A question for Dr Joe Smith

Posted by TonyN on 19/11/2011 at 6:30 pm Uncategorized Add comments
Nov 192011

BBCSponsorsReport For most of last week, over at Bishop Hill Andrew Montford has been unearthing increasingly disturbing evidence of the degree to which the BBC is in bed with environmental advocacy groups. This has resulted in an outburst from Dr Joe Smith, an environmental activist and lecturer at the Open University, on his citzen joe smith [sic] blog.

The cause of friction is Andrew’s discovery that Dr Smith acted as an adviser on some of the programmes that a recently published BBC Trust report identified as being sponsored by interested parties without the audience being made aware of the fact. It’s a bit like screening a programme that extols the health benefits of organic food without mentioning that the production costs were very kindly paid by the Soil Association and a leading supermarket chain that specialises in stocking organic products.

There is legislation in place the Communications Act 2003 in particular that makes deceiving audiences in this way illegal, and with very good reason.

Of course the BBC claim that they knew nothing of such things, and have been misled by the production companies, but Andrew’s digging increasingly calls this into question. He is also linking this scandal with the revelations that we have both worked on concerning the activities of Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s Envionment Analyst, and a very shadowy operation called the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme (CMEP). Regular readers of this blog will probably remember Dr Smith as one of the co-Directors of CMEP. The other co-Director is Roger Harrabin.

CMEP was set up by Smith and Harrabin for the purpose of organising seminars that would bring together environmentalists and broadcasters, no doubt for their mutual benefit.

Over the last several years, Andrew and I have pieced together quite a lot of information about CMEP, and in particular the extraordinary impact of a seminar that was held at Televison Centre in January 2006 . The BBC claim that this event mustered thirty of “the best scientific experts” to provide BBC executives with “an understanding of the existing state of knowledge on the issue of climate change”. Subsequently the BBC has refused to name “the best scientific experts” that Smith and Harrabin laid on for the occasion, but an eye-witness account from Richard D North states unequivocally that the experts present were actually environmental activists.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this seminar led directly to an editorial decision to marginalise climate sceptics so far as BBC output was concerned. That decision has had a far reaching impact on the presentation of the climate debate, which becomes more and more evident.

So what has Dr Smith got to say now in response to Andrew’s latest probing?

Well with crass arrogance, he starts out like this:

An apology to my regular reader/s. This is going to be very dull, but I’m aware of some comments over at Bishop Hill blog that require correction.

Dr Smith then goes on to explain that the CMEP programme of seminars has ended after 15 years. Apparently the last of the annual events was in 2009. What Dr Smith does not do is say why they have ended, which seems rather strange when he spends the rest of his post claiming that his and Roger Harrabin’s activities in connection with CMEP have been beyond criticism.

For this purpose, he reprints some notes on the CMEP Real World Seminars he says he produced “in reply to a query from Tony Newbery in July 2009”. Actually I did not ‘query’ Dr Smith, but got a message from DEFRA, who were dealing with an Freedom of information request of mine, that he wanted to send me a document called Real World Seminars. I contacted him as requested and this led to a lively exchange of emails that I’ll put up in another post.

The submission that Andrew and I made to Professor Steve Jones’ ludicrously partisan review of the BBC’s scientific output takes a very different view of events from that set out in Dr Smith’s Real World Seminars. Anyone who is not familiar with the very disturbing evidence that we presented might like to have a quick look here

Although our submission to the review was not made until October 2010, we had made it clear to the BBC Trust in April of that year that we wanted to provide some input. The BBC could not have failed to be aware of what was in store, given the material that had appeared on both our blogs and the various requests that we had made to the BBC Trust for information under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.

It really would be very interesting to know why the seminar programme, and presumably CMEP too, hit the buffers at this particular time. Could it possibly be related in any way to the fact that around the same time Roger Harrabin more or less disappeared from BBC broadcast output?

Life is full of little mysteries, but I know that I will be wasting my time if I ask the BBC about all this. Perhaps Dr Smith will provide an answer.

In the meantime, the cavalry might be about to charge to the rescue.

Just when the mandarins who control the BBC’s factual output news and documentaries probably thought that they had engineered themselves into an new era when they could relax, it looks as though the world is about to fall on their heads.

