The writer and political commentator Richard D North has very kindly sent me these recollections of an event that took place at the BBC Television Centre on 26th January 2006, (previously discussed here).

In a report published by the BBC Trustees the following year, this was described as a ‘high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts’ on climate change, and used to illustrate the care with which the impartiality of the corporation’s news and current affairs coverage of this very important subject has been safeguarded.

I did attend the BBC climate change seminar and my impression is that it was part of the ongoing efforts by Roger Harrabin (environment analyst at the BBC) to help the corporation wrestle with the problem of balance and impartiality and robust reporting of the climate change debate.

I think Roger Harrabin has not been a good reporter or analyst of climate change. He is not the worst by any means, but he has in my view missed many tricks. However, he has been serious if not very effective (actually often rather poor) in tackling the nature of the debate itself.

By the way, my own view is that the biggest media failure has been in discussing the policy response to the science of climate change. I mean that though the discussion of the science has been bad the discussion of the policy response has been mostly abysmal. The BBC is only the worst of the offenders on this score because (a) they are paid to be the best and (b) their efforts have fallen so far short of their stated ambitions in this area.

I found the seminar frankly shocking. The BBC crew (senior executives from every branch of the corporation) were matched by an equal number of specialists, almost all (and maybe all) of whom could be said to have come from the “we must support Kyoto” school of climate change activists.

So far as I can recall I was alone in being a climate change sceptic (nothing like a denier, by the way) on both the science and policy response.

I was frankly appalled by the level of ignorance of the issue which the BBC people showed. I mean that I heard nothing that made me think any of them read any broadsheet newspaper coverage of the topic (except maybe the Guardian and that lazily). Though they purported to be aware that this was an immensely important topic, it seemed to me that none of them had shown even a modicum of professional journalistic curiosity on the subject. I am not saying that I knew what they all knew or thought, but I can say that I spent the day discussing the issue and don’t recall anyone showing any sign of having read anything serious at all.

As you know the BBC has come to the conclusion that “balance” cannot mean giving equal time to opposing views if one set of views is scientific and the opposing view is, so to speak, unscientific. I agree, and I see this sort of problem arises with MMR, GM, animal experimentation and lots of other topics. I do see it’s a profound problem.

But the policy response to climate change is much more easy to discuss and the BBC like most broadcast media mostly fails at it. I could write more on this of course, but it may be useful just to say that broadcasters mostly balk at noting that it is incredibly unlikely that the current generation of leaders and citizens will do more that make a few faltering policy steps along what may one day develop into a low-carbon economy. Insofar as we do, it will be because action turned out to be cheap and convenient. Also, energy price volatility is likely to be a bigger immediate driver than climate change.

I argued at the seminar that I thought most broadcasting coverage on climate change was awful. But I also said there was no need for them to become self-conscious about it. This was because, though the issues were scientifically, politically and economically difficult, the BBC’s reporting of the thing would improve as soon as their audience was asked to vote or pay for climate change policy. Ordinary realities and recognisable journalistic tensions would kick in and the corporation would give up its rather feeble activist propaganda. In short, they might never get their brain round the issue, but their ordinary journalistic habits would see them through once there was good old fashioned argument about spending money or effort on sorting the climate out – or failing to.

Of course my nose was out of joint. I was struck by the way my views were of only passing interest to the BBC and I have never been asked to aid their internal discussions since. It may be that they are spoiled for choice when it comes to intelligent, well-informed, sceptical voices to deliver a counter-intuitive challenge to their orthodoxies. I should say that I am not at all complaining that I’m not used on-air much. I mean only that the whole apparatus of self-examination on climate change policy seems really to have looked remarkably like subtle propaganda for the orthodoxies it was meant to interrogate.

Email from Richard D North, 14/12/2008

When, in response to a Freedom of Information Act application, the BBC refused to provide me with the names of those who were invited to attend this seminar, their letter referred to ‘guests who are specialists in the area of climate change’, a description which is very different from ‘the best scientific experts’.  It is now becoming easier to understand why they should have chosen to shift their ground in this way.

