The BBC isn’t ‘balanced’ in its reporting of climate change: but the facts aren’t ‘balanced’ either

Is it round or flat? What do YOU think, Professor of Astrophysics? How about you, Urine-Stained Alcoholic No. 4?
Round or flat? What do YOU think, Professor of Astronomy? And you, Urine-Stained Alcoholic?

A new scandal is enveloping the BBC. It has been revealed that they have taken an editorial decision not to give equal air time to two sides of a debate.

Some scientists believe that the dodo is extinct, and their views are valuable. But should we not teach the controversy? What about the counter-argument: that dodos are not extinct, but in fact left Mauritius on a spaceship in 1685 and built the Martian canals? The BBC is peddling the “dodo extinct” theory, but it should be made clear that it is only one theory. We should teach the controversy. Of course, the archaeologists, zoologists and historians who claim that they are dead have their opinion. But the opinion of Mad Clive, the guy who shouts at the pigeons on Buckingham Palace Road, is just as valid. Surely our media, our national broadcaster no less, should be balanced in its reporting? The BBC might also want to reconsider its leadenly one-sided coverage of the “do leprechauns exist?” argument.

“Balance” in reporting is, at best, a useful thing to aim for, and at worst an actively harmful fiction. It’s a fig-leaf of objectivity: it is true that person A made comment X, and person B made comment Y. That can be useful, occasionally, where there is a genuine divide in opinion between well-informed groups. A Government minister and his shadow might reasonably disagree on state provision of a service, or on a moral point about crime or punishment. But in the climate debate, as portrayed in the media, there is no such divide. It’s not quite Mad Clive versus the archaeologists, but it’s not so far off.

Yesterday, Guido Fawkes, the entertainingly scurrilous Tory gossip blog, published a piece [edit: the original scoop was by Maurizio Morabito on the Omnologos blog] about a seminar that the BBC held in 2006 to decide the Corporation’s editorial policy on climate change. Apparently the Beeb had refused to respond to a FOI request to reveal the names of the people present, but someone has since got hold of them. Guido describes them as “Scientists, ‘scientists’ and hippy campaigners”, adding sternly “but what the Beeb will be most embarrassed by is the representative from the disgraced Climatic Research Unit who were exposed three years later for manipulating data to fit their arguments.”

Well, “exposed” and “disgraced” is one way of putting it: “exonerated of any wrongdoing in eight (8) separate independent enquiries, from a Commons select committee to Pennsylvania State University” might be another. But Guido’s point, presumably, is that the BBC should have included, for balance, some people who do not think that man-made climate change is happening.

There are people who don’t think that a) mankind’s actions are increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that b) the world has got warmer in recent decades and that c) that increase in concentration is behind a significant amount of that warming. But very few of them work in climate science departments. Running their opinion as a “balance” to the work of serious scientists in the field would be like getting Trofim Lysenko in as a counterweight on Farming Today.

That’s not to say there are no arguments to be had about the climate: serious arguments to which we should dedicate time and thought. There is huge uncertainty over how fast, how severe and how dangerous climate change is. There are serious people who think we shouldn’t work to slow carbon emissions, because the rapid growth in living standards in the developing world is driven by cheap energy; instead, we should rely on human ingenuity and the free market to find ways of dealing with the changing world as it arrives.

Similarly, there are serious people who think that geoengineering is a good idea; others who think it’s too dangerous. There are people who think nuclear power can rescue the situation, and people who think it’ll take too long to build enough power plants. There are people, notably Richard Lindzen, who think people have overestimated the sensitivity of the climate to carbon emissions, and think we can survive many times higher concentration than is currently suggested. There are advocates of carbon taxes and cap-and-trade. These are important arguments, that need to be had in public, loudly and passionately. These are the sort of balanced debates I would like to see in the media, between intelligent, informed people.

But saying the BBC shouldn’t have a man from one of the UK’s leading climate research units because, three years later, it would be involved in a media scandal and then exonerated of wrongdoing is just silly. The BBC’s list also has a representative of the energy firm NPower, a consultant to the insurance industry, the former UK Chief Scientist Lord May, Richard D North of the Institute of Economic Affairs (who has accused the BBC of “bigging up [climate] alarmism”) and representatives of Harvard University, Cambridge University, Oxford University, the Niels Bohr Institute, Plymouth Marine Labs and the US Embassy. “Hippies and ‘scientists'” these are not, even if there are also five people (out of 30) from environmental charities. Who should they have got in instead?

“Balance” in reporting, if it means anything at all, certainly does not mean “find someone who disagrees with this guy and stick them on the next chair”. Nick Davies, the journalist and journalism lecturer, says to students that, if they are reporting what the weather is, their job is not to find one person who says it’s raining and one person to says it’s sunny: their job is to look out of the window. That’s not balanced, but sometimes – usually – the facts aren’t balanced either.


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