It’s now two and a half years since I first asked the BBC for the names of the  ‘best scientific experts’ who attended their Climate Change – the Challenge to Broadcasting seminar at Television Centre in January 2006. In the meantime, readers of this blog may have formed some fairly forthright opinions about how the BBC has responded to that challenge.

This seminar featured in a blockbuster report on impartiality that was published by the BBC Trust in 2007.  This is what it said:

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.

Since that time, sceptical views on global warming have been all but absent from BBC coverage of the subject. Their reporters and programme makers seem to have adopted a completely uncritical attitude to the deluge of climate propaganda coming from scientists, activists, and politicians with a view to persuading the public of the rightness of their cause.

Bias by omission is as much a failure of impartiality as overtly distorting programme content, a point that the BBC Trustee’s report makes very clearly. The BBC has routinely failed to report both sides of the climate change story.

In my case, and many others concerning the BBC I suspect, the Freedom of Information Act just doesn’t seem to be working. It is clearly in the public interest that the BBC should back up the claim that they consulted the ‘best scientific experts’ by saying who they were. They have refused to do so and I have reported on the tribulations of trying to get this information here and here and in many other posts on this blog.

At about the time that the CRU Climategate scandal broke, I received a final Decision Notice from the Information Commissioners Office which exonerated the BBC for refusing to divulge the names of the seminar attendees under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. They are probably correct in doing so. The law as it stands provides a derogation that exempts the BBC (and other public service broadcasters) from the Freedom of Information Act if they can show that information is held to a ‘more than trivial or insignificant extent for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes’. In effect this places all information with even the most tenuous connection to programme making beyond reach.

The Freedom of Information Act is intended to prevent publicly funded bodies from concealing embarrassing information. The legislation was intended to increase public scrutiny or the processes of government and administration. It was not intended to provide an excuse for organisations like the BBC to refuse to release information on the grounds that the Freedom of Information Act does not require them to do so.

The BBC ‘s claim that, before formulating editorial policy on global warming it consulted ‘the best scientific experts’ is meaningless if they are not prepared to say who those experts were. This organisation is a public authority within the meaning of the Act, just like a ministry or a local council. It is funded by a tax levied on all those in the UK who use a television. But unlike a ministry or a council it has unrivalled access to the public’s attention thereby  influencing public opinion.

It is tempting to draw a parallel between the BBC’s refusal to come clean about the seminar and the recently revealed Climategate scandal at the University of East Anglia.

A thoughtful and well-balanced open letter from Judith Curry, a leading American climate researcher who cannot possibly be described as a sceptic, was posted at Climate Audit soon after the Climategate emails hit the blogosphere. It may be some time before the scientific implications of some of the more sensational aspects of the emails can be fully assessed, but Curry identifies one alarming aspect of the correspondence that is clear for all to see right now. She highlights the hostility and scorn directed towards anyone who challenges the orthodox view on climate change and identifies it as tribalism.

Tribalism is defined here as a strong identity that separates one’s group from members of another group, characterized by strong in-group loyalty and regarding other groups differing from the tribe’s defining characteristics as inferior.

The bonding process that underpins tribalism requires the beliefs that bind members together to be constantly reinforced, and that opponents outside the group must always be discredited.  In a scientific or quasi-scientific context this role will be fulfilled by ‘experts’; those with specialist knowledge who wholeheartedly share the beliefs of the group. To question the authority of the ‘experts’ is, of course, unthinkable. There is no room for objectivity or uncertainty within such a group.

The Climategate emails have been a revelation to many who have long suspected that this kind of group dynamics is widespread within the climate science community, and particularly the IPCC. But what of those who are not scientists but may be subject to the same tribalism because they report the findings of researchers who are trying to provide evidence that humans now control our planet’s climate?

Although the Climategate emails have given a glimpse into the mailboxes at just one academic institution, the correspondents involved spans a hierarchy that extends far beyond the University of East Anglia to the very heart of the IPCC process. Is there any reason to suppose that the kind of tribalism identified by Professor Curry is just confined to the University of East Anglia campus? Or, for that matter, is there any reason to think that it stops at the boundaries of the academic world?

There is a very real possibility that the BBC, in reporting climate science, has at least become complicit in a more widespread tribalism, a culture in which refusing to release any information that is requested by a sceptic is seen as ‘the right thing to do’ regardless of any other considerations.

