Geoff Chambers has left this typically thoughtful and provocative comment on the Has the BBC’s review of science reporting been cancelled? thread:

Everyone commenting here has formed his opinion on climate change by looking at both sides of the argument. If you or I want to find out about a subject, we borrow a book from the library, or go on the net. Not so the BBC chiefs, newspaper editors, MPs, and other opinion leaders. They are highly intelligent, sure of their judgement, but very busy. On a subject outside their own field, they ask the opinion of people like themselves with the requisite expertise. Are the papers Phil Jones recommends the right ones to look at in order to judge the quality of his work? Ask Sir Martin Rees [President of the Royal Society]. Is the science journalism of the BBC above reproach? Ask a journalist-scientist on the Telegraph.

Look at your letter from their point of view. Just a “boring obsessive rant” (Professor Steve Jones’ characterisation in the Telegraph) from the green ink brigade. One of them wrote a book? All nutters write books. Possibly someone at the BBC will get one of their underlings to read it, or browse through the Harmless Sky and Bishop Hill blogs for half an hour (the time that the officials at UEA spent browsing through Climate Audit, according to Phil Jones).

Are we winning the argument? Well, yes, in some Platonic universe where only ideas have reality. In the real world, the argument hasn’t begun, and the BBC, like the rest of the media, has little interest in seeing it begin. This is not a conspiracy, simply the way society conducts discussion. Without the adversarial context and equality of evidence provided by an election or a court of law, it may never begin.

The crux of Geoff’s argument is in the last paragraph when he says, ‘This is not a conspiracy, simply the way society conducts discussion’, and I would take issue with his conclusion.

The BBC is not ‘society’ but it is, and has been for over half a century, a pillar of the British establishment. It’s role as an opinion former as well as a source of information has long been recognised, and to some extent it has become the barometer of public opinion too. But a barometer that at times measures conditions that it has played a part in creating.

That is why, in theory at least, the way in which it conveys factual output is so strictly controlled by legislation. These controls were put in place because of the obvious risk that the influence of the BBC and make no mistake, Auntie is still tremendously influential could be hijacked for political purposes; particularly by an entrenched government.

I have no opinion about the way ‘society conducts discussion’, but over the last few years I have had a very bleak insight into how a beleaguered establishment conducts discussion. One of the main tools in this process has been the supposedly independent and transparent inquiry; or ‘review’ if you are trying not to raise people’s expectations. Perhaps it started with the Franks Inquiry into the Falklands War, which now seems to be generally discredited. It certainly applied to consideration of the disastrous management of the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic, with Tony Blair announcing no less than four inquiries simultaneously, in the certainty that any inconvenient issues would drop through the gaps between their terms of reference.

Most conspicuous in recent years has been the succession of inquiries focused on the Iraq War, which seem to have come to conclusions that are not well supported by the evidence. There is no need to add any comments here about the three UK based inquiries into Climategate other than to say that in each case one side of the argument received a far better hearing than the other, in spite of the inquires having been made necessary by the actions and arguments of the critics who were relegated to a minor role. Andrew Montford and Steve McIntyre, among others, have made the failure of the inquiry panels to establish the true extent of the allegations against the climate community, and the evidence supporting it, figure in their deliberations.

John Mortimer, in his guise as a barrister, and the son of a barrister, once said in an interview that a piece of advice from his father had stood him in very good stead when he was practising law rather than writing novels. ‘Never ask a witness a question”, the old man said, “unless you are quite sure that you know what the answer is”. In the case of the Russell and Oxburgh inquiries, great care seems to have been taken to make sure that those who had made allegations against the CRU and the IPCC process were not asked any questions at all, possibly for the same reason. The BBC seem determined to give Andrew Montford and I the same treatment.

In conducting it’s review of science reporting, the BBC may seek to consult those who will provide palatable responses, and exclude those who may require them to confront problems that they would prefer not to think about. If this is their intention, and even in the face of all the present evidence I very much hope that it is not, then that will not be the end of the story. As we explained in our letter, both Andrew Montford and I have acquired considerable archives on the BBC’s reporting of climate change. Some of this is already in the public domain, but there is a great deal that is not but is likely to become relevant when their report is published.

Geoff’s other point is that the establishment are very much inclined to seek advice from other members of the establishment, and I am sure that he is right about this too. Informing yourself by those means must be tremendously reassuring, but it is no way to conduct an inquiry if your intention is actually to find out what is happening. Membership of the establishment does imply a certain mindset, and a reluctance to rock other people’s boats.

This point is well illustrated by the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Taking over a decade to complete, and costing tens of millions, this was conducted within the context of a judicial process and finally dug down to truths that seem to have satisfied everyone. In other circumstances these would probably have been passed over. This was an exercise that took place beyond the reach of the establishment, unlike the Iraq War, foot and mouth disease, and Climategate inquiries. No one seems to be impugning the credibility of the findings.

