(Update 5th Aug 2010 09:15 - Andrew Montford tells me that he has now contacted Professor Steve Jones who is conducting the review for the BBC, and that he says that the rumour is not true. This makes the BBC’s behaviour even more difficult to explain)
On 17th November 2009, over a thousand emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) were published on the internet triggering the scandal that has now become known as Climategate.
Between 8th and 18 of December, hopes of a globally binding agreement on carbon emissions reduction died at the Copenhagen Summit. On 3rd December, the UEA appointed Sir Muir Russell to conduct an ‘independent’ review of the activities at the CRU.
And on 6th January 2010, Professor Richard Tait, a BBC trustee and chairman of their flagship Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) announced a review of the accuracy and impartiality of science coverage, with particular attention to climate change, and a report was scheduled for Spring 2011. For climate sceptics this was a timely and welcome development. Over the last few years, bloggers have been reporting on an apparent synergy that exists between the BBC and the environmental movement which has led to blatant distortion in reporting climate change.
During the following few weeks, an extremely rushed inquiry into Climategate by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee took place and, while giving evidence to the Committee, the Vice Chancellor of the university, Professor Edward Acton, announced yet another review, specifically concerned with the scientific research undertaken by the CRU. This was to be chaired by Lord Oxburgh.
The IPCC also announced that a review, limited in scope to the procedures under which their assessment reports are compiled, would report in August.
The prospect of all these inquiries being set up to consider what had become a major scandal, which by now was doing immense damage to the credibility of climate science in particular, but also to public confidence in science as a whole,was welcomed by sceptics. But as details of how the various inquiry panels were to conduct their reviews emerged, this turned into ever growing concern. It became clear that sceptical opinions would not be represented on any of the inquiry panels, and that although sceptics would be permitted to make written submissions, there would be no opportunity for them to ensure that their concerns were fully understood and investigated. By the end of March the credibility of the inquiries was in doubt.
On 7th April, Andrew Montford - of Bishop Hill fame - and I sent a joint letter to Professor Tait in his capacity as a BBC Trustee and chairman of the all important ESC in an attempt to ensure that sceptical views were fully represented in the course of the BBC Science review.
It is worth bearing in mind that the primary function of the BBC Trust is to ensure that the statutory obligations under which the BBC operates are enforced. These are set out in the Communications Act 2003 and elsewhere in the BBC Charter and Agreement. Impartiality in news reporting and factual programmes plays a very important part in all these legal instruments and compliance with requirements set out by parliament is not optional.
This is what our letter said:
Dear Professor Tait
BBC Trust Review of Accuracy and Impartiality of Science Coverage
We understand that during 2010 the BBC Trust intends to carry out a review of the Corporation’s science coverage. This is welcome and encouraging news.
We both run blogs, at Bishop Hill and Harmless Sky respectively, and we have both been extremely critical the BBC’s output relating to climate change. As I am sure you are aware, such comment often becomes the subject of mainstream media stories now, a trend that is likely to accelerate as the public’s scepticism about anthropogenic global warming grows and the media adjust its editorial policies accordingly.
We realise that pubic criticisms of the BBC’s impartiality is very harmful to the Corporation’s reputation, but experience has taught us that, where this subject is concerned at least, going through the official complaints procedures is slow, time-consuming, frustrating, and usually ineffective. The BBC has also failed to respond positively to enquiries that we have made.
It would seem reasonable to assume that the BBC Trust has instituted this review as a result of concern within the organisation as well as criticisms that have appeared in the media and elsewhere. Of the three topics specifically mentioned in the BBC Trust’s press release announcing the review - GM crops, the MMR vaccine and climate change - there can be no doubt that the latter has had by far the greatest impact on public policy and the everyday lives of BBC viewers, listeners, and website visitors. The BBC is a major opinion former in the UK.
We feel that, if the BBC Trust’s review is to be credible and lead to a genuine reappraisal of BBC editorial policy on this crucial subject, then it is essential that the voices of informed critics should be heard. Indeed it is difficult to see how even the terms of reference for the review can be established without some input from sceptical bloggers.
