In the not too recent past the BBC has managed to make a complete hash of their climate change reporting. Last August 2017 Al Gore was in the UK promoting the sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth”. The BBC quite rightly interviewed him on the BBC’s Radio 4 flagship program “Today”, a slot that literally millions tune into over breakfast or while commuting to catchup on the latest news.
Unfortunately, for the sake of “balance” they also invited Lord Lawson to comment as well. If the topic had been economics, then it just might have been appropriate. He proceeded to spew anti-science nonsense that was essentially gibberish and justified his stance by citing completely fictitious statistics. This was not balance, unless of course you seriously consider “balance” to mean having a flat-earth believer on to do a similar dog and pony show every time the globe is mentioned.
The BBC quite rightly got roasted and so two months later they issued a formal apology.
BBC moving away from giving equal weight to the views of the likes of Lord Lawson
Richard Black, a former BBC science and environment correspondent, writes in the Guardian about a change that has happened. The foundation for his article is the news, as reported by CarbonBrief, that the BBC issued formal guidance to its journalists on how to report climate change. Carbon Brief explains in a posting dated 7th Sept …
All of the BBC’s editorial staff have also been invited to sign up for a one-hour “training course on reporting climate change”. Carbon Brief understands this is the first time that the BBC has issued formal reporting guidance to its staff on this topic.
The move follows a ruling earlier this year by Ofcom, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, which found that BBC Radio 4’s flagship current-affairs programme Today had breached broadcasting rules by “not sufficiently challenging” Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor.
Lawson, who chairs a UK-based climate-sceptic lobby group, had made false claimsabout climate change in an interview on Today in August 2017. Before Ofcom published its ruling in April, the BBC had already apologised for breaching its general editorial guidelines during the Lawson interview.
The broadcaster has faced repeated criticism over the past decade for enabling “false balance” on the topic of climate change, as well as for failing to fully implement the recommendations of the BBC Trust’s 2011 review into the “impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science”.
This is the email sent by Fran Unsworth to BBC journalists yesterday:
After a summer of heatwaves, floods and extreme weather, environment stories have become front of mind for our audiences. There are a number of important related news events in the coming months – including the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Green Great Britain Week in October – so there will be many more stories to cover. Younger audiences, in particular, have told us they’d like to see more journalism on the issue.
With this in mind, we are offering all editorial staff new training for reporting on climate change. The one hour course covers the latest science, policy, research, and misconceptions to challenge, giving you confidence to cover the topic accurately and knowledgeably.
Please book now by choosing a time from MyDevelopment (you’ll be prompted to login first), searching ‘reporting climate change’ on MyDevelopment, or emailing XXXXXX@bbc.co.uk to set up a tailored session for your team.
In the meantime, you can read the Climate Change for BBC News crib sheet, and the Analysis and Research website by searching ‘climate change’ which cover the basics.
I hope you find the training useful.
Why did the BBC get it so wrong?
There is, and always has been editorial guidance so the real issue is not a lack of such guidance, they simply did not follow it. Producers and presenters don’t have a science background. It has had seminars on science coverage in the past, but they have never been mandatory, and so as staff come and go they end up simply not fully grasping what that guidance is. There has been a realisation of this, and so the above is an honest attempt to rectify it.
Mr Black’s stance within the Guardian article is that while it is a great start, it still greatly lacks rather a lot of reality in recent execution …
Mercifully the stream of claims that “the lights will go out” as Britain adopts more and more renewable energy appears to have stopped. But which of the BBC’s correspondents knows that energy bills have gone down over the past decade? Not those who last year covered the government-commissioned Helm Review of energy prices, which led to Radio 4 claiming that “bills have doubled over the past decade”. Where is coverage, also, of the existential risk posed to oil companies – and therefore our pension funds – by the tumbling prices of renewable energy and electric cars? This is now standard fare for the FT, Economist, Telegraph, Reuters, Bloomberg … But the BBC has yet to catch on that a transformation of the entire global energy system is a big story.
What is the Official BBC Policy on Climate Change
It is basically evidence-based and science-based. In their own words …
Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often. The climate science community is clear that humans have changed the climate, but specifically how is more difficult to evidence. For instance, there is very high confidence that there will be more extreme events – floods, droughts, heatwaves etc. – but attributing an individual event, such as the UK’s winter floods in 2013/2014, to climate change is much less certain.
We must also be careful to distinguish between the statements. For example: “Climate change makes this kind of event both more frequent and more severe,” and “Climate change caused this event”. The former uses previous scientific evidence to say ‘it is likely’ the event is the result of climate change, whereas the latter may be making an assertion without the proof to back it up.
What’s the BBC’s position?
- Man-made climate change exists: If the science proves it we should report it. The BBC accepts that the best science on the issue is the IPCC’s position, set out above.
- Be aware of ‘false balance’: As climate change is accepted as happening, you do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate. Although there are those who disagree with the IPCC’s position, very few of them now go so far as to deny that climate change is happening. To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken. However, the BBC does not exclude any shade of opinion from its output, and with appropriate challenge from a knowledgeable interviewer, there may be occasions to hear from a denier.
- There are occasions where contrarians and sceptics should be included within climate change and sustainability debates. These may include, for instance, debating the speed and intensity of what will happen in the future, or what policies government should adopt. Again, journalists need to be aware of the guest’s viewpoint and how to challenge it effectively. As with all topics, we must make clear to the audience which organisation the speaker represents, potentially how that group is funded and whether they are speaking with authority from a scientific perspective – in short, making their affiliations and previously expressed opinions clear.
Final Thought …
I’ll pass the buck for this back to Mr Black. He writes …
The reality is, though, that climate and energy contrarians are exerting less and less influence on media or politics. As the BBC’s online briefing notes, the government is now taking advice on whether to set a net-zero emissions target in law, not debating whether climate change matters. If BBC bosses have decided that from now on they are going to free output from the occasional grip of the UK’s climate contrarian elite and stand up for evidence – good on them.