Richard North says that he agrees with the BBC policy of not giving equal time to both advocates of global warming and to sceptics. He may be right about this, but it is a very different matter to suppress informed sceptical voices altogether. By doing so, viewers are given the impression that this matter has ceased to be controversial, and that there is only one rational view of global warming: the orthodoxy is unchallengeable. No one who has followed BBC coverage of global warming can have failed to notice that the views of well-informed sceptics have long since disappeared from the airwaves.

This outcome is hardly surprising if the participants invited to a seminar that was intended to inform impartial editorial policy on global warming were drawn from the ranks of climate activists, as Richard says, rather than scientists, as the BBC claimed in its report on impartiality.

The questions that need to be answered are: why did the BBC choose to invite activists to the seminar rather than impartial scientists, and why did the BBC Trustees include such a misleading description of the participants in an important report on impartiality?

I can certainly understand why the BBC is attempting to obstruct any public scrutiny of this matter in order to avoid embarrassment, but they are clearly wrong to do so.

This is not an exercise in BBC bashing so far as I am concerned. Impartiality is the most important asset that underpins the corporation’s unique reputation as broadcasters. Unless they are prepared to confront the consequences of editorial decisions that may prejudice the integrity of their output, that reputation is in danger. An attempted cover-up will only make matters worse; in the age of the internet, such secrets cannot be kept for ever.

22 Responses to “Freedom of Information and the BBC climate change seminar: news from the front line”

  1. 1
    Bishop Hill Says:

    That’s pretty amazing.

    On the Harrabin front, I don’t think I can agree with Richard’s assessment that RH is trying to wrestle with the issue of impartiality. You can’t do that and put together a panel made up of green activists (which is what it appears to have been) to decide the issue for the BBC. It’s simply not credible. The fact that the BBC has seen fit to misrepresent the make-up of the panel suggests that they knew something was wrong too.

    One other thought: it might be worth asking Richard if the seminar was really held under Chatham House rules.

  2. 2
    TonyN Says:

    I’ve given Richard the link to this page, and I very much hope that we’ll hear more from him.

  3. 3
    Peter Martin Says:

    TonyN,

    It may not be an exercise in ‘BBC bashing’ as far as you are concerned, but what about Richard North? He desribes himself as “a right-winger, in love with the free market and arguing against the soft-left, liberal, green, PC consensus” and has also called to “Scrap the BBC!”

    You are probably right in saying that the BBC could and should have handled the AGW issue differently. Certainly I would agree that there should be a mechanism, for all publicly licenced broadcasters and not just the BBC, for consulting with the scientific community in a much more transparent fashion.

    It’s hard to see why you should be making so much fuss about it though. The net result would be no different at least as far as the BBC is concerned.

  4. 4
    Bishop Hill Says:

    Peter

    You seem to be suggesting that it would be better to let the BBC mislead the general public about the nature of the seminar and for BBC climate change policy to be decided by green activists. Is this right?

  5. 5
    Pete Stroud Says:

    Thanks for this article. I will be sure to use it when I continue with the next stage of my complaint of AGW bias by the BBC.

  6. 6
    TonyN Says:

    Peter Martin:

    It may not be an exercise in ‘BBC bashing’ as far as you are concerned, but what about Richard North? He desribes himself as “a right-winger, in love with the free market and arguing against the soft-left, liberal, green, PC consensus” and has also called to “Scrap the BBC!”

    I’m not sure what point you are trying to make here, if any, or are you just slinging a bit of mud in the hope that a bit might stick somewhere?

    It’s hard to see why you should be making so much fuss about it though. The net result would be no different at least as far as the BBC is concerned.

    In this old country, and I believe elsewhere in the world too, people rely on the BBC for accurate and impartial news and current affairs coverage. It is in no ones interest that the corporation should take a position on a controversial subject and then try to impose its own views on audiences that they invite to trust them. When you couple this with Richard’s observations about the level of ignorance among BBC delegates at the conference, then one wonders just how editorial policy is being formulated.

    If advocates of AGW cannot get their message across without this kind of assistance, then what does this say about the evidence at their disposal?