If they expected the Jones report would herald a period of cosy complacency, when they could ignore those pesky critics in the blogosphere who ask awkward questions and dig out horribly embarrassing snippets of information, they were mistaken.

The story of CMEP, and the new information that Andrew seems to be adding almost daily about sponsored programmes broadcast by the BBC, has a long way to go yet.

Read Christopher Booker’s column in the Sunday Telegraph tomorrow.

and also David Rose in The Mail on Sunday. (See update below)

UPDATE 21/11/2011 08:45: Dr Joe Smith has contributed a long comment in response to this post here

UPDATE 21/11/2011 12:45: Andrew Montford informs me that David Rose’s article in the Sunday Mail about CMEP has been taken down from their website because of a complaint from Roger Harrabin.

UPDATE 22/11/2011 09:30 David Rose’s Harrabin story in the The Mail on Sunday is back on their website.

14 Responses to “A question for Dr Joe Smith”

  1. Andrew Montford has continued to cover the BBC seminar story with reference to an article by David Rose from the Mail on Sunday
    Rose quotes Harabin as saying:
    “Those seminars – for which I received no personal gain – included contributions from sceptics.”
    while Joe Smith says of the seminars that they were:
    “… just a light touch thing. These were occasional seminars held in an academic environment that brought a diverse mix of research, business and policy people together with media people.”

    So were these seminars conducted by “thirty of the best scientific experts” as the BBC claims, or were they “… just a light touch thing” bringing together research, business, policy and media people, including sceptics, as Smith and Harabin claim?

  2. In comments to the BishopHill article I mention in #1 above, Lord Beaverbrook (Nov 20, 2011 at 11:36 AM) links to the The International Broadcasting Trust’s submission to the BBC’s science impartiality review.
    (The IBT were joint organisers of the BBC’sclimate change seminars)

    The IBT’s submission deals solely with climate change, or more precisely, with the treatment of climate scepticism, or, more precisely still, how to keep sceptics (or “contrarians” as the IBT terms us) off the air.
    In their 20 page submission, which is entirely concerned with the space to be allowed to sceptics, the only sceptics mentioned are Benny Peiser and Lord Lawson of the GWPF, and Lord Monckton. In the final report, the only sceptics mentioned by Steve Jones were Lord Lawson of the GWPF, Lord Monckton, Andrew Montford and TonyN, the latter two being mentioned simply in the context of an ironical remark about their concern over the seminar.

    A submission made to this Review by Andrew Montford and Tony Newbery (both active in the anti-global-warming movement…) devotes much of its content to criticising not the data on temperatures but the membership of a BBC seminar on the topic in 2006, and to a lengthy discussion as to whether its Environment Analyst was carrying out BBC duties or acting as a freelance during an environment programme at Cambridge University. The factual argument, even for activists, appears to be largely over but parts of the BBC are taking a long time to notice.

    Otherwise, the only mention of specific sceptics was this reference to the unnamed interviewees (James Delingpole and Professor Fred Singer) interviewed by Sir Paul Nurse in his Horizon programme:

    Lord Monckton is, without doubt, a man who adds to the gaiety of nations and is a skilled communicator of his views. However, a recent BBC Four investigation … of his activities made his isolation from mainstream beliefs very clear. A 2011 Horizon in which the President of the Royal Society interviewed other climate sceptics also revealed their marginal position.

    So, according to the BBC Trust’s report, the factual argument is over (because TonyN and Andrew raised a different subject) and truncated interviews with a humorous journalist and an 80 year-old retired scientist reveal scepticism to be marginal.
    It would be difficult to be more economical with the truth.

  3. Dr Joe Smith does seem to – at the very least – tread a thin line between academia and activism.

    This might be of interest – an Open University project called Interdependence Day, which was organised by Joe Smith in 2006:

    Both globalization and global environmental change invite us to extend greatly our notion of who counts in politics. For the drafters of the Declaration of Independence the drastic revision of political sovereignty they proposed seemed natural: the time had come for change wherein governments would be ‘deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed’. We have arrived at a time that demands change on a similar scale.

    Here he mentions “a call to re-think the boundaries of politics”.

    Joe has written books on climate change and sustainability, the media and global issues, and the green movement. His aim is to promote a better understanding of, and action on, global environmental change issues. [Emphasis mine]

    More here.

