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give the BBC a break over their IPCC coverage

This is a blogpost by Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Officer at the SMC.

 

The IPCC has published the first part of AR5, its long-awaited report on the climate. Media coverage was pretty straight with the dominant conclusions of the report broadly reflected in the headlines and loads of the best climate scientists in the mix. So why have some scientists weighed in to attack the BBC for its coverage? Does the corporation really deserve a kicking or should scientists be celebrating?

The specific target of the attack was World at One which featured an interview with Bob Carter, an Australian climate sceptic. Presenter Shaun Ley was woefully briefed and failed to challenge Carter on some basic myths. The format too was lazy: Peter Stott, a climate scientist who has a long and distinguished publication record in climate science, got four minutes; Bob Carter, who hasn’t, got the same. It was a tedious set-up which harked back to the bad old days though fortunately Peter gave a passionate and compelling interview. Nonetheless, the lay listener was given no other clue as to which of these was the more authoritative voice.*

This interview has gone on to be described by John Ashton as “a serious lapse if not a betrayal of the editorial professionalism on which the BBC’s reputation has been built over generations”; some took to Twitter to further denounce the BBC for ‘letting sceptics back on the airwaves’.

So a single example has been held up as evidence that the BBC is still wedded to the false balance Professor Steve Jones savagely chastised them for in his 2011 review. It’s true that the traditional editorial habit of balancing a yea with a nay does not work for science, and slamming the BBC for this has become something of a blood sport amongst scientists in recent years – the SMC playing its own part in that.

But too many leading scientists continue to condemn the media from an out of date evidence base that would be shameful in their field of research, ignoring the fact that much has changed for the better – not least thanks to hard petitioning by BBC science journalists like Richard Black, Roger Harrabin and David Shukman. Scientists have gone from being a weak voice to a major player in a vast range of stories and it feels like a step too far to condemn the BBC when the Jones recommendations have been absorbed so broadly across the corporation.

I also know from talking to BBC producers and journalists that they agonised over walking the right line on AR5. On the day of publication the Today programme trailed the report in several slots without a sceptic to be found. A Costing the Earth special on climate change featured a panel debate where the closest thing to a sceptic was Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Climate scientists outnumbered sceptics ten to one on the airwaves, with headlines and content overwhelmingly reflecting the findings of the IPCC.

The climate science community was busy around AR5. At the SMC alone we arranged dozens of broadcast interviews, issued over thirty quotes from climate scientists across every discipline, and gathered journalists and scientists to watch the IPCC press conference live and engage in a Q&A immediately afterwards. So you might expect us to join the calls for dissenters to be sidelined.

But the SMC has never been about stifling other voices; science does not own the issue of climate change. We should remember that AR5 is a report for governments on a defining subject of our time. Surely therefore a key responsibility of the media that day was to bring the science into the broader context of politics and society. That needs to be done intelligently and delicately – but also independently. For science to demand dominance on this (or any) subject feels wrong and will only fuel those who talk of scientism – the tendency of some in science to act like it is the only way to interpret the world.

Of course scientists, like anyone, are entitled to shout when the media get it wrong. If you don’t say yes to the question ‘do you shout at the radio when science is being misrepresented?’ you don’t get a job at the SMC. And if you bugged our office you would hear staff trying to persuade lazy producers to break the habit of pro vs. anti on a daily basis. But there is a big difference between shouting at the radio and trying to persuade journalists of our case than publicly slamming the media and demanding apologies and explanations. Ashton says that by giving Bob Carter a platform the BBC “will be undermining its friends when it needs them most”. The interview might have annoyed a lot of climate scientists, but I don’t believe the BBC should view scientists as its friends. The free press should never be the mouthpiece of science.

The SMC refuses to scour the country looking for outliers on climate change or GM crops to feed the media’s thirst for mavericks. We are here to reflect the weight of scientific evidence on these issues from the mainstream. But that does not mean that we want a media which simply suppresses the views of dissenters in science. Yes, editorial decisions must be taken intelligently. Is the interview about climate physics, or the extent of ocean acidification, or even about the strength of the evidence? Putting up a scientist against a non-scientist in that case really would be false balance – and we try to persuade producers of this on a daily basis. But a wider discussion about the response of government or of individuals – or even about the IPCC itself – must be open to a variety of voices.

