In a post here I quoted from an article that Jeremy Paxman wrote for Ariel, the BBC’s house magazine:

I have neither the learning nor the experience to know whether the doomsayers are right about the human causes of climate change. But I am willing to acknowledge that people who know a lot more than I do may be right when they claim that it is the consequence of our own behaviour.

I assume that this is why the BBC’s coverage of the issue abandoned the pretence of impartiality long ago. But it strikes me as very odd indeed that an organisation which affects such a high moral tone cannot be more environmentally responsible. [My emphasis]

Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight Homepage 02/02/2007

Although it was Paxman’s admission that that the BBC has taken a position in the climate change debate and is no longer reporting on this vital topic impartially that attracted my attention to his article, this revelation was not the main thrust of what he had to say. Hypocrisy at the BBC was what was getting the devastating ‘Paxo’ treatment.

It would seem that the corporation is rather reluctant to practice what it preaches. In the previous three years, its electricity bill had doubled from ‘almost £6.5m to nearly £13m’. Lights and computer terminals at Television Centre blaze away at night, where air conditioning units are kept running even in January. No provision is made to offset carbon emissions caused by BBC staff and production teams jetting all over the world, often to make programmes in far off places rather than at home ‘because it is cheaper’. Paxman even claims that ‘digital broadcasting is an environmental idiocy, designed not to reduce carbon but to multiply it’.

Evidently the BBC is less committed to saving the planet, and presumably less convinced that it is in danger, than might be expected from their news and current affairs output. Paxman confronted top management with the uncomfortable fact that their environment correspondent, David Shukman, was paying for carbon offsets of his flights out of his own pocket. This is what happened.

When I asked Yogesh Chauhan, the chief adviser, corporate responsibility, why, he replied: ‘The biggest impact we can make is through our programmes.’

Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight Homepage 02/02/2007

Even if you ignore the cynicism underlying the response do as we say, not as we do it implies that the BBC no longer sees its role as simply reporting on the climate debate, but is committed to changing public attitudes to match its highly contentious version of the truth.

At the end of his article, Paxman lists five very basic steps that the BBC could take to reduce the organisation’s carbon footprint; fairly obvious things like carbon offsetting on staff flights, using ‘green’ transport, making programs as near home as possible and, most important of all, commissioning an independent analysis of the organisation’s environmental practices. His final observation is economical but penetrating:

None of them will save the planet. But they might save the BBC from looking like corporate hypocrites.

Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight Homepage 02/02/2007

Which brings us round to my Freedom of Information Act request about the BBC’s climate change seminar in January 2006. Paxman’s article appeared in Ariel last February, but the kind of hypocrisy that he was attacking is evidently still alive and well at the BBC.

In a previous post, I said that the Office of the Information Commissioner had written to the BBC asking, among other things, why they had not dealt with my request for information about the seminar attended by ‘the best scientific experts’, whose names they seem too shy to reveal – under the Environmental Information Regulations. These are embodied in a piece of European law similar to the FOI, but much more broadly based – it even covers contractors used by public authorities, the electricity, gas, water and sewerage utilities – with fewer exceptions that secretive organisations can hide behind.

This is what the letter to the BBC says:

Following an initial review of this case, I think it is likely that some or all of the information withheld is environmental information as defined by the Environmental Information Regulations; (EIR). I have noted that the BBC’s position is that it is not covered by the EIR but deals with request [sic] for environmental information under the Act. I also noticed that the BBC explained in response to a previous FOI request that it had sought legal advice on its position regarding the EIR.

I would be grateful if the BBC could explain in detail why it considers that it is not covered by the EIR and also comment as to whether it considers the information withheld is environmental. I would also appreciate if the BBC could consider disclosing to the Commissioner the legal advice received on the EIR and the BBC to assist us in determining the BBC’s position as a public authority under the EIR.

The Information Commissioner is not going to be the only person who will be interested to know how the BBC can possibly claim that it is not a public authority, and therefor not subject to the EIR. Licence payers may wonder why an organisation that is actively promoting fear of global warming is also spending licence payers money on legal advice to support an attempt to conceal environmental information about its own activities.

Jeremy Paxman’s article in Ariel was entitled ‘How green is my Auntie?’* The answer seems to be that Auntie is sanctimoniously preaching the doctrine of environmentalism to the general public, while flouting it behind the scenes. This will not only earn the BBC a reputation for hypocrisy, but it will also undermine its reputation as a public service broadcaster committed to delivering impartial and accurate news coverage.

* ‘Auntie’ is a nickname that the BBC’s rather prim image has earned it over the years..

13 Responses to “Freedom of information and hypocrisy at the BBC”

  1. There is some good news at the end, but to set it in context, those of you who follow matters at ClimateAudit may know that since July last year I have been trying, by clearly marked FOIA/EIR requests, to various public authorities, to get the information needed to assess whether the IPCC WGI Chapter 6 authors and review editors acted in strict conformance with internationally agreed ‘Principles Governing IPCC Work’ in arriving at their conclusion that it is probable that,

    Average Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were very likely [66 to 90%] higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years and likely the highest in at least the past 1,300 years.