Going back to the BBC’s review of science reporting, I have little doubt that the mandarins of the BBC Trust see Andrew Montford and the proprietor of this blog in precisely the unflattering way that Geoff suggests. But as he makes clear, there is a commonality with the attitude of Phil Jones and his colleague’s to climate sceptics. I actually posted about the dangers of the BBC not learning from the CRU’s mistakes some time ago here: Is this the BBC’s Climategate?. Dismissing the views of bloggers out of hand may be tempting, but it is not wise unless you first make quite sure that they do not have a valid point of view.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, Sir Muir  Russell, and Lord Oxburgh seem to have taken the same line on dealing with climate sceptics as the CRU, and as a result their inquiries have failed in their objectives; to draw a line under the Climategate scandal. But in the case of the Russell Report there is at least one section that rings true.

At the end of Chapter 5 of the Russell Report , the authors acceptthe tge that the blogoshere is here to stay, that it is now influential in forming opinion, and that those for whom this is inconvenient must adjust to living with the new dispensation. Not even Sir Muir Russell can get everything wrong all the time, and a similar message comes from the Royal Society, via the BBC’s very own Roger Harrabin, when reporting on dissent among the Fellows about the Society’s published position on climate change:

… it seems that message has not seeped through to all quarters. And one Fellow of the Royal Society said there’s the whiff of “end of empire” in the air as establishments strive to protect their authority as it ebbs away into the blogosphere

The BBC would seem to have some catching up to do, but in fact they were discussing very much the same problem back in 2007.

At that time the BBC Trust published its blockbuster report on impartiality, From Seasaw to Wagon Wheel. In spite of the extraordinary choice of title, this shows every sign of being a conscientious attempt to address an undoubtedly complex and difficult subject fearlessly, despite the need to rake over some severe criticisms and unpalatable evidence. The following is taken from the penultimate chapter:


Impartiality is a process, about which the BBC should be honest and transparent with its audience: this should permit greater boldness in its programming decisions. But impartiality can never be fully achieved to everyone’s satisfaction: the BBC should not be defensive about this but ready to acknowledge and correct significant breaches as and when they occur.


When it was made clear that the impartiality seminar held in London last September was going to be streamed live on the Governors’ website, there was a certain amount of sucking of teeth – and not just from within the BBC. Did we really expect top executives and broadcasters to wrestle with real dilemmas […..]  The seminar was criticised afterwards by one or two members of the then Board of Management for, in effect, washing the BBC’s dirty linen in public. One said it had been ‘extremely damaging’ to the BBC.

That is very much ‘old thinking’. It is true that impartiality always used to be discussed behind closed doors at Broadcasting House and Television Centre […..]  The reality is that you can’t close the doors any more.

Information has proliferated so fast in our broadband culture that audiences know almost as much about the decision-making process as the broadcasters. […..]

In the past, many editorial decisions could be taken in the comfort of knowing that audiences could judge programmes only by what they had heard or seen on air. […..] So paternalism will no longer wash: broadcasters have to be ready to explain their decisions. And trust works both ways: if the BBC expects to retain the audience’s trust, it must also trust the audience by ‘letting daylight in on magic’.

A lot of this debate is actually about the role of the institution – a fear that maybe the BBC won’t be infallible and that we’ll show our fallibility. I think that if we had more courage about being transparent in the decision-making process, inviting the audience into the debate, a lot of these ills would be cured. David Schlesinger, Reuters

Impartiality itself is a process. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but the search never ends. […..] It should always be ready to share its decision-making with the audience: this should be part of its contract with the licence-payer. If it tries to close the doors, the information will leak out sooner or later, and the BBC will end up looking defensive or worse. But if it keeps the doors open, it will help the audience to understand how impartiality works, and trust will grow. […..] The greater prize is the maintenance of the audience’s trust.

That trust is the BBC’s most precious resource. While it remains publicly owned and funded, it is essential. Whatever slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have winged their way to the BBC, the basic level of trust has endured. That should give the BBC courage not to be defensive about every hostile headline in the press – but also to be ready to acknowledge and correct breaches of impartiality whenever they arise, as they undoubtedly will.  [……]

Impartiality in today’s world must be a transparent process.  […..]

Russell Report, starting at Page 74.

I have edited these extracts heavily to save space, and I strongly recommend reading the original in full. The message is inescapable: if the BBC is to keep its reputation in the digital age, then the old, tried, and tested ways of the establishment must be abandoned. There are no doors to close on private assessments of matters that are of public interest.

It is also worth glancing at the Forward on page 2, in which Professor RIchard Tait endorses the report on behalf of the BBC Trustees. I wonder if he remembers what it says now?

78 Responses to “Can the BBC learn from its own impartiality report?”

  1. Max,

    PS You say “This does not ‘offend’ me in the least”. I didn’t say it would.

    I was referring to “any fair-minded person” !

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