And we should remember (with a wry smile) that climate science owes its high media profile to those competing voices. Without a row in society I fear our main complaint to the BBC would be about the lack of any coverage at all. As things stand climate scientists already have the ears of the public; they now need use that voice to good effect, not silence the competition. And having listened for years to our best climate scientists versus the Bob Carters of this world I am more convinced than ever that climate science has nothing to fear from these encounters. Far from making me angry they often have me cheering on the scientists whose integrity and expertise is almost always a match for those they encounter. Do we really need to demand apologies and explanations from the media for featuring guests we disagree with – just as scientists are getting ever better at demonstrating their superior expertise?

The media must play their role shrewdly. Some sceptics do have a tendency to go much further than their expertise allows but the smart editorial response to this is not to sideline the outliers and avoid the argument. Much better that producers and presenters are wise to the myths and specious claims in advance and, when embarking on an interview, are equipped with the knowledge they need to challenge unscientific assertions or spot cherry-picked data. That’s the media I want to see – a thoughtful, informed and challenging media which find their way to the truth by a combination of the right guests and well-informed presenters. We all learn more that way.

Scientists enjoy more channels than ever before to communicate their work directly to their target audiences, bypassing the media mechanisms and news values which often simplify or distort in ways we find frustrating. But with national news media the rules are different; these are the conditions of a press which is independent, critical and fiercely protective of its right to reflect other viewpoints.

News coverage in the media has always had a tense relationship with science but we should acknowledge progress where it’s made. BBC science coverage in particular is better and more prominent than ever. That episode of World at One was not the BBC’s finest (three quarters of an) hour. But nor was it representative of the BBC’s coverage overall. I believe the BBC’s clear, fair, science-heavy reporting of AR5 should be a cause for celebration by climate scientists. By wading in to criticise we unfairly condemn an organisation which got so much right that day.

 

*An amendment was made from the initial post ‘…bad old days and the lay listener learned nothing’ to ‘…bad old days, though fortunately Peter gave a passionate and compelling interview. Nonetheless, the lay listener was given no other clue as to which of these was the more authoritative voice.’

 

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

9 Responses to give the BBC a break over their IPCC coverage

  1. "The interview might have annoyed a lot of climate scientists, but I don’t believe the BBC should view scientists as its friends. The free press should never be the mouthpiece of science." Indeed. But ... why then do scientists owe the press anything? There's an industry of telling scientists …

    “The interview might have annoyed a lot of climate scientists, but I don’t believe the BBC should view scientists as its friends. The free press should never be the mouthpiece of science.”

    Indeed. But … why then do scientists owe the press anything? There’s an industry of telling scientists a) _to_ give journalists what they want and b) what that is. If they’re our friends, that’s one thing. If they’re yet another group of people with questions, well, there are many such questioners. Why not answer some of them, rather than others? If BBC One chooses to _still_, in this late day, run false balance reportage, why should they expect no different response from scientists than if they’d run a responsible segment?

    It is good that much of the coverage was responsible. But, really, Carter? This gets to territory of mostly reporting that the earth is round. But then having 4 minutes from a real geodesist and 4 minutes from the Flat Earth Society. Scientists should be grateful for the mostly good coverage and not complain about the Flat Earth Society segment?

    I agree that demanding apologies and the like is a bit much. But, after ~20 years (~1988-~2008)of no change in coverage and articles on climate — I have articles from across the period, and early ones are indistinguishable from the later except by the yellowing of the paper — it was the more recent campaigns of scientists publicly complaining that correlated to media coverage finally making some changes. Among others, away from the false balance habit.

    “But nor was it representative of the BBC’s coverage overall. I believe the BBC’s clear, fair, science-heavy reporting of AR5 should be a cause for celebration by climate scientists. By wading in to criticise we unfairly condemn an organisation which got so much right that day.”

    How much do they have to get wrong, how badly, then, before you consider it ok to complain to them?