    Those sceptical of climate change predictions are often said by their alarmist opponents to be part of some grand conspiracy but it is increasingly obvious that the reverse is the case. Like the BBC, five other public authorities, which I have approached, decided that documents pertaining to the assessment of climate change are NOT environmental information. To understand why, you need to read the ‘shed full’ of FOIA excuses that are available to refuse disclosure. Many are abused and overturned after lengthy appeals, but if you do not want to disclose embarrassing information you can construct a multi strand argument that looks lawyerly and at least prevent disclosure for a year or two when it might hurt a bit less and not be newsworthy.

    The Climatic Research Unit’s Information Policy Officer initially said my request [sic] must be dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations, but then said,

    subsequent [to] conversations with relevant persons within the University, I am now persuaded that my initial classification of the material requested as ‘environmental information’ as defined by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR), was, in fact, incorrect.

    Under FOIA they would disclose nothing. Meanwhile, at the Met Office the Chief Scientist first said he had not kept any documents, then he had deleted them. Next he had kept them and not deleted them but they were his personal data. Then the lawyers got involved and they were not his personal data but neither were they environmental information and under FOIA they were not going to release anything.

    However the Data Protection Act has fewer ways to refuse disclosure and this is what one knight of the realm told his ‘Information Services Directorate’:

    15/07/2008 11:27:44 Remedy Application Service
    Email from: REDACTED
    Subject: Re: Further FOI requests – CNTCT#000266
    Dear L, I have made enquiries and found that both the MetOffice/MOD and UEA are resisting the FOI requests made by Holland. The latter are very relevant to us as UK universities should speak with the same voice on this. I gather that they are using academic freedom as their reason. I have been given the name of the person who is dealing with this matter at UEA. It is: REDACTED, University of East Anglia Norwich, England NR4 7TJ. I urge you to contact him so that we can get our act together. Best wishes B

    Now the good bit. Perhaps as their swan song, Defra have, after a very long internal review, admitted that they were wrong not have considered my request to them under the EIR, stating:

    The three main requests for information you have made to the Department, i.e. 1) a copy of the Review Editor’s Report for chapter 6 of the IPCC WGI Fourth Assessment Report and the Government Review comments for the WGI Summary for Policymakers, 2) all the Government review comments for the WGI report and 3) the identity of the Government reviewers and a copy of Dr Manning’s note to reviewers, the covering e-mail and all documents discussing the IPCC Governing Principles, are on the face of it about whether or not the Lead Authors of chapter 6 correctly followed the IPCC Principles and that the review process itself was conducted in accordance with these Principles.

    However the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess scientific information related to climate change, to evaluate the environmental and socio-economic consequences of climate change, and to formulate realistic response strategies. The assessment reports produced over the last few years therefore contain information on the elements of the environment and factors affecting them contributing to climate change. The review comments would have contributed to the IPCC assessment of any human influence on the current climate. Consequently we have concluded that the information held falls within the definition of environmental information under regulation 2(1)(c), relating to measures and activities (the assessment reports), affecting or likely to affect the elements and factors referred to in (a) and (b) as well as measures or activities designed to protect those elements.

    Many public authorities, throughout the EU are going to have come to terms with the Aarhus Convention from whence EIR is derived. In particular the requirement to proactively, and electronically, disseminate environmental information which they have acquired since I Jan 2005. So far as I can tell few have been diligent and most, including the BBC, are in breach of the Regulations.

  2. David

    I am only looking at a snapshot of information here so I didnt quite follow at the end whether DEFRA WERE going to release the information you wanted or were NOT going to.
    Please clarify the latest position


  3. Tony B,
    In some respects what Defra don’t know is as interesting as what they do know. I think they were more bamboozled than bamboozling. They have released quite a lot but it only demonstrates that they did not have a clue as to what was going on. They do not actually know which comments they made to the IPCC. They are passengers on a train being driven by the ‘hockey team’. Some of them will be happy to get back to fishing and farming.

    Defra think ‘plausible’ is the same as 66% to 90% probable, rather than specious or deceptive!

  4. You’re good at maths David, could you check the maths on the following I just posted over at the climate blog.

    i must have added too many noughts as surely even this lot wouldn’t try to wreck our ecoonmy foir so little gain. Incidentally I know I have said this before but I am an (unpaid) representative on a committee of the Environment Agency. If it could be couched in the right way-and if it would help- I could ask additional questions ‘officially’ from the EA viewpoint.

    The calculation of co2 follows;

    “I have tried to work out the C02 figures relating to the british govts plan to reduce co2 emissions by 80%

    Leaving aside that the overwhelming majority of co2 is natural I have used the figure that humanity has increased co2 by 100ppm since the industrial age in 1750.

    co2 represents 4% of greenhouse gases. Britain emits 4% of the worlds co2 in total.
    So the uk figure represents 0.000016% of the atmosphere.
    That represents an annual average rate of 0.00000008%
    emitted by Britain since the industrial age.

