When news of an extraordinary exchange of emails between the BBC’s Environment Analyst, Roger Harrabin, and a climate change activist called Jo Abbess broke earlier this month, it aroused my innate scepticism. It appeared that a fanatical climate change activist had effortlessly bullied our revered national broadcasting service into changing a story that displeased her. How could this be?

It may surprise warmists, who have come to use ‘sceptic‘ as a term of abuse, that many who question what the public are being told about anthropogenic climate change apply the same standards of scepticism to both sides of the debate.

Was it possible, I asked myself, that the BBC had really allowed itself to be pushed around by an unknown extremist? Was this story an example of disinformation emanating from those shadowy forces that warmists so often blame for the general public’s reluctance to embrace their beliefs? Was someone trying to discredit the BBC? Might the emails have been fabricated? It all looked just a bit too neat and tidy to be true. Was it really possible that a fanatical member of the militant pressure group Campaign Against Climate Change could influence mainstream news coverage of a topic as important as climate change?

Here is a rather sensationalised, but quite accurate, version of what happened:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=216v5AoQcFQ

For those of you who don’t have the software to play this, or would like to see all the evidence in black and white, here is the full story:

On 4th April the BBC put a news item on their website written by Harrabin. The headline was “Global temperatures ‘to decrease'”; quite surprising for an organisation dedicated to spreading alarm about climate change. What followed was based on an announcement by Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Organizations. Now this is not a body that can in any way be called sceptical about global warming; it is one of the UN agencies that set up the IPCC. Given the BBC’s proclivity for making the most of a global warming scare story, and the impeccable source of its information, there is no reason to suspect that rumours of a downturn in temperatures were being exaggerated.

The BBC’s report started like this:

Global temperatures ‘to decrease’

Global temperatures this year will be lower than in 2007 due to the cooling effect of the La Nina current in the Pacific, UN meteorologists have said.

The World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, told the BBC it was likely that La Nina would continue into the summer.

This would mean global temperatures have not risen since 1998, prompting some to question climate change theory.

But experts have also forecast a record high temperature within five years.

[It also said this:]

A minority of scientists question whether this means global warming has peaked and argue the Earth has proved more resilient to greenhouse gases than predicted.

This did not please Jo Abbess, who sent an email to Harrabin headed, ‘Correction Demanded: “Global temperatures ‘to decrease'”.

Dear Roger,

Please can you correct your piece published today entitled “Global
temperatures ‘to decrease'” :-

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7329799.stm [this link is to the revised version of course]

1. “A minority of scientists question whether this means global
warming has peaked”
This is incorrect. Several networks exist that question whether global
warming has peaked, but they contain very few actual scientists, and
the scientists that they do contain are not climate scientists so have
no expertise in this area
.

2. “Global temperatures this year will be lower than in 2007”
You should not mislead people into thinking that the sum total of the
Earth system is going to be cooler in 2008 than 2007. For example, the
ocean systems of temperature do not change in yearly timescales, and
are massive heat sinks that have shown gradual and continual warming.
It is only near-surface air temperatures that will be affected by La
Nina, plus a bit of the lower atmosphere.

Thank you for applying your attention to all the facts and figures available,

jo.

My emphasis

Referring to Jo Abbess’ first point, it would seem that she is not a scientist either, merely a dedicated activist.

Harrabin’s response to these criticisms of his story by someone who clearly has a limited knowledge of the subject and distinctly partisan views was patient but firm:

Dear Jo

No correction is needed

If the secy-gen of the WMO tells me that global temperatures will
decrease, that’s what we will report

There are scientists who question whether warming will continue as
projected by IPCC

Best wishes
RH

This should have been the end of the story, but Ms Abbess seems not to be the type who is discouraged by clearly stated factual arguments:

Hi Roger,

I will forward your comments (unless you object) to some people who
may wish to add to your knowledge.

Would you be willing to publish information that expands on your
original position, and which would give a better, clearer picture of
what is going on ?

Personally, I think it is highly irresponsible to play into the hands
of the sceptics/skeptics
who continually promote the idea that “global
warming finished in 1998”, when that is so patently not true.

I have to spend a lot of my time countering their various myths and
non-arguments, saying, no, go look at the Hadley Centre data. Global
Warming is not over. There have been what look like troughs and
plateaus/x before. It didn’t stop then. It’s not stopping now.