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    • Tom Sheldon says:
      Thanks for the comment Robert, I agree with lots of that. On the first point I would say it's mostly pragmatic. The overwhelming majority of people get their science information from the TV, radio and newspapers (or the web versions of those). So if scientists don't engage …

      Thanks for the comment Robert, I agree with lots of that. On the first point I would say it’s mostly pragmatic. The overwhelming majority of people get their science information from the TV, radio and newspapers (or the web versions of those). So if scientists don’t engage their voice is simply lost from the debate.

      It’s also a matter of principle – most of their research is publicly funded, so they ought to talk about it to the public by whichever means reach the biggest, broadest audiences.

      And I do think people should speak up when the BBC (or anyone) gets something wrong – I certainly don’t want scientists (or anyone) to stay deferentially quiet. But there is an assumption by some that the media should be reporting facts, while journalists defend the right to tell the stories. That’s at the root of this argument. During climategate for example some people said the press shouldn’t be reporting it at all. I deeply disagree – that was a story and it needed telling. (Some told it better than others…)

      Scientists owe the press nothing. But it shouldn’t be a relationship based on favours. Yes, each needs to understand the other better – but neither should make special concessions out of friendship. A friendly relationship would remove the detachment required to report with independence and integrity – and that would diminish trust.

      The tensions cut both ways! Sometimes in press briefings here at the SMC, journalists complain that scientists are being too equivocal about their evidence, or too cautious in their conclusions, and that makes it very difficult to translate into a news article. Scientists are right at those moments to remind reporters that they don’t do science for the benefit of the press. Each side has self-interested opinions about how the other should do their job.

      So in short – complain, yes – point out inadequacies – just don’t be too hasty to extrapolate isolated cases to ‘it’s all crap’. Someone has pointed out to me an ironic parallel here: when AR4 was found to contain a few isolated mistakes, some jumped at the chance to write off the whole of the IPCC. That was wrong too.

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  2. Rev Paul Cawthorne says:
    What is it about the Science Media Centre and GM crops? Even a subject like climate change provokes a dismissive reference to GM crop issues. Now that the pleiotropic effects of GM techniques are coming to public attention despite the longstanding hyperbole of corporate PR strategy working for vertical integration …

    What is it about the Science Media Centre and GM crops? Even a subject like climate change provokes a dismissive reference to GM crop issues. Now that the pleiotropic effects of GM techniques are coming to public attention despite the longstanding hyperbole of corporate PR strategy working for vertical integration of the food chain, one would have thought a truly disinterested scientific body would have been calling for more research on the underlying mechanisms and how findings should make us reassess older overly deterministic modelling. But no, its still about branding the many scientific researchers looking into these matters as “outliers”. No wonder young scientists are still scared for their careers if they publish findings about unexpected insert problems, instability and increased chemical use. The SMC’s acknowledged coordination role regarding media coverage of French research seems unscientific and only the tip.

    Does it go back to the early days of the SMC and the PR background of founders or is it merely a product of narrow organisational culture? Whichever, it does science a disservice.

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  3. Avagadro says:
    Of course the biased bbc put a distinguished warmist scientist against an unknown flat earther. They could easilily have put a distinguished sceptic climate scientist(there are hundreds of them around)against a warmist flat earther but that would risk exposing global warming as the world's most costly scientific blunder.

    Of course the biased bbc put a distinguished warmist scientist against an unknown flat earther. They could easilily have put a distinguished sceptic climate scientist(there are hundreds of them around)against a warmist flat earther but that would risk exposing global warming as the world’s most costly scientific blunder.

    • Tom Sheldon says:
      Hi Avagadro, Do you mean hundreds literally? Can you list their names for me? I'm serious - if these people really exist I need to know about them, but I've always had trouble finding climate scientists who are sceptical of human influence on climate change and global temperature. Thanks Tom

      Hi Avagadro,
      Do you mean hundreds literally? Can you list their names for me? I’m serious – if these people really exist I need to know about them, but I’ve always had trouble finding climate scientists who are sceptical of human influence on climate change and global temperature.
      Thanks
      Tom

  4. Avagadro says:
    Trouble finding scientsts sceptical of MMGW? Of course they exist, there are countless thousands of them in the world. http://www.skepticalscience.com/OISM-Petition-Project.htm states 31,000 for a start. There are well over 1000 peer reviewed papers opposing the MMGW myth. The science is by no means settled.

