In February 2007, an article that Jeremy Paxman had originally written for Ariel, the BBC’s house magazine, was published on the Newsnight website. It included this remarkable statement about global warming:

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

This stark admission of partisan reporting by the BBC coming from someone who has been at the centre of current affairs broadcasting for decades was a surprise to me, not because I was unaware of bias on this subject, but because someone so highly placed in the organisation was prepared to make such a frank admission.

In June of the same year, the BBC published an 80-page report with the astonishingly obscure title, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel. Now there may be quite a few people who are concerned about the odd wheel coming off our national broadcaster’s wagon, but why would they be talking about see-saws? A subtitle on the cover of the report sheds some light on this mystery, but not much: safeguarding impartiality in the 21st century’. The connection between this relatively straightforward expression of intent, wagon wheels, and seasaws is explained in excruciating detail in the early pages of the report, but thankfully it is not the subject of this post.

In fact, once one has got past the silly title, the report is very interesting, even courageous in its attempt to confront a difficult problem. This seems to be a genuine attempt to address concerns that editorial policy at the BBC too often reflects the views of its young, metropolitan, university educated, middle class, mildly left of centre employees, rather than the full spectrum of public opinion. This problem is not just the preserve of people who sign letters of complaint, ‘disgusted, Tonbridge Wells’ but as the report makes clear, it is also causing alarm among senior staff within the organisation.

Not surprisingly, I thumbed through From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel to see if it included any attempt to justify the blatantly partisan line that the BBC takes in the climate change debate. I was not disappointed.

Skilfully dovetailed into a section that also considers the problems of reporting Holocaust denial impartially, I found a few paragraphs dealing with what the Corporation obviously considers to be an equally tedious and morally reprehensible group: climate change sceptics. Immediately it became clear why Jeremy Paxman had felt able to be so forthright about editorial policy on the climate change debate in his article. This is what the report says:

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 [on anthropogenic climate change].

From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel, Page 40

That sentence worried me. Years of watching the BBC’s coverage of this subject with growing astonishment during which numerous ‘scientific experts’ who clearly hold very partisan views on climate change, have been interviewed to provide viewers with what they were lead to believe were objective opinions on the evidence for anthropogenic global warming, has made me despair of BBC impartiality. I am thinking of people like George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, Professor Chris Rapley, Lord May of Oxford, Sir David King and Professor Tom Burke in particular. Anyone who has followed this controversy will be well aware that, although such people may be experts on the subject, they are anything but impartial or objective.

In an attempt to discover whether the BBC had organised this seminar in order to acquaint itself with the issues, or whether the purpose had been to obtain some kind of spurious authority for an editorial policy that had long since become ingrained in their news coverage, I thought that it would be worth trying to find out who had been invited to advise them. Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations I made the following request to the BBC for information:

1. What was the name or title given to this seminar?

2. Where and when was this seminar held?

3. When did the seminar start and when did it end.

4. A copy of the invitation that was sent to prospective participants.

5. The agenda for the seminar together with any notes that were provided for the participants.

6. The names of all those who were invited to attend the seminar as participants, observers or in any other capacity together with their job description, organizational affiliation’s or any other information relating to their eligibility for being invited to be present.

7. The names of all those who attended the seminar as participants, observers or in any other capacity together with their job description, organizational affiliation’s or any other information relating to their eligibility for being invited to be present.

8. Any minutes, notes, electronic communications, recorded material or other records of the proceedings of the seminar.

Letter to the BBC, 20th July, 2007

Eventually I received their response:

In this case, the information you have requested is outside the scope of the Act because information relating to the seminar is held to help inform the arc’s editorial policy around reporting climate change. The only exception to this is the logistic details which you have requested

In this respect I can confirm that the seminar was called ‘Climate Change – the Challenge to Broadcasting’ and was held at the BBC’s Television Centre in White City London on 26 January 2006. The seminar ran from 9.30am to 5.30prn.

We are also happy to voluntarily provide you with some further information relating to the seminar.

The attendees at the seminar were made up of 30 key BBC staff and 30 invited guests who are specialists in the area of climate change. It was hosted by Jana Bennett, Director of Vision (then Television), BBC and Helen Boaden, Director of News BBC. It was chaired by Fergal Keane, Special Correspondent with BBC News. The key speaker at the seminar was Robert McCredie, Lord May of Oxford.

Seminar had the following aims:

  • · To offer a clear summary of the state of knowledge on the issue
  • · To find where the main debates lie
  • · To invoke imagination to allow the media to deal with the scope of the issue
  • · To consider the BBC’s role in public debate.

Letter from the BBC, 21st August, 2007

So we know that Lord May, an ex-government chief scientific adviser, ex-president of the Royal Society and a vehement advocate of climate alarmism played an important role in the proceedings. But apparently the BBC would prefer that just about everything else to do with a seminar which formed their editorial policy on a matter of immense public importance should remain a secret.

There may be people outside the realms of the BBC and environmental activism who would attempt to justify this decision, but I doubt if there are many.
As the BBC does not offer any internal review procedure when a request under the
Freedom of Information Act is refused, I referred my application to the Information Commissioner’s Office for adjudication. After a delay of almost a year, they are just beginning to investigate. Future developments will be reported on this blog.

108 Responses to “Jeremy Paxman, the BBC, Impartiality, and Freedom of Information”

  1. Thank you Vlad.

    I felt my comment was “excellent” also.

    I pride myself on my brevity and succinctness.

    [TonyN: Sorry Brute, but Vlad was spam]

  2. Snowstorm shatters local records in Chicago…

  3. “Qualis artifex pereo.”

  4. Thanks Brute, Chris Horner seems to be doing some very useful things at the moment:

  5. […] noamount of spin can disguise what they have been doing over many years.” (a comment on blog Harmless Sky by Tonyb earlier today). I couldn’t have said it […]

  6. I’ve closed comments on this thread as, for some reason, it’s become a regular target of Russian spam.

    If, after all this time, anyone has anything to add then please comment on the Admin thread and I’ll see it.

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