A couple of days ago, I wrote to Richard D North asking if he could remember whether the BBC climate change seminar which he attended in 2006 was held under the Chatham House Rule. This is rather an important point.Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, originated in the aftermath of the First World War and has become a respected source of independent analysis, informed debate and influential ideas on how to build a prosperous and secure world.

The House has given its name to the famous Chatham House Rule, first established here in 1927 and revised twice since. The Rule is used around the world to ensure free and open debate.

http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/about/history/

This is what the rule says:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

The world-famous Chatham House Rule may be invoked at meetings to encourage openness and the sharing of information.

EXPLANATION of the Rule

The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.

Q. What are the benefits of using the Rule?
A. It allows people to speak as individuals, and to express views that may not be those of their organizations, and therefore it encourages free discussion. People usually feel more relaxed if they don’t have to worry about their reputation or the implications if they are publicly quoted.

http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/about/chathamhouserule/

The value of the Chatham House Rule in sensitive diplomatic negotiations or conflict resolution is obvious. Parties can, if the rule is in operation, freely express views and explore ideas without having to worry that what they say may be held against them in the future, but this is clearly an intermediate stage in the process of negotiation or decision making.  It is a means of clearing the ground so that substantive discussions and decision making can take place, or of exploring sensitive issues in a way that might be difficult if everything that is said has to be on the record. It is certainly not intended to be a means of hiding a decision making process behind closed doors. In my view, and I suspect in the view of Chatham House too, using the rule for this purpose would be inappropriate.

Here is Richard D North’s reply to my enquiry:

Dear Tony,

I don’t recall whether the meeting was held under Chatham House rules. Even if it wasn’t formally said, I’d have assumed that it was the case unless I had checked with individual speakers or interviewees or interlocutors that they wanted their remarks quoted. I say this as an old-fashioned type who disapproves strongly of private remarks being retold in public without permission. I used to get into trouble as a journalist over this because I kept stuff to myself.

You can publish this if you like.

Best wishes

r

I wrote to Richard because someone at the BBC had told me that the rule had been invoked and therefor he could not speak about it. This puzzled me as, when I made a freedom of information act application to the BBC in an attempt to find out who had been invited to the seminar, their refusal made no mention of the Chatham House Rule. Also, the BBC provided me with the names of four people who where present, which would be a blatant breach of the rule if it had been in force.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the rule was in force. This would, in effect, impose a gagging order on the organisers and participants. It would also be a very convenient means by which a secretive organisation, which is none the less supposed to be publicly accountable, could stave off awkward questions by hiding behind the restrictions imposed by the rule. The question therefor arises as to why the BBC should invoke the Chatham House Rule in this particular case, if indeed they did so?

The purpose of the seminar was to inform BBC’s editorial policy by hearing the views of ‘experts’ on climate change. Roughly sixty people were present, of whom half were BBC staff. The other participants have been described in the following very different ways:

‘Some of the best scientific experts’
BBC impartiality report: From See Saw to Wagon Wheel, p40

‘Specialists in climate change’
Letter from the BBC, 21/072007

‘Policy experts’
The IBT, joint organisers of the seminar: http://www.ibt.org.uk/all_documents/dialogue/Real World Brainstorm update 30Jul08.pdf

‘The BBC crew (senior executives from every branch of the corporation) were matched by an equal number of specialists, almost all (and maybe all) of whom could be said to have come from the “we must support Kyoto” school of climate change activists.’
Richard D North, who was actually present. http://ccgi.newbery1.plus.com/blog/?p=142

If the delegates from whom the BBC were seeking guidance on editorial policy were indeed scientific experts, then there might be a case for holding at least part of this seminar under the Chatham House Rule; climate change is a highly charged subject both scientifically and politically, so academics might feel more comfortable with this arrangement. But if, as seems far more likely, the BBC chose its advisers from the ranks of lobby groups and activists, then the decision is inexplicable and unjustifiable. This would have brought politics to the heart of the decision making process at the BBC, while drawing a veil of secrecy over the proceedings. No one present would be accountable for anything that they said, nor would the advice given be open to scrutiny by anyone who was not present.

In view of what Richard D North has said about ignorance of climate change on the part of BBC personnel who he met at the seminar, this is disturbing. It is unwise to seek information about any complex subject with which one is not familiar from people who have an axe to grind. If you also offer them the protection of the Chatham House Rule then this is virtually an invitation for the advisers to express views with which they would not want to be associated publicly, and to do so with a guarantee of impunity. What does this have to do with facilitating impartial and accurate coverage of the climate debate by the BBC?

This seminar was organised jointly by the BBC, the International Broadcasting Trust, which is a self confessed lobby group representing various climate activists including Friends of the Earth, and the Cambridge Medial and Environment Programme (CMEP) run by the BBC’s Environment Analyst, Roger Harrabin. The CMEP is so shadowy that neither Bishop Hill nor I have been able to find out very much about it (more here). The Chatham House Rule is intended to promote ‘free and open discussion’, and has a long and honourable history as a means of allowing discourse to take place in an atmosphere of mutual confidence for the good of all. If the organisers of the seminar have used the rule merely as a way of avoiding any awkward questions about who is advising the BBC on climate change, and what advice they have received, then surely this is a blatant and disreputable misuse of the Chatham House Rule.

I wonder if the seminar at Television Centre on 26th January 2006 can be described as a free and open debate if the rule was used to ensure that those who rely on the BBC for accurate and impartial reporting of current affairs licence payers, viewers, listeners and the millions who use their web-based news service would never find out what happened?

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