steve-jonesSteve Jones review of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science was published while I was out of the country and out of reach of the internet. Since I returned there has been a lot of catching up to  do after a much longer holiday than usual, so as I was ‘a week behind the fair’ so far as the review was concerned anyway, I didn’t do more than glance at a copy online, shudder,  and make a mental note to read it properly when there was plenty of time. As it happened this was fortunate, because the version of the review that the BBC posted on 20th July was not quite the final version.

When I finally downloaded a copy this morning, I found this sad little note on the title page:

Clarification
On 8 August 2011 the Trust published an updated version of Professor Steve Jones’ independent review of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage due to an ambiguity in the section on climate change. This reference was in the section on pages 71-72, immediately before Professor Jones discussed statements about climate change contained in two BBC programmes.
The Trust and Professor Jones now recognise that the passage as originally published could be interpreted as attributing statements made in those two programmes to Lord Lawson or to Lord Monckton. Neither programme specifically featured Lord Lawson or Lord Monckton and it was not Professor Jones’ intention to suggest that this was the case. Professor Jones has apologised for the lack of clarity in this section of his assessment, which has now been amended.

 

This is what the beginning of the paragraph straddling pages 71-72 looked like before 8th Aug:

The impression of active debate is promoted by prominent individuals such as Lord Monckton and Lord Lawson. The BBC still gives space to them to make statements that are not supported by the facts; that (in a February 2011 The Daily Politics show) 95% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, while in fact human activity has been responsible for a 40% rise in concentration, or (a November 2009 Today programme) that volcanoes produce more of the gas than do humans (the balance is a hundred times in the opposite direction).

And this is how it looked this morning:

The impression of active debate is sometimes promoted by statements that are not supported by the facts; that (in a March 2011 The Daily Politics show) 95% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, while in fact human activity has been responsible for a 40% rise in concentration, or (a November 2009 Today programme) that volcanoes produce more of the gas than do humans (the balance is a hundred times in the opposite direction).

One can well understand why Lords Lawson and Monckton would have been a bit miffed. I sincerely hope that someone at the BBC Trust had the grace to blush and apologise, but the ‘clarification’ they’ve provided sounds rather graceless and grudging. Perhaps its a bit difficult to face up to the fact that you’ve published a review of accuracy costing £140,000 which is not only inaccurate but probably libellous too.

Being the slowest site with the news in the whole of the blogosphere can occasionally have its advantages. Apart from the forgoing, which seemed to require an immediate airing, I’ll be posting again later today, or tomorrow, about Professor Jones extraordinary opus. So long after the event much has been said about this document, but there are quite a few things that haven’t been said yet that certainly still need saying. And I fear that there may need to be a bit more ‘clarification’. Accuracy just doesn’t seem to be Professor Jones’ thing.

UPDATE: 21/08/2011

Andrew Montford at Bishop Hill has followed the twists and turns of this story a bit further here and unearthed some other problems.

8 Responses to “The Jones Review: accuracy and impartiality BBC style”

  1. […] of concern for a scientist.  Perhaps Jones should have had peer-review process…  As Harmless Sky brings to public attention, the BBC Trust has been forced to publish a ‘Clarification’ […]

  2. As well as the Steve Jones review itself, there’s some interesting content to be found in Appendix A, a report compiled by Felicity Mellor, Stephen Webster and Alice Bell at Imperial College London (here) and also in Alice Bell’s blog (http://alicerosebell.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/the-bbc-trust-report-on-science/.)

    Alice Bell writes: “One of the key questions our work asked was who is given a voice in science news? What’s their expertise, where do they come from and – arguably most importantly – what are we told about this sort of context?”

    Whether you think any these various expert voices (when they were included) are the right ones is another matter though. You can’t just say scientists are the appropriate voices and that’s it. Simply being ‘a scientist’ doesn’t necessarily make you an expert on the topic at hand, and there are other areas of relevant expertise, especially when it comes to science policy issues.

    This could certainly be said about Steve Jones, Paul Nurse and quite a few others; being a scientist and an expert in one field (e.g., genetics) does not make someone an expert in every field. But I don’t think that is necessarily the problem; it isn’t that Steve Jones is not an expert in areas of science outside genetics, it is that simply being “a scientist” he is given unique licence to speak or write on scientific matters with authority, even though, as we have seen, he has, in quite a few instances, tended to confuse matters and get some of his basic facts wrong. And he uses this authority to propose the censorship of minority views that he does not share (but presumably not the ones that he does share.)