Had Professor Phil Jones, the Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, archived the raw data on which estimates of global mean temperature are based when he was asked to do so, then Climategate would never have happened. No one would have been interested in the contents of his mailbox. Suspicions were aroused by his refusal make this information public.

The BBC refuses to release the names of the ‘best scientific experts’ that they consulted in the process of formulating editorial policy on climate change. It is difficult to see how this can be justified and their decision arouses precisely the same kind of concerns as Professor Jones refusal to release temperature data.

It is perfectly reasonable to pose the question, ‘If they won’t answer the question, then what are they hiding?’ Only tribalism can produce a response that attempts to justify refusal.

Update: I am in the process of submitting an appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision to the Information Tribunal.

17 Responses to “Is this the BBC’s Climategate?”

  1. 1
    Nick Says:

    There is a difference between journalism and editoral decisions.

    There is a difference if they start campaigning.


  2. 2
    Bishop Hill Says:

    By strange coincidence I have just completed my appeal to the IT on CMEP funding.

  3. 3
    Nick Says:

    Climate Model Evaluation Project?


    It’s interesting putting FOI requests in. I’ve been doing this for the state debt in the UK. They go into full Sir Humphrey mode when those arrive.

    A discussion on strategy would be interesting.

    1. Clearly you can ask for facts. That in itself is part of the story.

    2. The decisions about those facts are more interesting.

    For example, if we talk debt for a second, the rate at which the government discounts it’s debts to get a present value makes a huge difference to the number. They pick a large rate to make the debt look smaller. Why they choose that rate is the interesting part.

    How would you phrase the FOI request to get that information?

    Likewise with the BBC. It’s clear they don’t want to answer the question as to who. The reason being they will have asked alarmists for their opinion and not skeptics. In part that is the bit that you need answering.

    Why don’t you go for the board and not the editors? The board doesn’t get involved in editorial decisions. It doesn’t do journalism.

    The BBC is saying you are asking questions about journalism. That’s their fudge.


  4. 4
    Bob Ashton Says:

    For over 3 years I have been trying to get answers out of BBC Director General Mark Thompson about their outrageous bias on climate change.

    Having recently engaged the help of my MP, a BBC report; “From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel-Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century”, published in June 2007……’ came to light.

    It concluded: ‘There may be now a broad scientific consensus that climate change is definitely happening and that it is at least predominantly man-made… the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus’.

    So there you have it, damned by their own hand, showing a flagrant disregard for the Terms of the BBC Charter….yet STILL they refuse to admit it! And that is why they have kept quiet about Climategate and other issues.

    Anyone interested in taking the same road as me should enlist the help of their MP and write to:

    Mark Thompson Esq
    Director General
    BBC Broadcasting House
    Portland Place
    W1A 1AA

    Mark your envelope: Strictly Private & Confidential

    If his desk gets deluged with letters from irate licence-fee payers, he will have to recognise he has a problem.

  5. 5
    inks Says:

    Why on earth should the BBC give unqualified AGW-denying blog scientists and conspiraloons equal time to climate science?

    If the BBC has to accommodate every green-inker with an oddball theory – from flat-earthers to anti-relativity researchers via 911 troofers to crystal wavers – they’d need to launch a new channel.

    [TonyN: please read blog rules before you post again]

  6. 6
    TonyN Says:

    Bob Ashton:

    Do you mind revealing who your MP is?

  7. 7
    Bob_FJ Says:

    Inks Reur #5
    Firstly, please check your nom-de-blog as typed it! Should it be INXS rather than INKS?

    Meanwhile, your infinite wisdom on the following issue may be of value to all of us students here:
    As I understand it, ‘Father Christmas’(Santa), according to the scientific consensus, resides in Finnish Lapland, wot is considered a rather cold place, even colder than Copenhagen (Denmark), on average.

    Even including that a few weirdo sceptics protest that Santa resides at the North pole, could you please advise us whether Santa’s job is becoming tougher or easier in recent times, versus say his, (or earlier versions such as Saint Nick), ordeal during the MWP?

    [TonyN: It's seldom worth responding to provocation]

  8. 8
    manacker Says:


    Interesting that you should mention Santa’s recent problems resulting from global warming.

    Finnish Lapland has warmed up, albeit not quite to the warmth it suffered during the 10th to 13th century.

    Santa, who has been doing his good deeds since the 4th century, lived through this dangerous warm period.