It is true that people are debating Climate Sensitivity, how much
exactly the Earth will respond to radiative forcing, but nobody is
seriously refuting that increasing Greenhouse Gases cause increased
global temperatures.

I think it’s counterproductive to even hint that the Earth is cooling
down again,
when the sum total of the data tells you the opposite.
Glaringly.

As time goes by, the infant science of climatology improves. The Earth
has never experienced the kind of chemical adjustment in the
atmosphere we see now, so it is hard to tell exactly what will happen
based on historical science.

However, the broad sweep is : added GHG means added warming.

Please do not do a disservice to your readership by leaving the door
open to doubt about that.

jo.

My emphasis

Jo Abbess seems to have completely missed the point that Harrabin’s stated intention had been to simply report what the WMO had said.

One might wonder why Harrabin bothered to read all this before deleting it. Perhaps the hint of menace in the first sentence made him sit up and take notice. One of the BBC’s favourite ‘experts’ on climate change, George Monbiot, also happens to be honorary president of Campaign Against Climate Change. Was Harrabin concerned that if George saw this news story his eyes might finally pop out of his head, and the BBC would be held responsible for this catastrophe? Or was he just reluctant to have more fanatics trying to add to his knowledge? Either way, his reply is starling, but more for its tone than its content:

The article makes all these points quite clear

We can’t ignore the fact that sceptics have jumped on the lack of
increase since 1998. It is appearing reguarly now in general media

Best to tackle this – and explain it, which is what we have done

Or people feel like debate is being censored which makes them v
suspicious

Roger

When he says, ‘we’, is he referring to the BBC, or specifically to Jo Abbess and himself, or perhas even to a multitude of like minded people; a movement? The term ‘best to tackle this’ is even more puzzleing unless, in his view, it is one of the functions of the BBC news service to proselytise for the global warming lobby? And why use the word ‘suspicious’ in this context? It all sounds very conspiratorial.

At this point Jo Abbess must have realised that one more determined assault might do the trick, and she unhesitatingly went in for the kill:

Hi Roger,

When you are on the Tube in London, I expect that occasionally you
glance a headline as sometime turns the page, and you thinkg “Really
?” or “Wow !”

You don’t read the whole article, you just get the headline.

A lot of people will read the first few paragraphs of what you say,
and not read the rest, and (a) Dismiss your writing as it seems you
have been manipulated by the sceptics
or (b) Jump on it with glee and
e-mail their mates and say “See ! Global Warming has stopped !”

They only got the headline, which is why it is so utterly essentialy
to give the full picture, or as full as you can in the first few
paragraphs.

The near-Earth surface temperatures may be cooler in 2008 that they
were in 2007, but there is no way that Global Warming has stopped, or
has even gone into reverse. The oceans have been warming consistently,
for example, and we’re not seeing temperatures go into reverse, in
general, anywhere.

Your word “debate”. This is not an issue of “debate”. This is an issue
of emerging truth. I don’t think you should worry about whether people
feel they are countering some kind of conspiracy, or suspicious that
the full extent of the truth is being withheld from them.

Every day more information is added to the stack showing the desperate
plight of the planet.

It would be better if you did not quote the sceptics. Their voice is
heard everywhere, on every channel. They are deliberately obstructing
the emergence of the truth.

I would ask : please reserve the main BBC Online channel for emerging truth.

Otherwise, I would have to conclude that you are insufficiently
educated to be able to know when you have been psychologically
manipulated. And that would make you an unreliable reporter.

I am about to send your comments to others for their contribution,
unless you request I do not. They are likely to want to post your
comments on forums/fora, so please indicate if you do not want this to
happen. You may appear in an unfavourable light because it could be
said that you have had your head turned by the sceptics.

Respectfully,

jo.

It is not clear which sceptics Jo Abbess is accusing Harrabin of quoting. As he was reporting what he had been told by a body that could under no circumstances be described as sceptical about global warming, it would appear that she does not even know what the WMO is.

The final ‘Respectfully’, following on series of insults and threats, is puerile. Harrabin might have been forgiven for loosing his cool and telling Ms Abbess to get lost. But his reaction was very different:

Have a look in 10 minutes and tell me you are happier

We have changed headline and more

And he did too!