The unexpected and dramatic events of the last few months concerning the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, the failure of the Copenhagen summit, and revelations about the conduct of the IPCC have changed attitudes in the media dramatically, and this transformation has been largely led by the blogosphere. Evidence from opinion polls shows a steady increase in scepticism among the public over the last three years which is now accelerating. This does not suggest that editors will revise their newly adopted policies of publishing sceptical material about climate change any time soon.
As the BBC’s report on impartiality in the 21st century, published in 2007, made clear, impartiality is the cornerstone of the BBC brand. Our concern is that the BBC’s reputation for impartiality should be preserved. We have substantial archives relating to the way that the BBC has reported climate change in recent years and we will be happy to assist the review process in any way that we can.
Tony Newbery Andrew Montford
The letter was addressed to Professor Tait and was sent electronically to Bruce Vander, the secretary of the ESC, with a request for confirmation when it had been delivered to Professor Tait. Just over an hour later the following message was received from a relatively junior member of the BBC Trust’s staff who described herself as the ‘Editorial Projects Leader’. It would appear that the announcement of the BBC’s review so soon after Climategate was a mere coincidence:
Thank you for your letter to the BBC Trust, the contents of which I note.
I will, of course, share you letter with Richard Tait and with Professor Steve Jones who is authoring the review, but let me take this opportunity to respond to a number of the points you raise.
Your letter states that: ‘It would seem reasonable to assume that the BBC Trust has instituted the review as a result of concern within the organisation as well as criticisms that have appeared in the media and elsewhere’. This is not the case, as the press release and published terms of reference make clear. This is the latest in a series of reviews that assess impartiality in specific areas of BBC output. Previous topics covered were BBC coverage of business (2007) and the devolved nations (2008).
It is a key priority for the Trust that the BBC covers potentially controversial subjects with due impartiality, as required by the Royal Charter and Agreement. The review is a ‘health check’ of current coverage, looking to identify both good and bad practice. It makes no presumption of significant failings – or, for that matter, successes – at the outset.
The published terms of reference make clear what is in the review’s scope and what is out, and the means by which Professor Jones will go about assessing the BBC’s coverage, including detailed content analysis, engagement with key stakeholders and audience research if deemed appropriate.
I hope this letter goes some way to clarifying some of the points you raise.
Of course we hadn’t written to ‘the BBC Trust’ at all, as the Editorial Project Leader’ suggests, but specifically to the BBC Trustee responsible for setting up the review; and ‘sharing’ a letter with someone is a very different thing from actually delivering it to them. It is, of course, a matter for the recipient of a letter to decide who he wishes to share its content with, not for anyone to whom it has been entrusted to deliver to him. And the Editorial Project Leader makes no reference to the main purpose of our letter; that we should have the opportunity to make representations about the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of climate change as part of the review process.
I have now exchanged half-a-dozen emails with Mr Vander in an attempt to establish that our letter has in fact been delivered to the person it was addressed to; the chairman of the committee to which he is secretary, Professor Richard Tait. All that Mr Vander is prepared to say is that our letter has been ‘shared’ with Professor Tait, in spite of a succession of specific requests to confirm that it has been delivered and not merely ‘shared’.
Apart from the gross discourtesy of not, at the very least, receiving an acknowledgement from Professor Tait of what was obviously a thoughtful and constructive letter, this seems very strange. Why is the BBC Trust not even prepared to confirm that the letter has been delivered to their impartiality supremo, in spite of repeated requests? Why is Mr Vander only prepared to say that it has been ‘shared’ with him? Surely playing silly word games should have no part in the duties of the secretary of the BBC Trust committee that is charged with ensuring that our national broadcaster complies with standards set out in legislation.
Now we have heard - from a source close to the BBC - that the BBC Trust’s much-vaunted review of the accuracy and impartiality of its science coverage has been cancelled. Could it be that the BBC has realised that, in view of the damage done to the Climategate inquires by not properly representing the well justified concerns and evidence of sceptics, their review would also have little credibility if the critics of their science coverage are excluded, and conversely, that if this input is allowed, then the review would inevitably have to reach some very unpalatable conclusions.
There seems to be little point in our writing to Professor Tait and asking him whether his review has, in fact, been cancelled.