Biased BBC! But not the way you think: climate change reporting and ‘false balance’

Apollo 8 image of earthrise seen from a low moon orbit
Climate, the earth: it’s a threadbare excuse to use this amazing Apollo 8 image of earthrise seen from a low moon orbit. (Photo: Nasa)

One of my favourite things about the BBC is the painfully earnest way in which they report criticism of the BBC. The very best is when something really egregious happens, and the DG or some other poor executive who hasn’t been in front of a camera for five years is dragged before Paxman on Newsnight, blinking like a political prisoner in Pinochet’s Chile just before the testicle electrodes come out. Usually, though, it’s a bit more restrained than that, and someone on the Today programme calmly says “The report also alleged that BBC graduate trainees were fed to pigs by senior staffers in a blood ritual to summon Cthulhu”, and a story on the topic is published prominently on the website.

This morning, the BBC is doing its very polite self-flagellation over its coverage of climate change, in response to a report by the House of Commons science and technology select committee. I know that around here the BBC is regularly accused of bias on this subject. And the committee agreed: the BBC News teams “make mistakes in their coverage of climate science by giving opinions and scientific fact the same weight”; it treats lobby groups as disinterested experts, and despite the very high level of trust that the public has in the broadcaster, it may lack “a clear understanding of the information needs of its audience”.

The issue of false balance – the journalistic practice of replacing a wholehearted attempt to get to the truth with a basic he-said-she-said approach, putting Person A Who Believes Thing X up against Person B Who Believes Thing Y with no regard for the relative likelihood of things X and Y or the relative authority of persons A and B – is an old one, and the BBC (and others) have been accused of it over various scientific topics. I was writing about it, on the topic of MMR, way back in 2010. An epidemiologist reporting on the findings of a Cochrane Library meta-analysis is given equal time on the radio to an anti-vaccination crackpot, that sort of thing. More recently, Steve Jones, of this parish, carried out a report into the BBC’s coverage. One of the more damning lines was this:

The producers of the recent Today Programme piece on the new IPCC report tried, we are told, more than a dozen qualified climate scientists willing to give an opposing view but could not find a single one (a hint, perhaps, that there is indeed a scientific consensus on global warming). Instead, they gave equal time to a well-known expert and to Australian retired geologist with no background in the field: in my view a classic of “false balance”.

He’s right, of course: if it’s really that hard to find an expert who disagrees with the consensus, perhaps there aren’t very many, and perhaps, then, people who know what they’re talking about do pretty much all agree. That’s not a reason to go and drag in Lord Lawson. Being balanced does not mean giving equal time to people who are probably wrong as to people who are probably right.

What to do, then? The science and technology committee thinks that the BBC should have guidelines for reporting climate change that are as stringent as its politics guidelines: just as the “likely or historical electoral success of an individual party determines the coverage of that party”, so the weight of scientific evidence and consensus behind a particular viewpoint should determine the coverage of that viewpoint. Maybe that’s sensible and doable. (I’m a bit loath to give too much weight to the opinions of a “science and technology” committee which includes the homeopathy-supporting David Tredinnick MP, who thinks astrology should be taken into account in medical practice and, in a speech in Parliament, asked surgeons to consider “the awesome power of the moon” when operating.)

But, as the Science Media Centre’s Fiona Fox points out, perhaps we should be a bit careful what we wish for. Science coverage, she says, is much better these days – much more thoughtful, much more careful. I agree, and I think it’s down to a vigilant online community that calls out bad reporting and false balance. But even if that weren’t the case, says Fox, false controversies might be the price we have to pay for coverage:

I think there is a very strong chance that the reason the public cares about climate change, GM and nuclear power is because there is a row. Other scientific issues might enjoy more measured coverage, but that coverage is often on the inside pages of the posh papers and the science strand of Radio 4 rather than the front pages of our red tops and the 8.10 interview on Today. In our ideal media, science would not have to be contested to be big news; in the real one, it might be the price we pay to have science in the headlines.

Besides, even if scientists pretty much do all agree on the evidence, she says, there are still plenty of non-scientists who don’t, and who are entirely sincere about it. They need to be heard as well.

I don’t know if Fiona’s right. I think the BBC – and others – could do more to be objective, and accurate, in reporting climate change and other scientific stories; not assuming that the current state of science is true for all time, but acknowledging that it is the best we have at the moment. An effort to reduce false balance, the overpromotion of lobbyists and loudmouths, would be an obvious starting point. But she has a point that controversy wins column inches, and non-scientific voices shouldn’t be driven from the public sphere.

More by Tom Chivers

Predicting the future of your marriage, algorithmically
If Fifa isn’t corrupt, then it’s incredibly stupid
Everyone thinks the BBC is biased against THEM


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