ofcom Very many congratulations to Mauizio for finally breaking the logjam and making some progress at last on the ‘Great Climate Change Seminar Mystery’. But now the work really begins.

At the moment it is hardly possible to pick up a paper or listen to a news report without being told that trust in the BBC has been severely damaged. This is both true and particularly sad when the Corporation is just approaching its ninetieth anniversary. Impartiality and accuracy are the characteristics that established the BBC as the world leader in its field even in times of political turmoil, war and social unrest. As John Bridcut made clear in his ‘Wagon Wheel’ report, this reputation for integrity is the core of the BBC brand and if it is damaged that endangers the whole edifice.

We now know that someone within the BBC told Bridcut, when he was researching his report, that a seminar ‘with the best scientific experts’ informed a major editorial decision on how climate change was to be presented to the public at a crucial moment in the battle to persuade the public to take anthropogenic global warming seriously. And make no mistake, the BBC is not just a source of information, like Wikipedia or the reference section of a library, it is a major opinion former too. How the BBC decides to portray current affairs really matters and has an enormous effect.

The names on the list that Maurizio has published in no way justify the claim made in the ‘Wagon Wheel’ report. It is not enough for the BBC to merely make an apology and a correction at this late stage; much, much more is needed if the organisation’s reputation is to be restored.

What the Saville scandal has shown us is that there is a culture of deceit and of turning a blind eye to unwelcome problems at the BBC which extends back over decades. The BBC must be forced to institute a proper inquiry into why Bridcut was misinformed and then tens of thousands of pounds in legal costs were committed to keeping the affair under wraps, just like Saville’s appalling behaviour.

That is the next task.

As a first step I have asked the BBC’s Litigation Department to confirm or deny that the list Maurizio has found is the one that I requested at the hearing a fortnight ago.

Andrew Orlowski of The Register has written a very accurate and fair account of happenings at the Central London Civil Justice Centre last Monday. This was the first day’s hearing of my appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision that the BBC were correct to refuse a request for the names of the ‘best scientific experts’ who attended their seminar entitled ‘Climate Change the Challenge to Broadcasting’ in January 2006. This expert advice was cited on page 40 of the BBC Trust’s excellent report ‘From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century’ as the authority for a very important editorial decision.

I’ve written about this very strange seminar here and many other times at Harmless Sky.

The judgement will probably be handed down in 4-6 weeks time and I do not intend to blog about the proceedings in any detail until then. For one thing, I will not be able to decide whether I received a fair hearing until I see what the Tribunal has to say.

What is certain is that presenting my case in person, without legal representation, was an interesting experience, if sometimes puzzling, frustrating and downright irritating. And the second day’s proceedings, which Andrew Orlowski was unable to cover, were no less remarkable than the first. I am particularly grateful to my wife who sat through it all with me, sometimes confirming my own views with a nudge and raised eyebrows, continually making notes, and then helping decide where the next priority might lie whenever there was a chance to talk things through.

As we drove home the next day through the grey, windy, cold late autumn countryside we passed a snack van in a lay-by just outside Malvern. It had been a pretty bruising couple of days and visions of comfort food in the form of a bacon roll were too great a temptation. We swerved to a halt.

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The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee has finally published its findings on the complaint that I made last January about Newsnight’s reporting of President Obama’s inaugural speech. The ESC is the last stage in the BBC’s complaints process. Their decision is final and unchallengeable.

I set out the events which prompted this complaint in a post headed BBC Newsnight – Warming up President Obama’s inaugural speech? Briefly, the complaint was about a report by Susan Watts’ that was introduced with a seemingly continuous sound recording from the speech, but which was in fact concocted from three isolated phrases, taken from different parts of the speech, that had been spliced together. While the screen showed views of Kew Gardens, the audience heard the new president say:

We will restore science to its rightful place, [and] roll back the spectre of a warming planet. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

Followed by Susan Watts saying:

President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today.