    Pete Stroud:

    Interesting! Can you tell us any more?

  7. 7
    Aileni Noyle Says:

    Thank you for this entry – and Richard North.
    I presume this is the same North as in ‘Scared to Death’. An excellent book.
    I am appalled by the way the Beeb has drifted into the current mind-set; once I considered it one of the greatest organisations around.

  8. 8
    robin horbury Says:

    This is shocking beyond belief, and exactly in line what I suspected when I posted on Bishop Hill’s site recently about such events being organised by the “corporate social responsibility” department of the BBC. The difficult thing here is that there is no recognised way of complaining about such a fundamental problem. The Trustees will examine complaints about alleged bias in programming (if they are submitted within one month after transmission), but they have apparently abandoned the idea of carrying out reviews of coverage of particular topics such as the EU (as in the the Wilson report of 2005). They seem to think that the establishment of the College of Journalism, recommended by Ron Neil in the aftermath of Hutton, has solved, or is in the process of soving, the big issues of BBC journalism. It patently isn’t, and the news machine lumbers on, spending at least £750m of our money each year. The AGW coverage is just one of numerous of problem areas(eg the EU, the Church, Islamism, immigration, the economy), but the corporation remains impervious to any criticism, even when it’s based on solid research.

  9. 9
    robin horbury Says:

    In response to Aileni, no it is not the same Richard North. The Scared to Death one is a true climate sceptic, and I can’t imagine he would ever be invited to a BBC seminar. Far too dangerous!

  10. 10
    Pete Stroud Says:

    Peter Martin, please see Bishop Hill’s blog comments, ‘More Harrabin’ Tues Dec 16, 2008

  11. 11
    TonyN Says:

    Robin Horbury’s very interesting comment at Bishop Hill can be found here:

    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2008/12/21/more-on-cemp.html

    Aileni: Peter Martin failed to mention that Richard D North would seem to be another ‘disillusioned green’. He wrote environment columns for both the Independent and Sunday Times during the 1980′s.

  12. 12
    Aileni Noyle Says:

    Thanks for the update, I thought he seemed a little less positive than I would have expected. I think he may have been a contributor to Vole back in the Seventies.

  13. 13
    Peter Martin Says:

    Pete Stroud,

    Do you mean that I’ve quoted the wrong Richard North too?

    I’ve just done another Google search and come up with this guy “Dick North”. Is he the Richard North in question?

    http://bristol.indymedia.org/article/25950?&condense_comments=false

  14. 14
    Jon Robson Says:

    TonyN – glad to see that you have made headway on this one – there really should have been no secrecy at all – if the BBC have an agenda on AGW the people who pay their salaries should not have to be kept in the dark on how they came to their conclusions.

  15. 15
    Bob Ashton Says:

    Pete Stroud says: I will be sure to use it when I continue with the next stage of my complaint of AGW bias by the BBC.

    I don’t know how far up the chain you have got, Pete, but I have been trying to get answers directly out of Mark Thompson for well over 2 years now! So far all I have received are replies from their Information Unit (I prefer to call it their Propaganda Department).

    Perhaps if you, and anyone else, would care to start writing directly to MT perhaps we may be able to get the message through to him.

  16. 16
    Richard D North Says:

    Dear all,

    In no particular order:

    I am Richard D North and what I have been (including editor of Vole) can all be found at my website. I am not the Richard North who works with Christopher Booker and I thought their “Scared To Death” to be quite bad, as I wrote in my review posted at the Social Affairs Unit website.

    I am not a disillusioned Green so much as one who grew out of conventional greenery in the early 1980s. I am not terribly angry about the BBC though I do think its funding by compulsory TV licence tax should stop as soon as possible. As an institution, I would not mind if it collapsed.

    The BBC’s failings over climate change are – oddy – the result of its trying to take the issue too seriously. It cares too much and analyses too little. It thinks this issue matters too much for neutrality.

    It may be worth noting that it is the BBC’s impartiality that worries me much more than its bias. Sorry.

