(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.

Yours sincerely

Tony  Newbery                                                                            Andrew Montford

newbery@xxxxxxx.xx.xx                                           amontford@xxxxxxxxxxx.xx.xx

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.

41 Responses to “Has the BBC’s review of science reporting been cancelled?”

  1. geoffchambers

    Sorry. I missed your point about (and was also unaware of) Euhemerus being the first to give scientific explanations for disaster myths.

    But the anthropocentric Judeo-Christian “guilt and retribution” aspect (a key part of the current doomsday prophesy) has apparently been around even longer.

    Together, they are very powerful.

    The former is relatively easy to challenge with facts (as was done for the Jones myth of CO2 causing the end of the last Ice Age).

    The latter is a much tougher nut to crack, because it goes into the realm of religious (or pseudo-religious) belief, rather than reason.

    Max

  2. As an aficionado of weird books and websites myself, I think Zecharia Sitchin has covered much of this ancient flood-myth ground in books such as The Twelfth Planet; mind you, his theory is also that humans were genetically engineered by aliens from the planet Nebiru, so a modicum of scepticism is required.

    Does Steve Jones really want to venture into territory so well travelled by Velikovsky, Sitchin and von Daniken, I wonder?

    Although, as another Dr Jones said: “Nothing shocks me – I’m a scientist”.

  3. Barry Woods

    Your 25 has just confirmed my conclusion in my 26 to geoffchambers.

    Looks like “religion” is at work at the CRU at UEA.

    Max

  4. Tim Mitchell (climategate file harry_read_Me.txt)

    http://www.e-n.org.uk/p-1129-Climate-change-and-the-Christian.htm

  5. TonyN no.12

    No reason given for rejection of omissions evidence. They just said that such evidence would only be considered in exceptional circumstances and that Professor Tait had rejected it, final. However, I am still pursuing the point. I was only told this after this evidence had been divorced from the rest of my case and, apparently, presented to Professor Tait without my prior knowledge. I was given no opportunity to show how this evidence could not be taken separately. Clearly this was unacceptable behaviour and I am not accepting it.

  6. Sir John Houghton (IPCC) in June gave a speech, that clearly indicated to me, that the science, ‘to him’ was settled a decade ago or more..

    The co chair of the 2001 AR3 Synthesis report…The one with the’hockey stick’ graph in, he fought to keep it and Mann in it..

    Sir John Houghton gave this speech at my local church, supporting a ‘Transition Town’ group…(audio downloadable)

    Slideshow title:

    “God, Science and Global Warming”June 2010 Wargrave church

    Link Below, (3 section, 2 auido, one slideshow)

    http://www.wargravechurch.org.uk/climatechange.htm

    Global Warming and Climate Change:
    A Challenge to Scientists and Christians

    On Thursday 17th June 2010
    Professor Sir John Houghton FRS CBE
    spoke to a full church at St. Mary’s.

    Co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific assessment group and lead editor of their first 3 reports. Former Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Oxford University and Chief Executive of the Meteorological Office.

    A recording of his talk was made, and with his permission, it is available for download from here as an .mp3 file. It lasts about 46 minutes and the file is about 6Mb in size.

    His talk was based on a Powerpoint presentation, to which he makes reference; a printout of this has also been made available, though a few of the images have been omitted for copyright reasons. It can be downloaded as a .pdf file about 11Mb in size.
    Following the talk, Sir John answered a number of questions from the audience, and the recording of these is an .mp3 file lasting about 34 minutes about 4Mb in size.

  7. Barry Woods, that’s an interesting link! (Funnily enough I went to school just up the road from that church).

    Also let’s not forget the words of Sir John Houghton: “God tries to coax and woo, but he also uses disasters. Human sin may be involved; the effect will be the same.”

    Clearly there is a sort of cultural reservoir of religious yearning that the global warming phenomenon has been able to tap into. This article by ecologist John Croft is revealing.

  8. Just to clarify, my #32 was in response to your #29 – two comments came in while I was still writing!

  9. There is an interesting article by Philip Stott where he discusses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Anyone who has studied management should be familier with Maslow, and Stott uses the theory to show how we in the west have come to the point we have. When we discuss how Global Warming beame what it was, I think that the science has been secondary and it has been a mindset thing, and it has infected almost every area of west life and culture.

    I think that AGW was just the best fit for our times especially after the Berlin wall came down. Human behaviour has not change over many millennia and there have been many crossroads where the masses have taken control from the rulers. I think we are at another crossroad where our rulers are going to struggle to retain power unless they reflect the greater public opinion.

  10. Just to get back to the root question of how the BBC should report science: Just what, exactly, are you suggesting?

    I can understand that you’d like Anthony Watts to be given equal status with James Hansen on the climate issue, but would you like this principle to be generally applied to other controversial scientific issues too?

  11. PeterM

    Re your open question (35), how about Richard Lindzen being given equal time with James E. Hansen?

    Or Roy Spencer being given equal time with Phil Jones?

    Sounds to me like a good unbiased approach to arrive at a more balanced viewpoint on AGW, which BBC has, unfortunately, so far elected not to do.

    Agree it would also be a good approach for any truly controversial scientific issue, although I doubt that there are any today, which carry the same degree of public interest and political plus economic impact as the “dangerous AGW” hypothesis and the multi-billion dollar big business behind it.

    How about you, Peter? Would you agree that this makes sense?

    Max

  12. Peter Geany

    Philip Stott’s essay on “the Death of a Grand Narrative” is succinct and to the point.

    As Copenhagen demonstrated, the “dangerous AGW” narrative appears to be in its death throes, although certain politicians and the media may not have fully realized it yet.

    The “Maslow Pyramid” explanation of how AGW became the major narrative of the late 1990s and early 2000s among the “loads of money” generation within the affluent world is incisive.

    A thoughtful essay by someone who has obviously done a lot of thinking on this topic.

    Max

  13. Max,

    Well I’m not sure you’re interested in anything making sense! However, I would agree that there needs to be some open method by which organisations, like the BBC, and also other TV channels and newspapers, would be able to use to advise on the correct line to adopt on scientific issues.

    I’d suggest the Royal Society and the country’s universities should be involved and asked to provide their advice. Maybe a panel of four or five leading scientists, drawn from various diciplines, could be formed? And, yes, that could include engineers too!

    That makes perfect sense, which is why you won’t like it!

  14. PeterM

    You are trying to “change the rules” again (38).

    Let’s not “hand over” the decision on whom to invite to comment on any scientific issue as politically loaded as AGW to a party, such as the Royal Society, which has already stated its own one-sided position on this issue.

    Let’s simply make sure that “both sides of the story” are being equally represented in an unbiased fashion (as you originally suggested and I agreed to, with a change from Anthony Watts to Richard Lindzen as a more equal debating partner for James E. Hansen).

    That’s what “makes sense”, Peter.

    Max

  15. PeterM

    For a better idea of what “makes sense” for BBC, re-read the letter from TonyN and Andrew Montford to BBC (see lead article), which ends with:

    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.

    The key word here, Peter is “impartiality”.

    Max

  16. […] BBC is apparently in the midst of conducting a review of its science coverage. Here is what the man heading that review has to say about “global warming.” …..global […]

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