But this assertion referred not to something that the president had actually said, but to a manufactured quotation from the speech. In fact it was clear from the speech, which took some twenty minutes to deliver,  that Obama had avoided saying anything much about global warming. There is not one complete sentence in the speech devoted to this subject, which is why the Newsnight team had to scavenge for the odd phrases that would fit their report. Continue reading »

It’s now two and a half years since I first asked the BBC for the names of the  ‘best scientific experts’ who attended their Climate Change – the Challenge to Broadcasting seminar at Television Centre in January 2006. In the meantime, readers of this blog may have formed some fairly forthright opinions about how the BBC has responded to that challenge.

This seminar featured in a blockbuster report on impartiality that was published by the BBC Trust in 2007.  This is what it said:

The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus.


Since that time, sceptical views on global warming have been all but absent from BBC coverage of the subject. Their reporters and programme makers seem to have adopted a completely uncritical attitude to the deluge of climate propaganda coming from scientists, activists, and politicians with a view to persuading the public of the rightness of their cause. Continue reading »

In April, the BBC told me that my complaint about the out-of-context splicing of phrases from President Obama’s inaugural speech in a Newsnight report by Susan Watts would be considered by the Editorial Complaints Unit. They have now replied at some length: Continue reading »

It’s now nearly three months since Susan Watts’ extraordinary report for Newsnight about President Obama’s inaugural speech. After jumping through a multitude of hoops (here, here, and here) as part of the BBC complaints process, I have finally received a letter from the Editorial Complaints Unit with some kind of substantive content. This is what they have to say:

I’m writing to notify you that your complaint about Susan Watts’ report for Newsnight on the environmental challenges faced by President Obama is being entertained by this unit. I would also like to sincerely apologise for the delay in doing so as a result of having mislaid your letter.

To ensure that we have a correct understanding of the basis for your complaint, the BBC’S complaints procedure requires that, at this stage, we set out the main points of complaint as we understand them, and the elements of the Editorial Guidelines that we believe to be most relevant to them. In this instance we understand your complaint to be that the editing of excerpts from President Obama’s inaugural speech in this report distorted their intended meaning. The relevant section of the guidelines is that on Accuracy which says, in a section headed Misleading Audiences:

We should not distort known facts, present invented material as fact or knowingly do anything to mislead our audiences. We may need to label material to avoid doing so.

If you have any comments on this summary of your complaint and the relevant guidelines, please let us have them by 22 April so that we can take them into consideration in the course of our investigation, the outcome of which we’ll aim to let you know by 6 May.

For information, the full Editorial Guidelines can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/

And the BBC’s complaints process is explained at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle.shtml

Yours sincerely

Complaints Manager

Editorial Complaints Unit

There is something positively Dickensian about the use of the word ‘entertain’ in the first paragraph, but as the last paragraph refers to an impending ‘investigation’, we seem to be on roughly the right track at last. What comes in the middle is a little more worrying. Continue reading »

At the end of last month, Newsnight returned to the delicate subject of what President Obama said or did not say about science in his inaugural speech. For anyone new to this topic see: BBC Newsnight – Warming up President Obama’s inaugural speech?Here’s what happened in the most recent episode which was broadcasted on 26th March 2009:

Lead-in from Emily Maitlis, the programme presenter: In his policies, George Bush never disguised the fact that he put God many rungs higher than science. So how will life change now there is a US president who believes passionately in the subject. In a wide ranging interview, Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winning cancer specialist charged with the task of restoring science to its rightful place talks to our Science Editor Susan Watts.

Ms Watts’ report started with a sound bite from the inaugural speech, part of which will be familiar to many Harmless Sky readers:

President Obama: We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technologies wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.

The last time we heard, ‘We’ll restore science to its rightful place ….’ on Newsnight, the rest of the sentence seemed to be, ‘[and] roll back the spectre of a warming planet’. Unless you happened to have a very good memory, or had just read a transcript of the speech, you would have thought that was exactly what the president had said. Not at all the same thing as the complete sentence accurately quoted above. But where climate science is concerned, can we expect the BBC to concern itself about a trivial matter like misquotation provided that the message is ‘correct’? Using the same seven-word phrase twice in little over a month in such very different contexts leaves one a little breathless.

