The BBC has come under fire from the chairman of an influential committee of MPs for favouring climate change sceptics in its coverage – and, according to documents seen by the Guardian, replied by saying that putting forward opinions not backed by science is part of its role.
That has enraged MPs further. Andrew Miller, chair of the science and technology committee, told the Guardian: “At a time when poor editorial decisions have dented trust in the BBC, the organisation should be taking much greater care over the accuracy of its reporting – especially in the area of science where misreporting can cause disastrous results, as the MMR media scare has shown.”
It is the second time in less than a month that the BBC has been slammed by a senior figure for giving too much credence to climate sceptics, who represent a tiny but vocal minority of scientific opinion. A few weeks ago, the UK’s former most senior civil servant on climate said the corporation had laid itself open to “vultures” by giving disproportionate air time to sceptics.
Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global warming was occurring and was “unequivocally” linked to human actions.
But in several programmes the BBC gave substantial air time to climate change sceptics – who take an opposing view – despite their tiny numbers compared with the body of mainstream scientific research on climate change.
Miller took issue with one programme in particular from July, in which the presenter, Andrew Neil, cited supposed scientific findings that he said called global warming into question, in an interview with the climate and energy secretary, Ed Davey.
Neil was accused by scientists afterwards of putting forward partial data and discredited arguments. Miller said allowing Neil to air these views as if they were authoritative fact was misleading viewers, because it suggested that the arguments carried as much weight as those of climate experts.
He said: “Given that the BBC’s avowed mission is still to inform and educate, as well as entertain, it is remarkable that it allows presenters, like Andrew Neil, to repeat misinformed scientific arguments on climate change as though they were fact.”
The BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards, David Jordan, responded in a letter seen by the Guardian: “Regardless of the topic, an impartial interviewer must put forward a range of arguments, perhaps even act as a kind of devil’s advocate, when questioning a minister about government policies. It may be the case that some arguments heard in the public sphere are misinformed, but that does not mean that they should not be put to politicians.
“It is part of the BBC’s function of holding government to account. In essence, interviews should be conducted on the basis of reasoned argument. However, so long as ministers have to face arguments based on misunderstandings, even ignorance, they will be given the opportunity to rebut them on the BBC.”
Miller said this did not fulfil the broadcaster’s public service remit: “It is right that BBC presenters occasionally act as devil’s advocates, but as a public broadcaster and the most trusted media organisation in the UK its viewers need to be explicitly aware when presenters are doing so.”
Earlier this month, 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.”
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