    If we reduce by 80% that equates to 0.000000064%% of the atmosphere. In reality this reduction will cause impossible pain for miniscule effect.”

  5. TonyB, my maths is never good at this time, but you can be certain that the UK contribution is irrelevant globally. The issue is whether a gesture is worth the cost. Given that the benefit may be zero I have little expectation we will go down the the path suggested today. As some one said I can promise to give you a million pounds in 40 years time and easily sleep at night.

  6. Tony,

    If you are looking for allies in your tussle with the BBC then you might want to take a look at this:

    However, you might have second thoughts when you read:

  7. David Holland,

    Maybe we should apply your argument everywhere in the world. For a start, we can say that the UK is just a small country and whether you raise their emissions by 50% or reduce them by 50% is going to have very little impact on a global scale. “Irrelevant globally” as you put it. Therefore, why not just go right ahead and increase them as much as you like.

    Lets do the same with the USA and China. We can split them up into States and provinces and make exactly the same argument for each and every one of them.

    Its quite a handy little argument for all sorts of things besides CO2 control. The next time you get a tax demand you can quite truthfully claim that it would make very little difference to the total tax revenue and therefore you should be excused paying it. Let me know if your argument does any good and maybe we can all use it.

  8. Re: #7, Peter

    I was on holiday when ‘Climate Wars’ was broadcast, so missed it. But when I got back I had a look around the blogoshere to see what people were saying. I was surprised, and amused, to find that there were as many posts on warmist blogs claiming the it was biased towards scepticism as there were posts on scepic blogs describing it as warmist propaganda. No doubt the BBC would cite this as proof of impartiality.

    Your other link seems to be completely unrelated to the BBC. The greenbelt controversy is not new. Simon Schama, in his mighty tome Landscape and Memory, refers to demonstrations in 1829, on what was then the outskirts of London, when a developer tried to build on Hampstead Heath. A contemporary activist claimed that the city ‘needed a wilderness for its civic wealth …unkempt and uncultivated nature …the very specific gift to the people.’ The protesters won, and I doubt whether the author of the piece in ‘Grist’ would have much luck arguing that this was a bad thing.

    Of course there is a long tradition of Londoners driving out into the countryside as a form of recreation: Pepys mentions it often. In the age of the motor car, that means the further they have to go, the more they pollute doesn’t it?

  9. Peter,

    It is indeed an argument can be applied to many things global.

    As for tax, there was a time when this United Kingdom was not united and little fiefdoms tried to extort taxes from anyone that passed through. Many did resist. What we now have, with its admitted faults, is a United Kingdom with a government that rules by consent and subjects itself to an independent judiciary. It took us centuries to get to where we are.

    Taxation is only one of the many UK laws with which, in detail at least, I disagree. However, save for a few mph occasionally and if know of them (which is getting harder), I try to obey our laws. I pay my taxes on the basis that everyone will be obliged to. I prefer to live and pay taxes here than, say, in Italy where evasion is a way of life and more akin to what would happen globally if there was a global agreement to cap emissions.

    The subtext to all ‘Salvationism’ of which global warming is only the most recent incarnation is world government and a few other trendy ideas which I will skip. It may come, but I do not think so for centuries. My fear is, that to get there any quicker than many centuries, we will have go through, globally, some of the less pleasant political stages that most developed counties did on a smaller scale.

    We do have some global agreements, like on CFCs, and there was a sort of agreement on DDT. Whether they do any good or not is another argument. In the case of CFCs the cost was insignificant compared to reducing CO2 and no developing countries had overriding economic arguments against it. With DDT the cost in loss of life in developing countries eventually caused a rethink.

  10. Re the tax comparison, one thing that occurred to me was that even though we generally grumble at taxes, we know what benefits the taxes will bring. I know that some proportion of my council tax will go towards road maintenance and rubbish collection, for instance. And if taxes go up but services deteriorate, it is possible to audit the government or the council, to find out where the money went and exactly what it went towards. Now, even if we accept, just for argument’s sake, that man-made carbon dioxide is an issue (which I don’t think it is), what measurable benefits will occur climate-wise from the 80% cut? I’m not aware of any attempt to quantify the outcome for this (one of the things I’ve asked my MP to ask Ed Miliband.) Does the cut translate into 3.7 nanometres less sea level rise by 2100? And are there procedures in place to establish milestones (e.g., 1 nanometre less sea level rise by 2020?) If they haven’t done their homework on this, it looks to me as if the Commons consensus has been to incur the nation very large (but not clearly defined) costs for very little (but again not clearly defined) benefits.

  11. […] Hulme and the BBC in relation to a body called the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme (see here for some background on this story). The original response from UEA was that all Prof Hulme’s […]

  12. […] Hulme and the BBC in relation to a body called the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme (see here for some background on this story). The original response from UEA was that all Prof Hulme’s […]

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