    The Appendix A report is worth reading, although the writers sum up by stating that their work is a content analysis and should not be seen as judgemental:

    Which of the features we have identified should be taken as failings and which as successes, and which, if any, have a bearing on the questions of impartiality and accuracy, is open to debate and is not something that content analysis can answer.

    The writers also state that they have found BBC science coverage to be “informative but rarely investigative” (p.83). With that in mind, section 14.2 (Reporting climate change) is of interest, in which they discuss BBC news coverage of the findings of the Muir Russell Report (pp.75-79) and during which – if my reading of this is correct – they in fact do criticise the BBC, where news reports have emphasised climate scientists being less than open about data, rather than where news reports have focussed on the “exoneration” of the scientists, which is “a more faithful representation of what the [Muir Russell] panel said.” The writers are criticising the BBC, in effect, for not being as “informative” in a superficial sense, as they could have been.

    But that is where “investigative” surely should have come in. There has been little or no investigative reporting by the BBC of Climategate and of the Muir Russell and Oxburgh inquiries – that sort of thing has been left to the bloggers, to people such as yourself, Tony, and to Andrew Montford and Steve McIntyre (who get no thanks for doing so!) There is a puzzling lack of investigation on the part of the BBC and the mainstream media, a seeming lack of curiosity where it comes to matters where “scientists have found” and “experts say” that something is so, and an unwillingness to go beyond a certain point in the pursuit of a story. This lack is actually a phenomenon that is interesting and mysterious in itself, but has not been a matter for discussion outside the blogosphere; it is like the story of the dog that did not bark in the night.

    Little has changed at the BBC, though. I present an up-to-the minute example:

    1) Here’s a story published by the BBC yesterday about animals fleeing the Equator because of global warming. “Species flee warming faster than previously thought.” Moths and butterflies are seeking the mountaintops, and as for animals already on the mountaintops or at the North Pole? “They die”, explains Dr Thomas. This includes the polar bear, of course, as “it has nowhere to go.” This is boilerplate climate catastrophe reporting by the BBC, of a kind with which we are all familiar.

    2) And here’s some of the story behind the story, courtesy of Donna Lafromboise. She investigates where the BBC doesn’t. We are still in the strange position of paying for science coverage that is sometimes little more than churnalism, and at the same time getting top-notch analysis free of charge from the blogs. It’s truly a world turned upside down.

  3. Good one Alex!

    I think that the kind of investigative reporting of the climate debate that is a requirement of competent journalism is beyond the BBC’s capability because it would immediately dictate a change in editorial policy that would be at odds with the liberal, metropolitan, arts graduate orientated, intellectually arrogant, complacently bourgeois, sanctimonious, ethos of the organisation. Jones’ refusal to even consider the evidence in the submission that Andrew and I sent him is an obvious symptom of this hidebound thinking. Had he done so, then he would have had to have written a very different kind of report starting with evidence that there was a major problem with one very important area of BBC science coverage rather than a comfortable assumption that everything was absolutely super except for the intrusion of a few cynical ignoramuses who just don’t quite get it.

    What is distressing is that the excellent ‘Wagon Wheel’ report went a long way towards identifying the cultural isolation of the BBC from it’s audience and suggested that this was a major problem that would cost the organisation its supremacy in the media world unless the issue was addressed urgently. This report was published more than half a decade ago.

    Incidentally, but on a related subject, have you noticed whether either report talks about the academic qualifications of those who report science for the BBC? So far as I am aware, Harrabin has an English decree, Sahra Mukerjeed did law. I have no idea what Shukman’s or Black’s or Fielden’s qualification are, but I believe that both Pallab Ghosh and Susan Watts have physics degrees. David Whitehouse, late of the BBC, was also a physicist of course. I’m not suggesting that only scientists should report science of course, but the BBC is rather inclined, as you point out, to suggest that non-scientists should not have a voice in the climate debate.

  4. TonyN
    I don’t think the failure of the BBC to carry out investigative reporting on scientific matters can be put down to their “metropolitan, arts graduate orientated, intellectually arrogant, complacently bourgeois, sanctimonious, ethos”.
    If you, or Steve McIntyre or Andrew Montford, had discovered a hole in the theory of Relativity, or a new species of moth, they’d be all over you with “blogger defies the experts” stories. Of course, you might have some difficulty if the definition of Relativity theory was in the hands of a self selected United Nations committee, or if the Prime Minister had made the number of known species of moths a principle of government policy.
    But journalism, even when practiced by “metropolitan, arts-graduate etc” has always thrived on controversy. There were journalists prepared to defy the experts over Thalidomide or Weapons of mass destruction. But not over thermometers at airports or Siberian tree rings. Why not? After all, we’d all like to believe that medicine is safe, and that the wars declared by our government are justified, yet journalists are willing to go against the flow. Only belief in suicide by CO2 is sacrosanct.

