From time to time the BBC gets itself into an awful mess over climate change. Unnecessarily so, given that it has visited and revisited principles of good coverage, repeatedly arriving at more or less the same conclusions.
Back in 2007, a report for the BBC Trust, then the corporation’s regulator, concluded that the old bipolar world of “the climate change debate” had gone. The working model had to change, as the title put it, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: “the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus. But these dissenters (or even sceptics) will still be heard, as they should.” Four years later, the Trust’s review of accuracy and impartiality in science coverage, commissioned from geneticist Professor Steve Jones, reached very similar conclusions.
Both reports were accepted by BBC managers. Both contain much that is common sense. And then there are the editorial guidelines, which are very clear that the guiding principle is “due impartiality”, rather than equal weight.
So how have we reached a situation in which the BBC has to apologise for not challenging incorrect statements made by Lord Lawson on the Today programme, where an entire Radio 4 feature, What’s the Point of the Met Office?, turns into a polemic about “dodgy” climate science, and where Radio Cambridgeshire finds it appropriate to stage a traditional seesaw-style debate between “warmist” and “sceptic”?
One answer is that the BBC has failed to promulgate its “big thinking” on editorial matters to producers and presenters, very few of whom have a science background. After the Jones Review it set up seminars on science coverage; but it failed to make them mandatory, and scrapped them after a year. Staff come and staff go; it seems extremely unlikely that Sarah Sands, editor of Today, had read either the Jones Review or From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel when she decided to call Nigel Lawson for “that” interview.
I recently argued for the seminars’ reinstatement and for making them mandatory. Not that I’m claiming credit, but as the CarbonBrief website has reported, the BBC has now done something similar – setting up a new one-hour course on reporting climate change “… covering the latest science, policy, research, and misconceptions to challenge, giving you confidence to cover the topic accurately and knowledgeably”.
The basic briefing document for the course is short, but it’s a good start. “Climate change is happening”; there is a range of possible temperature rises for any given level of carbon emissions; one cold winter does not challenge the overall picture; and so on. Unchallengeable, really.
If the courses are implemented well, they should improve matters still further. I say “still further” because the lapses to which I referred earlier are conspicuous by their rarity. There’s been a lot of climate change coverage this summer, and the vast majority that I’ve seen has been exemplary. But if this initiative can, for example, make sure that Today presenters know that individual extreme weather events are now routinely being linked to climate change, as Nick Robinson appeared not to know when talking about the heatwave recently, that will be a step forward.
Climate science, though, is just part of the picture. The corporation’s coverage of energy could do with an infusion of new thinking on issues linked to climate change. 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 claimingthat “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.
The other major factor behind the BBC’s occasional troubles on climate change is lobbying. The newspaper commentariat is amply stocked with columnists who routinely lambast the corporation for bias; and the weight of rhetoric has had an impact.
This, I think, is the real takeaway from the CarbonBrief news: the BBC has decided that it no longer cares about groundless criticism. I assume that the first fulmination against this new course will be in print this weekend or early next week, doubtless full of words such as “indoctrination”. The BBC will be accused of “stifling debate”, even though the course material is clear that it is not. Probably the identity of the “shadowy” figures behind this initiative will be sought.
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.
• Richard Black is director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, and a former BBC science and environment correspondent