At the beginning of this month I put up a post about a Freedom of Information Act request that I had made to the BBC: Jeremy Paxman, the BBC, Impartiality, and Freedom of Information .The information I requested referred to a seminar on climate change that the BBC had mentioned in a major report on impartiality published last year: From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel. This is how they described it:
The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus [on anthropogenic climate change].
From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel, Page 40
As the BBC seem most unwilling to tell me who the ‘best scientific experts’ who attended the seminar where, I’ve spent some time googling in the hope that the internet might yield more information. It did, and what I found is rather astonishing.
My first hit was on the International Broadcasting Trust’s site, where I found this:
REAL WORLD BRAINSTORMS
The Real World Brainstorms take place annually and are co-hosted by BBC Vision and BBC News. The aim is to bring together key decision makers within broadcasting with a mix of writers, producers and environment and development specialists to explore how we can more effectively represent our interconnected world. Delegates exchange views on key issues and ideas, discussing fresh approaches to stories which impact here in the UK and around the world. Past seminars have had enormously positive feedback, inspiring major programme seasons as well as diverse individual projects. But the meetings are not about pitching ideas – they are about making space for fresh thinking about the way the world is and how it might be represented more richly. The seminars are organized jointly by the BBC, IBT and the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme.
A one day event was held in London on January 26 2006, focusing on climate change and its impact on development. The brainstorm brought together 28 BBC executives and independent producers, this time including several from BBC News, and 28 policy experts. It was chaired by Fergal Keane and looked ahead to the next 10 years, to explore the challenges facing television in covering this issue. Several delegates attended from developing countries, including Ethiopia, China and Bangladesh. [My emphasis]
So when the BBC’s impartiallity report says that, ‘The BBC has held a high-level seminar’, it would seem that they are being a little coy about revealing just who organised it. Checking the dates of the event that the IBT describe and the name of the chairman, there can be no doubt that the IBT and the BBC are referring to the same event. So it appears that three organisations were involved in putting this seminar together. But the BBC say that ‘the best scintific experts’ were present, while the IBT referrs only to ‘policy experts’. Surely there is rather an important distinction here or, in the climate debate, does the BBC fail to make any destinction at all between a policy wonk and a scientist?
[Incidentally, the BBC's letter replying to my FOI Act request refers to ' specialists in the area of climate change', once again not quite the same as 'the best scientific experts' mentioned in the impartiality report.]
The next obvious step was to try and find out who the BBC’s co-organisers were. Here is what the IBT say about themselves on their website:
Our work focuses on four main areas of activity:
- lobbying Government, regulators and broadcasters
- dialogue with the main public service broadcasters
- research on television coverage of the developing world
- developing a slate of innovative programme ideas
There can be no doubt from this description that the IBT is a lobby group, so I wondered whose interests they might represent. The answer was not difficult to find:
The International Broadcasting Trust (IBT) is an educational charity which seeks to promote high quality television and new media coverage on matters of international significance. IBT represents a coalition of international charities campaigning for high quality television coverage of ‘matters of international significance or interest’.
Its members include: ActionAid, Amnesty International, British Red Cross, CAFOD, CARE International, Christian Aid, Comic Relief, Concern UK, Friends of the Earth, Merlin, Oxfam, Plan UK, Practical Action, Progressio, RSPB, Save the Children, Sightsavers International, Skillshare International, Tearfund, UNA UK, UNICEF UK, VSO, the World Association for Christian Communication and World Vision. The views in this submission reflect the concerns of IBT’s member agencies regarding adequate common understanding of the world in which we live. These concerns are shared by millions of UK supporters of our organisations. [My emphasis]
This document dates from Dec 2007, nearly two years after the climate change seminar, but a similar one dated Mar 2007 says much the same thing. It would certainly be interesting to know whether the IBT were representing Friends of the Earth at the time of the so-called BBC seminar. Among the other charities and campaign groups mentioned, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Tearfund have also vigorously promoted global warming alarmism. I haven’t checked up on the others yet.
