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.