    Trouble finding scientsts sceptical of MMGW? Of course they exist, there are countless thousands of them in the world.
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/OISM-Petition-Project.htm states 31,000 for a start.

    There are well over 1000 peer reviewed papers opposing the MMGW myth. The science is by no means settled.

    • Tom Sheldon says:
      Interesting choice of link Avagadro! The first line says "The 30,000 scientists and science graduates listed on the OISM petition represent a tiny fraction (0.3%) of all science graduates. More importantly, the OISM list only contains 39 scientists who specialise in climate science." I know science doesn't proceed by consensus. …

      Interesting choice of link Avagadro! The first line says

      “The 30,000 scientists and science graduates listed on the OISM petition represent a tiny fraction (0.3%) of all science graduates. More importantly, the OISM list only contains 39 scientists who specialise in climate science.”

      I know science doesn’t proceed by consensus. But doesn’t that tell you something?

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  5. Avagadro says:
    Hi Tom, 39 Scientists specialising in climate change is a lot. Certainly a lot more than the IPCC panel had a few years ago. The panel was so secretive it refused to name its members until fairly recently. Then it was met with derision by the lack of …

    Hi Tom,

    39 Scientists specialising in climate change is a lot. Certainly a lot more than the IPCC panel had a few years ago. The panel was so secretive it refused to name its members until fairly recently. Then it was met with derision by the lack of proper climate scientists on the panel. The panel selects only papers from warmists and ignores all papers from sceptics, that’s the problem.

    Some years back, the BBC adopted a new editorial policy –that the scientific and political “consensus” on climate change was now so overwhelming that it should be actively promoted, while climate sceptics, or “deniers” as the BBC calls them, should be kept off the airwaves. They commissioned snail expert Prof Steve Jones to recommended that the BBC’s coverage of climate issues should show not less bias but more. All discussion about climate change was to be banned from the BBC henceforth. Only the warmist point of view should be mentioned..

    This massive illegal breach of the BBC’s Royal Charter to increase their bias and to deliberately sideline sceptics was justified by the Jones nonsense both to cover their backs and to ram home even further that they did not give a stuff about sceptic opinion. BBC trustees are nothing more than a cosy club of climate change activists

    We are paying a fortune for the hysteria of our politicians and the BBC. They’re all at it — from the environmental activists of Greenpeace, the WWF and their allies in the BBC and the Met Office, to those thousands of scientists across the world who have received billions in funding from governments investing in climate change research and prevention — all still battling to keep in being the greatest scare story in the history of the world.

    All this happened in the name of a theory so fraudulent that the same people who told us the world is about to fry unless we close down all those power stations are now telling us the same power stations may be heading us into a new ice age.

    Even on the UK Government’s own figures, showing that this will cost us up to £18 billion every year until 2050, it is by far the most expensive law ever passed by Parliament.

    Global temperatures haven’t increased for 17 years. Global polar sea ice is the most for 40 years. Almost all of the IPCC’s computer projections have been wrong so far. Nothing that famous scientist, Al Gore, predicted has come true. A significant number of scientists do NOT support global warming. The figure of 95% certainty of global warming is not true and was not substantiated by the IPCC, several IPCC members resigned because of this blatant misleading deliberate error.

    The scientific case for belief in climate change is rapidly disintegrating but you would never know this by watching BBC.

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  6. Kate says:
    Unfortunately the BBC still resorts to its "opposing views" formula too often. Take an online article of 27 February on mitochondrial DNA. The longest quote in the article is from a Dr David King of "Human Gentics Alert". As far as I can see, "Human Genetics Alert" …

    Unfortunately the BBC still resorts to its “opposing views” formula too often. Take an online article of 27 February on mitochondrial DNA. The longest quote in the article is from a Dr David King of “Human Gentics Alert”. As far as I can see, “Human Genetics Alert” is a one-man band run by David King. And this David King (not to be confused with Sir David King) may have studied genetics but I can’t find any evidence of his working in the field. So what are they doing quoting him alongside the likes of Prof Dame Sally Davies as if his opinion deserves equal consideration?

    At least the article is headed “Three-person baby” rather than “Three-parent baby” which appears in the title of articles by other organisations who ought to try harder.

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