  17. 17
    TonyN Says:

    Re: #16, Richard

    You say:

    The BBC’s failings over climate change are – oddy – the result of its trying to take the issue too seriously. It cares too much and analyses too little. It thinks this issue matters too much for neutrality.

    Do you consider that the BBC’s editorial policy on climate change has been neutral?

  18. 18
    Richard D North Says:

    Oh dear. I fear I can see things from their point of view, and no, it isn’t neutral.

    Again and again I have written that the BBC is bad about climate change. It believes it can see a mainstream scientific consensus on climate change and that it has to respect that. The consensus (UN/IPCC etc) is indeed that climate change will be very bad for lots of people and therefore efforts should be made to stop it. That means, I think, that for the BBC the scientific consensus starts to be a moral and even a political one and therefore a journalistic one.

    I disagree with the idea that there is actually consensus on the severity and ubiquity of the climate change threat. I think the effect will be much worse for some people than for others and that we will not be very good at predicting these effects.

    I believe that serious politicians and journalists have to wrestle with the real world consequences of a likely political and moral failure to deal with climate change.

    I mean that we ought to be dealing with climate change with a degree of realism often missing from current broadcast reporting and comment.

    It’s that lack of realism which the BBC shows. It stems, I think, from their believing there is a moral imperative to “tackle” climate change. Asking them to be impartial about it is like asking them to be impartial about the Holocaust. But I think the result is bad journalism in this rather different case.

    I hope that helps.

  19. 19
    TonyN Says:

    Richard

    I may not be able to see reporting of the climate debate from the BBC’s point of view, as you do, but I certainly appreciate that their task is not an easy one, and I have some sympathy for their predicament.

    The BBC is a world leader in its field and has a unique and important brand to protect; therefor it is not unreasonable to expect the highest standards from the corporation. Doing difficult things successfully goes with the territory.

    Surely impartial and accurate reporting forged the BBC’s reputation, not pursuing moral, ethical or political crusades that are more likely to reflect the transient views of individuals within the organisation than the concerns of their audience. You say that:

    I believe that serious politicians and journalists have to wrestle with the real world consequences of a likely political and moral failure to deal with climate change.

    I wonder if the BBC is the right place for journalists who may feel this way? Unless the BBC report both sides of the climate debate fairly, and admit the vast uncertainties that beset this subject, they are failing in their duty as laid down by their charter, which is to inform and educate impartially. As you suggest in your post and subsequent comments, there is a lack of normal journalistic curiosity, scepticism and analysis in their coverage. I also wonder if this is the result of slackness and incompetence, or whether it is dictated by editorial policy based on the advice they received from the participants at that seminar in 2006?

  20. 20
    Rupert Wyndham Says:

    Dear Tony N and Richard North

    Some of the exchanges between you have been sent to me by Richard Courtney, whose name I think will be familiar. They have been particularly interesting in the context of my own efforts to extract some pretense of truth from the BBC. The FOI has so far been of limited utility but, Richard, your note of the meeting you attended in 2006 opens up possibilities for further probing. With your consent, I’d like to make use of your note of it. Would you both be willing to communicate directly? My e-m address is rupertwyndham@googlemail.com.

    My own personal stance is pretty simple. As a licence fee payer I expect the BBC to respect its own Editorial Standards. I don’t buy into Orwellianspeak such as “calibrating” coverage in order to preserve impartiality, especially when the science, contra-indicative to AGW orthordoxy, is almost invariably more persuasive – whatever may be the supposed “consensus”, in fact, a fiction, I’d suggest, both now and always. Moreover, nothing justifies broadcasting calculated mendacity, especially when coupled with demonstrable incompetence. Examples? Too numerous to list comprehensively but, as a sample, Earth: The Climate Wars and recent reports re Antarctic warming.

    I hope to hear from you.

    Rgds

    RW

  21. 21
    TonyN Says:

    Rupert

    I’ve tried to mail you twice, but have had delivery failure messages both times.

  22. 22
    Maurizio Morabito (aka Omnologos) « the Climate Denier List Says:

    [...] so why didn’t someone ask him who else attended? It seems the chance was missed [or ignored] read Richard D’s account of BBC dealings at….Harmless Sky. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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