- 01 октября 2013, 23:30
Steve Jones among experts querying BBC 'false balance' in giving climate sceptics 'undue' voice on global warming study
The BBC has been criticised for its coverage of the most comprehensive scientific study on global warming yet published. Prominent climate experts have accused the corporation of bias towards "climate sceptics" at the expense of mainstream scientists.
According to John Ashton, formerly the top climate-change official at the Foreign Office, the BBC's coverage of last week's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was "a betrayal of the editorial professionalism on which the BBC's reputation has been built over generations".
Writing in the Guardian on Wednesday, he says the BBC had given "the appearance of scientific authority to those with no supporting credentials". He questions why a senior corporation figure had long meetings about climate change with Nigel Lawson and Peter Lilley, both prominent UK sceptics. His criticism was echoed by other green campaigners, and academics.
Steve Jones, the scientist who was asked by the BBC two years ago to assess its science coverage, accused a senior official there of misrepresenting him in a parliamentary committee and of failing to take on board one of his key findings regarding false balance in the reporting of science.
On Friday the IPCC, which represents the world's leading climate scientists, produced a landmark report on the state of knowledge of global warming.
The IPCC said it was unequivocal that warming was occurring and that the dominant force behind it was human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.
The report, the first from the UN-convened body since 2007, and only the fifth since 1988, was the starkest warning yet of the dangers of climate change.
But in the BBC's coverage of the report's release in Stockholm, which was attended by several BBC science journalists, the voice of climate-change sceptics, who do not accept the IPCC's core findings, got considerable airtime.
Complaints focused on the World at One programme on Radio 4 on Friday, which featured the Australian sceptic Bob Carter. A retired geologist, he leads a group called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, and is funded by US libertarians. His words also dominated several subsequent news bulletins.
Earlier in the day, the Today programme had said it could not find any British climate scientists who disagreed with the IPCC's core findings.
Ashton, who has been trenchant in his criticism of government on climate change since leaving the civil service, said: "The BBC should now explain how its decision to give a platform to Carter serves the public interest. Otherwise, it will be undermining its friends when it needs them most and throwing the scavengers a piece of its own flesh."
The biologist Steve Jones, who reviewed the BBC's science output in 2011, told the Guardian he was concerned that the BBC was still wedded to an idea of "false balance" in presenting climate sceptics alongside reputable scientists.
He said: "This goes to the heart of science reporting – you wouldn't have a homeopath speaking alongside a brain surgeon for balance, as that would be absurd. It's just as absurd to have a climate sceptic for balance against the work of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists."
The BBC said in 2012 it moved quickly to put many of Jones' recommendations on science reporting into effect, including the appointment of a science editor for the whole of the corporation's output.
But earlier this year in a select committee hearing David Jordan, head of editorial standards, told MPs that the broadcaster had decided not to follow Jones' key recommendations on climate change: "[Jones] made one recommendation that we did not take on board. He said we should regard climate science as settled … we should not hear from dissenting voices on the science."
Jones told the Guardian that this was misquoting him; rather, he had recommended to the BBC not to show "false balance" by presenting climate sceptics as having equal scientific weight as mainstream climate researchers.
He said: "Science turns on evidence. Balance in science is not the same as balance in politics where politicians can have a voice however barmy their ideas are. They're not taking this on board. Why, I don't know."
The BBC responded: "[We] covered the IPCC report on climate change and its conclusions very fully on all outlets with analysis from our specialist journalists. The bulk of interviews on the subject were with climate scientists, many of whom had contributed to the IPCC report. We reject the suggestion that global warming sceptics were given too much time in our overall coverage of the IPCC report.
"As part of the BBC's commitment to impartiality a small number of global warming sceptics were also interviewed. This is consistent with our response to the Jones report in which we said we would take care to reflect all viewpoints in the debate about the science and policy."
On Twitter, on Friday, the BBC's coverage of the IPCC stirred up a storm, with many followers unhappy about the extent of the airtime given sceptics.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, told the Guardian: "With the exception of Newsnight and the science unit, the BBC's coverage of the recent climate report seems to have been compromised by its fear of certain newspapers. Media coverage of contested issues is all about narratives and whose you adopt.
"It would have been entirely valid to report how some scientists believe the IPCC reports are quite conservative, how changes in the Arctic are rapidly out-stripping earlier predictions, but instead the corporation has seemingly internalised the Daily Mail narrative. [The corporation's] charter says the purpose of the BBC is to promote 'education and learning'. On climate change the corporation is failing."
Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, based at the London School of Economics, said: "The BBC's coverage of the new climate-change report was variable, with some excellent reporting by its science and environment correspondents, but some very poor contributions from presenter-led programmes.
"In particular, the World At One on Friday provided a stunning display of false balance when it devoted less airtime to IPCC scientists than it did to Bob Carter, a sceptic who is funded by a free-market lobby group in the US, the Heartland Institute. Carter was allowed to make a number of inaccurate and misleading statements unchallenged."
"In science, those viewpoints that are supported by robust reasoning and evidence are accorded greater weight, but the BBC does not always reflect this.
"Listeners to the World At One on Friday would not have gathered that there is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that it is driven by greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. More than 99% of journal papers and all major scientific organisations around the world are part of this consensus."