    (I’ve also posted this comment at Bishop Hill.)

  4. Dear Tony
    I have answered your direct questions in the past on the only occasion you have presented them to me, and recently republished the document I sent you. You are quite right: I recall now that you didn’t contact me directly but rather when DEFRA got in touch with me following an FoI from you I suggested it might be more efficient if I had direct contact with you and I got in touch and sought to answer any questions you had.

    However one detail that is not answered in that document is when the seminars ended. You raise this question in your post above. The residential seminars finished in 2008 due to BBC budget cuts (the BBC always paid their own costs in relation to the seminars) when there was a blanket announcement across the organisation that there would be no residential meetings for the foreseeable future. CMEP was wrapped up formally in 2009 in the sense that I was confident I wouldn’t be organising any more residential seminars anywhere under that heading. But the BBC have run a further ‘Real World’ seminar in 2009 on site at Television Centre (‘Real World Seminar’ is the heading used to describe the seminars from around 2005 onwards), and I gave advice on the design of that. It was much shorter than the residential seminars, and with a small number of contributors from government, research, banking and economics backgrounds.

    As an aside, these meetings started way back in 1996, just a few years into the short history of the internet. The last CMEP seminar took place in the early days of ‘web 2.0’. In the context of the rapid growth of the blogosphere, and the misunderstandings it seems capable of multiplying, I must admit that if I were starting now I would seek to publish more information online about the seminars, and would ask attendees if they mind their names being published, as well as a brief account of the seminars.

    I have fitted in the work around the seminars around a demanding job and busy family life, mostly in evenings and weekends, and simply didn’t see the need or find the time to write about them for an audience I didn’t know existed. But we all live and learn.

    By the way I’m sorry you understood my note about my blog post on CMEP being boring as ‘crass arrogance’. In truth I think the organisational detail about the seminars IS boring to my rather modest blog readership.

    I hope to find the time this week to write a piece that describes the Creative Climate project (www.open.ac.uk/creativeclimate). The project includes some radio and TV commissions (referred to in yours and Andrew M’s blogs) and also a short film competition for students that we will launch this week. But at its heart it is an online diary project that welcomes all voices, and invites people to hold a diary on the website that plots their unfolding understanding of and action (including their blogging!) on environmental issues. The project has been forged in response to my conclusions about the limitations of the maintream media when it comes to handling complex environmental change issues and the diverse debates and activities that surround them. We hope it will be very plural, open and allow for a neutral and welcoming space where people can represent their views in their own way. I do hope you and some of your readers will consider coming to start a diary with us.


    Dr. Joe Smith

  5. Smith says that Roger Harrabin has “a particular responsibility towards ensuring impartiality on the BBC’s behalf”

    I didn’t realise there were two of them…

  6. Joe Smith, #4:

    Thanks for responding but I’m not sure that it takes us any further.

    Unfortunately I can’t agree when you say, ‘I have answered your direct questions in the past on the only occasion you have presented them to me …’ The correspondence can be seen here, and people can judge for themselves. At that time I sought an endorsement from you of the claims by the BBC that this event was ‘high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts’ summoned to brief BBC. You failed to provide an unequivocal response to this question.

    And I’m not sure that I understand your reference to “the rapid growth of the blogosphere, and the misunderstandings it seems capable of multiplying”. What misunderstandings do you have in mind concerning CMEP?

    If the organisers of this seminar were to come clean about it, and explain who was present and what happened, there would be no scope for misunderstanding. Instead the BBC is spending licence fee payers money on contesting my application before a judge at an Information Tribunal for information about the seminar.

    And why, for God’s sake, does such an event have to be shrouded in secrecy?

    I am grateful for the invitation to contribute a diary to your project, but a little surprised that you should ask me given that I have been whiting a blog, which is a kind of journal, for some years and that, when you were setting up Creative Climate, you had this to say about climate sceptical blogs in an Open University webcast:

    Martin Reynolds
    This use of web space seems to bridge two purposes – a broadcasting model of disseminating lots of information, and an exchange model providing a medium for conversation. Focusing on the broadcasting model, is there a danger of the public, or even interest groups, being overwhelmed with the amount of information?