But the IBT was not the only ‘joint organiser’ of the seminar, the Cambridge Media and Environment Group is also mentioned. Googling this name proved to be far from revealing about who they are or what they do. Remarkably, they do not seem to have a website. On the other hand I did get hits that provided some rather tantalising information. I found this example particularly surprising:
Mr. Roger Harrabin
British Broadcasting Corporation
Mr. Harrabin is environment correspondent for the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, an associate Press Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and co-director of the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme – an organisation founded to engage media gate-keepers in debates on sustainable development. He has been reporting environment, transport, energy and development issues for the BBC for 17 years.
[Page dated Feb 2002: speakers and moderators - Earth Dialogues]
That certainly sounds as though the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme is an environmental pressure group with an interest in influencing ‘media gate-keepers’ attitudes to matters that concern them. Roger Harrabin is now the BBC’s Environment Analyst, and I have yet to find out if he is still involved with the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme.
Another co-director seems to be Dr Joe Smith. He was recently involved with a group which drew up an abortive 176-page complaint to Ofcom about the ITV documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle. Here is what the complainant’s website says about him:
Dr Joe Smith
Senior Lecturer in Environment at The Open University and Co-Director of the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme
Dr Smith peer reviewed the sections of the complaint relating to the media’s coverage of climate change
Within the protective bubble of media commissioning it is easy to see why Swindle looked like a good idea: it was provocative, naughty and counterintuitive. It gave voice to outcast experts, defied groupthink and surprised the audience. But pop the bubble, step outside and talk to the numerous and broad climate change science and policy community and it is viewed as one of the most unhelpful pieces of programme making about a science topic that anyone can remember. Britain had established itself as a leader in the extent and quality of public debate about climate change but the Swindle programme dented that. It is a clear example of how the media’s desire to appear edgy and probing can leave everyone involved in a commission looking at best foolish and dated.
It certainly does not sound as though Dr Smith has impartial and objective views on climate change.
One last hit gave a little more information about where the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme might be coming from:
16. Tyndall supports media & environment programme
The Tyndall Centre is co-sponsoring the University of Cambridge Media and Environment Programme, run by Joe Smith (Open University) and Roger Harrebin (BBC) through the University of Cambridge’s Committee for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (CIES). The Programme aims to overcome the obstacles to effective reporting of environment and sustainable development in the media, by bringing together about 15 media decision-makers (including news editors, producers and journalists) and a similar number of leading experts from the environmental research and policy community. The Tyndall Centre is co-sponsoring the Programme because we share its commitment to the effective communication of climate change information to increase knowledge and inspire discussion and debate in society. The Centre also places importance on the need to engage with the media to disseminate research results and other information relating to Tyndall activities, and sees the Programme as an excellent opportunity to build on links to this network.
Is this another lobbying operation designed to raise the profile of the Tyndall Centre and the climate research that is undertaken there? It’s hard to say.
So what do all these gleanings from the internet tell us?
- When the BBC said in their impartiality report that ‘the BBC has held a high-level seminar’ it looks as though they were being extremely economical with the facts. They didn’t mention their willing little helpers, and there seems to be some doubt about the status of the participants. Were they ‘the best scientific experts’ or were they policy experts?
- The IBT is a lobby group that represents Friends of the Earth among other activist organisations.
- The Cambridge Media and Environment Programme also seems to be a lobbying organisation which has, or has had, surprisingly close links to a BBC journalist who has been instrumental in forming public opinion on global warming. Apparently they are important enough to help organise a seminar that the BBC used to justify lack of balance in their reporting of the global warming debate, but they are too shy to reveal themselves to the world on a website.
- If the IBT are lobbyists who represent Friends of the Earth, to what extent was their client’s interests represented in the way that the seminar was organised?
- There is strong circumstantial evidence that the ‘high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts’, which defined BBC editorial policy on climate change, was held in collaboration with two environmental pressure groups.
All this raises far more questions than it answers of course. but perhaps it does make the BBC’s refusal to provide information about this seminar more understandable.