Global Temperatures ‘to decrease’*

Global temperatures will drop slightly this year as a result of the cooling effect of the La Nina current in the Pacific, UN meteorologists have said.

The World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, told the BBC it was likely that La Nina would continue into the summer.

This would mean global temperatures have not risen since 1998, prompting some to question climate change theory.

But experts say we are still clearly in a long-term warming trend – and they forecast a new record high temperature within five years.

The WMO points out that the decade from 1998 to 2007 was the warmest on record. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74C.

While Nasa, the US space agency, cites 2005 as the warmest year, the UK’s Hadley Centre lists it as second to 1998.

Researchers say the uncertainty in the observed value for any particular year is larger than these small temperature differences. What matters, they say, is the long-term upward trend.

What had started out as a reasonably impartial piece of factual reporting now carries an undeniable slant towards one side of the climate debate.

As I said at the start of this post, I was suspicious about this story it just seemed to be too neat, tidy and conclusive but there is good reason to suppose that the emails are genuine. For a start, you couldn’t really make up the abject cowardice of Harrabin’s capitulation, or the sanctimonious and earnestly dotty assertions of Abbess, without them seeming implausible.

All this happened in the space of little over an hour, and might have gone unnoticed if a sharp-eyed blogger had not spotted the changes to the story. He had copied and pasted part of the report soon after it appeared on the BBC website, but returning to the original shortly afterwards, saw that it was not the same. Of course news stories on the web are constantly updated, and there is nothing strange or sinister about this, but what astonished him was that the date signature had been kept the same in an apparent attempt to conceal the edits. That smacks of very deliberate deception and a bad conscience, but it also raises the question of how often similar interventions by pressure groups have lead to stories being changed without leaving evidence?

My immediate reaction when this story broke was to wonder how such sensitive emails had found their way into the public domain when it was obviously in the interests of both parties to keep the affair under wraps; Harrabin because he had been browbeaten, Abbess because the emails would inevitable discredit the news service that she wanted to front her wild beliefs, making similar interventions in the future more difficult. Was there, perhaps, a sceptical mole in Campaign Against Climate Change who wanted to discredit both the pressure group and the BBC? Does Harrabin have an enemy at the BBC who wants his job? Both these possibilities seemed far-fetched. When I stumbled on the truth, it was both more convincing and more unlikely than anything I could have imagined.

Flushed from the minimal effort of bullying the BBC into doing what she wanted, Jo Abbess had been unable to resist the urge to gloat. She published the emails on her own blog, with this faux-modest introduction:

BBC : Balance Restored

Posted April 4th, 2008 by jo

Climate Changers,

Remember to challenge any piece of media that seems like it’s been subject to spin or scepticism.

Here’s my go for today. The BBC actually changed an article I requested a correction for, but I’m not really sure if the result is that much better.

Judge for yourselves…

[See this and all the emails on Jo Abbess’ blog. Its worth looking at the comments there too. Update: the emails have long since been deleted from this page, but I did download a copy of the original version]

This leaves just one last question. How can someone with Jo Abbess’ obviously rather limited intellectual gifts still be more than bright enough to run rings round the BBC?

The story is clearly true, and it has been covered by the mainstream media in the US and Canada, where the BBC is held in high regard. Their tone is one of sorrowful disbelief that an organisation that they hold in high esteem should behave in such a craven way. Of course the story is on dozens of blogs, but so far the UK media has virtually ignored it. The BBC, very understandably, is refusing to comment.

UPDATE: Roger Harrabin has now put a post on the Editor’s Blog at the BBC giving his side of the story. It is worth reading: see here.

When I tried to post the following comment, it failed to pass moderation:

The BBC needs to learn from this incident and make changes to the way they report climate change.

In the case of the altered WMO report, only an admission that reporting standards have been seriously compromised, followed by convincing evidence that such behaviour will not be tolerated by the BBC in future, can restore confidence.

Damage limitation exercises like the one that Steve Herrmann and Roger Harrabin are conducting here suggest that this will not happen.

* There are references on the internet to this headline having been changed, as Harrabin says, and then changed back again. I have been unable track down the wording.

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