BBC coverage of climate change should be accurate as well as impartial

Posted on 19 Jul 2011 in

The BBC Trust will tomorrow (20 July) publish its long-awaited report on impartiality in the Corporation’s coverage of science.

Self-proclaimed climate change ‘sceptics’ will no doubt react furiously if the author of the Trust’s report, the geneticist Professor Steve Jones of University College London, does not recommend that the BBC should ‘balance’ its coverage by giving equal air time to individuals and groups who claim the Earth is not warming or that human activities are not driving climate change.

‘Sceptics’ argue that climate researchers who conclude that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming should be treated as ‘alarmists’ who represent just one ‘point of view’, and that, if the BBC was impartial, it would routinely invite dissenting voices to offer opposing opinions to those of the scientists.

Indeed, this view is shared by former BBC newsreader Peter Sissons. Writing in his book ‘When One Door Closes’ last year, Sissons complained about being “unhappy at how one-sided the BBC’s coverage of this issue was”, and that “the BBC never at any stage gave equal space to the opponents of the consensus”.

He credited ‘sceptic’ bloggers for bringing about the Trust’s review of the impartiality of its science coverage, announced in January 2010, while controversy was raging over emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

Sissons wrote:

“But it was the scandal over the Climategate emails that was a real game changer, and more recently a number of other colleagues have started to tiptoe onto the territory that was for so long off-limits. The BBC Trust has also finally responded to the damage being inflicted on the BBC’s credibility in numerous respectable internet forums, where its climate change coverage has long been regarded as a joke. What is billed as a ‘major review’ will examine whether the BBC’s science coverage, particularly of climate change, is biased. Don’t hold your breath.”

Sissons boasted about being praised on a ‘sceptic’ blog in the United States after using an interview with the leader of UK Green Party to express his doubts about the scientific consensus on climate change. He claimed “what was undeniably true is that at the time no other interviewers on the BBC – or indeed on ITV News or Channel Four News – had asked questions about climate change which didn’t start from the assumption that the science was settled”.

Sissons added: “In my lonely position I was eventually joined by Andrew Neil, who skilfully eviscerated the then environment secretary Hilary Benn on his show ‘The Daily Politics’”.

Andrew Neil’s BBC TV programme is a favourite stomping ground for ‘sceptics’. In March, he allowed Johnny Ball to wrongly assert, unchallenged, that the rise of about 40 per cent in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since industrialisation might be due to natural causes, rather than the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities.

Most recently, Neil allowed ‘sceptical’ Conservative MEP Roger Helmer to assert that “pensioners will literally die” because of the UK Government’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He then went on to claim, wrongly, that climate change policies were adding £200 to the average household fuel bill.

In fact, environmental costs amount to just £100, or less than 9 per cent, of the average annual dual fuel bill of £1170, according to the official regulator of the gas and electricity markets, Ofgem. The £200 figure cited by Neil appears to have originated from an article in the ‘Daily Mail’ by Lord Lawson of Blaby, the chair and founder of ‘sceptic’ lobby group the ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation’.

This latest controversy follows the appearance in May by the Director of the Foundation, Dr Benny Peiser, on BBC Radio 4’s ‘PM’ programme, during which he claimed that Germany intends to build 50 new coal-fired power stations, even though his website was indicating that just 26 were planned or under construction.

These examples show that the real problem with the BBC’s coverage of climate change is not that ‘sceptics’ do not receive enough air time, but instead that they make inaccurate and misleading statements which remain unchallenged by interviewers, or worse still, which are regurgitated by some BBC presenters as if they were facts.

Much of the argument about the BBC’s coverage of climate change has revolved around impartiality, which is enshrined among the Corporation’s regulatory obligations on the UK public services in its agreement with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

However, paragraph 44(1) of the agreement states: “The BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output”.

So the real challenge for the BBC is not just to ensure the impartiality of its coverage of climate change, but also to uphold its equally important commitment to accuracy.