Evidently Newsnight were not prepared to risk repeating the so-called ‘montage’ that they used in their original coverage of the inaugural speech, in spite of claiming that there was nothing wrong with it.

This is Susan Watts’ introduction to her interview with Professor Varmus: Continue reading »

Back in August last year, I reported that I had made an application to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act for the names of the ‘best scientific experts’ who attended their climate change seminar in January 2006. It’s time for an update.My original request was made on 20th July 2007, and on 21st  August 2007 the BBC replied. I was told that the information that I required was held ‘for the purpose of journalism, art or literature’ and therefor they were not obliged to disclose it under the terms of the legislation.As this seemed to be stretching a very well used loophole just a little too far, I then wrote to the Information Commissioner’s Office, on 5th of September 2007, asking them to require the BBC to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. The ICO is the watchdog charged with ensuring that public authorities not only comply with the legislation, but do so promptly.

During the next eleven months I received two identical letters from the ICO explaining that they were very busy and unable to start investigating my complaint. A request for them to do so immediately was ignored.

Eventually, at the end of July 2008 over a year after I had written to the BBC I was told that the case had at last been allocated for investigation, and a letter had been sent to the BBC asking them to explain why they had rejected my request for information about the seminar. It looked as though progress was being made at last.

During the next six months, I received a succession of emails from the Senior Complaints Officer who was dealing with the case. Most of them looked like this: Continue reading »

Following on from my last post about the problems of making a complaint to the BBC about Susan Watt’s report on President Obama’s inauguration speech on Newsnight, time continued to slip by.Given the way in which my response to Mr Graham’s message had been mangled when I tried to send it via the BBC Complaints website, I hardly expected it receive a reply. So I searched around for some way of moving things on.Eventually I found that the BBC has a Complaints Coordinator, and I sent him the following message:

A month ago I attempted to make a complaint to the BBC concerning
Susan Watts´ report on President Obama´s inaugural speech, broadcast
by Newsnight on 20th January 2009. The extraordinary progress of this
matter through the BBC´s complaint system is reported on my blog



Would you please provide me with contact details of someone who can
help resolve this matter without further waste of time and
embarrassment to the BBC. All I want to do is respond to the message
that I received form Mr Graham of BBC Complaints and move on to the
next stage in the complaints procedure.

I would be grateful for your help.

I pressed the send button at 12:55 on Monday 23rd  February and just eight minutes later, at  13:03, the following reply had reached my mailbox: Continue reading »

As I said in Part 1 of this post, by the time that Dave of the BBC Trust had confirmed that my complaint had been forwarded to BBC Management I had received an initial response from them. Given that they had received the documentation on 9th February and they replied on the 11th February, this was pretty quick. But as I have said previously, their attempt to justify what was broadcast in Susan Watts’ report for Newsnight on 20th January was totally implausible:Thank you for your email regarding ‘Newsnight’ which was broadcast on 20th January.

Your correspondence has been forwarded by the Trust Unit to BBC Information for a reply on behalf of the BBC’s Executive as it concerns matters which are the responsibility of the Executive, rather than the Trust, in the first instance. This department, BBC Information, has a wealth of knowledge about BBC programmes and policies and is experienced in the workings of the Corporation and so is authorised to reply on behalf of the BBC’s Executive.

I understand you felt that Susan Watts’ report on Barack Obama’s plans for the environment edited clips of his inauguration address in a way that was misleading.

This was one part of a 50 minute programme exploring the start of the Obama presidency from various angles. ‘Newsnight’ edited sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to science as a way to give people an impression or montage of what President Obama said about science in his inauguration speech.

This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying. the report then went on to explore the challenges facing the President in this area.

I appreciate that you had serious concerns about the editing of the speech and I have registered your complaint on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for the ‘Newsnight’ production team and all programme makers within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the corporation.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us.


Barry Graham
BBC Complaints

Even ignoring the complacent and condescending tone, this seemed a pretty low level response so I resigned myself to moving on to a higher level of management where a more objective view might be found, and decisions taken. So I emailed the following response to Mr Graham:

Continue reading »

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