    At the time, it is said, his elves had to install pontoons on his sleigh, as the Arctic sea ice had almost completely disappeared, even during winter.

    He now has these pontoons ready for re-installation, but it appears that the Arctic sea ice is growing again since it reached its summer low in 2007.

    But Santa and his elves are prepared for the worst, having heard Al Gore’s prediction that the Arctic will become ice-free by 2020.

    A greater threat to Santa (and especially his reindeer) is the rapidly increasing polar bear population. These splendid beasts (as Al Gore likes to call them) have increased in number to such an extent that they are running out of seals to eat in their native habitat. Scientists have reported that these poor creatures have even resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. Even worse, they have been moving south (into Finnish Lapland, for example). There they are causing widespread panic among the reindeer population (not to mention the local humans).

    But the greatest threat Santa faces is from rapid overpopulation of Finnish Lapland by waves of panic-stricken Europeans, who are terrified of the drastic imminent warming of their home countries, and are seeking refuge from the impending climatic tipping points by moving further north.

    On a brighter side, these new immigrants may provide the animal protein required to sustain the exploding polar bear population.

    So it’s a trade-off.

    But Santa and his elves are ready for any eventuality.


  9. 9
    Yertizz Says:

    Thanks for your carefully considered opinion on this INKS.

    You have just illustrated the sheer hypocrisy of those on your side of the debate who claim to welcome transparency and open discussion! You are only prepared to countenance discussion so long as it supports your view.

    And, yes, the BBC may well have to open another channel, but at least the licence-fee payer would gain more value for it than the £3 million the BBC has frittered away on so-called ‘art’.

  10. 10
    Robin Guenier Says:

    According to this “The BBC’s governing body has launched a major review of its science coverage after complaints of bias notably in its treatment of climate change”. It seems that “A scientific expert will be hired to lead the review”. Hmm – I wonder if we’ll be able to find out the identity of that “expert” – and of others who presumably will be involved.

    According to Richard Tait, BBC Trustee and chair of the governing body’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC):

    Science is an area of great importance to licence fee payers, which provokes strong reaction and covers some of the most sensitive editorial issues the BBC faces.

    Heated debate in recent years around topics like climate change, GM crops and the MMR vaccine reflects this, and BBC reporting has to steer a course through these controversial issues while remaining impartial.

    A dubious claim. And we shouldn’t get too excited: “the findings of the probe will be published in 2011″.

  11. 11
    TonyN Says:


    That’s a very useful and interesting bit of news. Thanks!

    I wonder where they will look for evidence that their coverage of climate change may have been less than impartial?

  12. 12
    James P Says:

    I see Panorama is covering climate change tonight, although ostensibly it’s about weather. It will be interesting to see if there has been any shift in their partiality.

  13. 13
    James P Says:

    I see now it’s been pulled in favour of a programme about the BP oil disaster. That must have been an easy decision!

    [TonyN: I wonder if it will ever re-surface?]

  14. 14
    James P Says:

    Scheduled for next week (28th), according to the producer. Unless some other environmental disaster takes precedence, of course!

  15. 15
    tempterrain Says:

    How should the BBC decide on its coverage of ‘controversial’ science? One possibility would be to give equal time to both sides of the argument on just about anything and everything. AIDS/HIV, the Dangers of Asbestos, Evolution, The depletion of the Ozone layer, are topics which spring to mind. However, wouldn’t this approach clash with the BBC’s responsibility to educate?

    But, in any case, where do you draw the line? Can anyone who takes issue with what may be considered mainstream science expect to be given airtime by the BBC, who must of course always provide ‘unbiased’ coverage?

    I’m not sure if, or why, the BBC are reluctant to divulge their methods of scientific verification. There is no need for any secrecy. I do agree it would be better if everything was brought out into the open with a more formal consultative process, which could include bodies such as the Royal Society and the country’s leading universities, which would lead to clearer guidelines on what should be regarded as the scientific consensus.

    I doubt if you’d welcome the result though. There probably wouldn’t be much change in the BBC’s editorial line who do nevertheless seem to have it about right.

  16. 16
    James P Says:

    the BBC’s editorial line who do nevertheless seem to have it about right.

    Difficult to square with this, though..

  17. 17
    tempterrain Says:

    James P

    But you are happy with everything else that the BBC does?

    If the BBC were to hire a couple of consultants from Oxford or Cambridge Universities, what corrections would you think they might suggest?

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