Climate change and the BBC ‘line’

The BBC’s head of tv news, Peter Horrocks, last week wrote this on his blog:

BBC News certainly does not have a line on climate change, however the weight of our coverage reflects the fact that there is an increasingly strong (although not overwhelming) weight of scientific opinion in favour of the proposition that climate change is happening and is being largely caused by man.

This is good stuff. The media generally fails spectacularly at science coverage because the usually-reasonable journalistic standard of ‘fairness’ requires them to present an opposing viewpoint. In the 90’s the whole of the medical industry was screaming that MMR was safe, yet every reporter felt it necessary to interview one of the very few crazies on the basis that it’s a balanced view, often followed by ‘viewers get to decide’. Unfortunately, this decision is the necessarily based on a misrepresentation of the facts.

It’s the same today with global warming: the vast majority of climatologists think it extremely likely that a) global warming is happening (actually, nobody doubts this) and b) it is very likely that man is causing it, yet the deniers get just as much coverage, if not more. The problem is that, unlike politics, a scientific consensus has genuine authority.

Because the process of science is so ruthless – the job of your colleagues is to destroy your arguments – and disparate – hundreds of countries with thousands of independent organisations and millions of scientists from every part of the political spectrum – a consensus of opinion is genuinely valuable, and isn’t suddenly turned into a 50/50 probability when a lone-hero / complete whackjob (take your pick) starts claiming everybody else is wrong. The scientific method will assess the validity of their arguments, because that’s the only authority with the expertise to do so. The results cannot be published by any ultimate authority, because science has no such authority1 but must be gleamed from consensus opinion. It may even turn out to be wrong in the long run, but it’s the only way that can possibly work. No journalist can accurately assess the merits of a scientific claim, given their lack of time and expertise, so the only sensible approach is to report in a way correlated with the scientific opinion.

To hear exactly such a conclusion coming from a head of BBC news was very encouraging. Then came this:

The BBC has scrapped plans for Planet Relief, a TV special on climate change.

The decision comes after executives said it was not the BBC’s job to lead opinion on climate change.

(…) But against the backdrop of intense internal debates about impartiality, senior news editors expressed misgivings that Planet Relief was too “campaigning” in nature and would have left the Corporation open to the charge of bias.

“It is absolutely not the BBC’s job to save the planet,” warned Newsnight editor Peter Barron at the Edinburgh Festival last month.

Head of TV news Peter Horrocks, writing in the BBC News website’s editors’ blog, commented: “It is not the BBC’s job to lead opinion or proselytise on this or any other subject.”

The BBC clearly feel happy to present the opinions of climate-change activists in a large way – Live Earth shows this – and to balance their news output according to scientific opinion, but are uncomfortable with organising anything themselves. This almost seems reasonable, but how does it fit with Comic Relief? There are plenty of conservatives who might argue that the suffering of children in other countries is nothing to do with us Brits – how dare the BBC ‘proselytise’? Of course, most people consider this morally unambiguous – of course the BBC should do everything it can to help people who are suffering.

But what’s the difference between campaigning against African suffering, and campaigning against a climate change that will cause similar suffering in the future? Is it the immediate visuals? I doubt it. I think it’s more likely what’s alluded to in the above – the BBC would be left open to a charge of bias. Because climate change is so politicised, and because much of the country thinks, wrongly, that there’s some major scientific debate as to whether it’s man-made, the standing of the BBC probably would suffer if it were to take an active position. It’s not an easy position for them.

I must point out that the BBC have said:

Our audiences tell us they are most receptive to documentary or factual style programming as a means of learning about the issues surrounding this subject, and as part of this learning we have made the decision not to proceed with the Planet Relief event.

Instead we will focus our energies on a range of factual programmes on the important and complex subject of climate change. This decision was not made in light of the recent debate around impartiality.

Which isn’t unreasonable. It’s certainly better than Channel 4’s outright promotion of global warming deniers.

I have no problem with an activist BBC, when it comes to scientific issues. Their news departments may not want to ‘lead opinion or proselytise’, but, providing it’s done according to evidence, I don’t see why the BBC shouldn’t lead the way. They have a huge amount of influence, and even, possibly, a moral duty.

Rather than a Comic Relief-style show, how about an evening of detailed analysis? The BBC have a huge expertise when it comes to presenting knowledge in an accessible way – why not put this into explaining, as clearly as possible, why the climatologists are correct? You could even have a section explaining why the deniers are wrong. I guess people might not watch, but I suspect there are many people with the interest but without the time or knowledge to do any research themselves. Which is perfectly understandable. I wonder whether it could work.

  1. enormous UN studies nonwithstanding []