  5. Geoff:

    I think that the point that I was trying to make was that ‘the system’ or even ‘the establishment’ as well as ‘the culture’ and ‘the ethos’ have, in the case of climate change at least, created no-go areas for journalists, which is precisely the point you are making. I just did it rather badly.

    There are a couple of quotes from the BBCs’ Wagon Wheel report that stick in my mind:

    Michael Buerk said he believed the problem lay with an insufficiently diverse employment policy. ‘Most of the people working for the BBC are middle-class, well-educated, young metropolitan people.’ He said that, although the BBC had made great efforts to widen ethnic and gender diversity, ‘the actual intake of those people has narrowed quite appreciably in terms of age, social category, and education

    and

    Andrew Marr, in his presentation to the September seminar, quoted the words of the Ullswater parliamentary committee in 1936: ‘There’s an inevitable tendency in the general programmes of the Corporation to devote more time to the expression of new ideas and the advocacy of change in social and other spheres than the defence of orthodoxy and stability, since the reiteration of what exists and is familiar is not so interesting as the exposition of what might be.’ As Marr pointed out, ‘Any producer, any reporter worth their salt wants to go for newness, challenge, controversy – and the problem we have as the BBC is to remember that out there, there are great swathes of opinion that don’t feel like this and who feel that something slightly urban, edgy, youthful, alien and sometimes distasteful is being shoved at them.’

    I expect you’ve read this document, but if not it’s riveting after the first few rather stilted, jargon rich and dull pages. It is also an example of how a review that is bound to be controversial can be conducted fearlessly and without dodging issues. The term ‘grasping the nettle’ comes to mind, and it is one of the reason’s why Andrew and I thought that the BBC might actually try to confront its demons honestly on this occasion too, and it might be worth making a submission. How wrong we were.

  6. @TonyN,

    The wagon wheel report is not grasping any nettles. It’s talking about hypothetically grasping some possible nettle.

    In a bureaucracy like the BBC a report is never a plan for action – instead it’s a substitute for action.

  7. Jack Hughes:

    You may well be right about Wagon Wheel being a substitute for action , but the author can hardly be blamed for that. There is no doubt that he was prepared to confront, and place in the public domain, issues that the BBC would be bound to find uncomfortable, and as a journalist who had worked for the Corporation he must have been well aware of this. Among these issues are the reporting of EU politics, reporting on matters relating to ethnic minorities in this country (neither of which do I want discussed on this blog), the probable existence of an all pervading liberal metropolitan bias, and particularly his boldly stated recommendation in the last section that matters relating to impartiality can no longer be discussed, and decided upon, behind closed doors but must be seen to be dealt with transparently if the BBC is to retain its audience and its brand image in the electronic age.He also spells out the problems of attempting to deal surreptitiously with such matters in face of an inquisitive and ever more popular blogosphere.

    Although Steve Jones refers to Wagon Wheel in his report, it is not clear whether he actually read it and there is certainly no evidence that he took heed of what it said. Had he turned in a report that came even close to emulating John Bridcut’s effort then it would not have been necessary for me to to write the kind of post that you are referring to in your comment.

    It is, of course, possible that Jones’ brief from the BBC Trust guided him away from conducting a thorough and fair-minded review, but even if this is the case he is still culpable. Any normal standard of integrity would have required him to walk away from the project in such circumstances, alluring though the fee may have been.

  8. Lord Lawson responds, in an article in the Sunday Times, which is also posted on the GWPF website:

    The thrust of the Jones review is that in its coverage of global warming the BBC gives too much airtime to dissenters from the conventional wisdom such as me.

    The very reverse is the case. Despite the authoritative role of the GWPF, invitations to either me or its excellent director, Dr Benny Peiser, to appear on air on this issue are almost as rare as hen’s teeth.

    This is not because of any hostility to me personally. I am frequently invited to appear on BBC programmes about the economy, and from time to time I do so. But on global warming the BBC has a clear party line, and anyone who might provide an informed challenge to the party line is not wanted.

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