    Joe Smith
    Overwhelming, but also there is the dangers of how you, kind of, measure the authority of statements on the Web. So people who are sceptical of climate change, but without an adequate scientific basis to their claims, have caused all sorts of havoc around public understanding of this critical issue, simply because the Web gives them a space to muck around, misbehave really.

    My bog is clearly sceptical about the present obsession with anthropogenic global warming, and I am not a scientist, however you are welcome to use any material from Harmless Sky that you wish, or how about linking to this site, and Bishop Hill, from Creative Climate?

  7. Joe Smith #4
    Many thanks for the invitation to take part in your diary project. I’m a keen fan of the historical Mass Observation project, and, unlike many who comment on contrarian blogs, I’m a firm believer in the usefulness of the investigative methods of the social sciences.
    You say:

    “I must admit that if I were starting now I would seek to publish more information online about the seminars, and would ask attendees if they mind their names being published, as well as a brief account of the seminars”.

    Could you ask them now? Particularly the attendees of the January 2006 seminar. Could you at least clear up this misunderstanding: were they scientific experts, as the BBC claims or “a diverse mix of research, business and policy people together with media people”?
    You say:

    “I … simply didn’t see the need or find the time to write about them for an audience I didn’t know existed”.

    The 2006 seminar was the subject of FOI requests which the BBC successfully resisted. Did no-one inform you of this? Given that the seminar was designed to give advice on coverage of the most important problem facing humanity over the next century, did you not think that someone might be interested? The 60 million people who pay for the BBC, for example?

  8. “because of a complaint from Roger Harrabin.”
    Is this known to be the case, or an assumption?

    “TonyN says: It’s neither, see what I said in the update.”

  9. Mr Smith [snip – see blog rules]

    He believes that the participation list of the infamous 2006 BBC seminar is either unimportant or has to be protected from the public gaze by expensive lawyers.

    Which is it?

    What is he trying to hide?

  10. ‘Just when the mandarins who control the BBC’s factual output – news and documentaries – probably thought that they had engineered themselves into an new era when they could relax, it looks as though the world is about to fall on their heads’

    In this, and much else, I am minded of a famous line, substituting the internet for ‘meddling kids’.


    It used, for some, to be so much ‘easier’.

  11. “the anti-global-warming movement” (IBT)

    Is that a tacit admission that there is a ‘global-warming movement’..?

  12. People don’t often read the links provided, I know. Tony’s link at #6 to the Open University webcast interview with Joe Smith reveals, besides the sideswipe at sceptics which TonyN quotes, an interesting insight into Joe’s motivation.
    I find his central idea intriguing and, now that he has invited sceptics to take part, potentially a genuinely useful sociological tool.
    Even more interesting is the transcript of the second podcast at
    in which he discusses the involvement of stakeholders. He says:

    The University is at the core of the project, and a team of academics that have a strong understanding of the issues from across the science, the politics, the philosophy are going to be, if you like, central to the editorial direction of the whole thing … But really all we’re doing is behaving to type, in the sense of carving out public space for complex issues to be understood better and debated better … So our natural partners, our central partners in terms of media, are certainly the BBC and we’re very confident that we’ll be working with them. We don’t know
    precisely how, but there’s a lot of people interested at their end…. We are also open to working with other partners, institutional partners .. international bodies, research bodies and some other relevant players …The government aren’t just key stakeholders. They’re central to anything that happens next on environmental change, so I’ll certainly be knocking at their door and I’ll want them to play.

    The idea of a team of academics getting together with their “natural partners”, the BBC, in order to “carve out public space for complex issues to be understood better and debated better”, is a very odd idea of the role of a publc service broadcaster.

  13. The BBC has been a partner of the OU for a long time, so to that extent, I can see the connection. What is curious is that, unlike most other issues, the Beeb has acquired its own warmist agenda. Do we know when or how that happenened? And who gave David Bellamy and David Whitehouse their marching orders?

    [TonyN says: The Global Warming Policy Foundation will soon be publishing a new report by Christopher Booker on the BBC’s coverage of climate change. I think that quite a lot of people will find his revelations very interesting, and it may also help answer your question.]

  14. Just to say I’m very much looking forward to the Booker report, and hope that it sheds some new light on this matter.

    [TonyN says: It does!]

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