail.
The complaint, though, was not made by an over zealous member of the public, nor a well-informed energy expert but by Paul Homewood. Homewood is a retired accountant and climate blogger; he disputes mainstream climate change science in his posts and writes regularly for the UK’s most prominent climate science denial group, Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Homewood is also partially behind the most recent complaint about Rowlatt. “I complained to the BBC about the Madagascar claim, while another complained about the first one,” says Homewood in a recent blog. “Both complaints were escalated to the executive complaints unit, after we were fobbed off at the first stage. I am pleased to say that both complaints have been upheld.” He also takes credit for “tipping off” the Mail with the story.
How “misleading” Rowlatt’s comments were is very much debatable. It is irrelevant whether or not his wife, Bee, has “pledged her support for Extinction Rebellion”, and that his sister protested with Insulate Britain. What is much more worrying for climate action, public information, the credibility of journalism and democracy per se is that one blogger is causing a non-story to get attention while Rowlatt’s generally excellent coverage of climate change — and the people on the front line dealing with its impacts — gets undermined.