BBC impartiality between scientific facts and ‘sceptic’ fictions

Big flaws in the BBC’s news coverage of climate change have been exposed over the past few weeks, with clear indications that some of its most important programmes are still becoming caught in the trap of sacrificing accuracy for impartiality between scientists and ‘sceptics’.

On 13 February, BBC Radio 4’s flagship ‘Today’ programme broadcast a head-to-head discussion about the link between climate change and the recent flooding across parts of the UK. On one side was Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, who is Professor of Meteorology at the University of Reading and Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, and on the other was Lord Lawson of Blaby, the Chair of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

This was a complete mismatch. Professor Hoskins is a scientific expert, while Lord Lawson instead heads a campaign group which lobbies against the Government’s climate change policies. The only apparent purpose of elevating Lord Lawson to the same status as an expert was to create a balance between someone who is part of mainstream climate science and a politician who rejects the findings of mainstream climate science.

Lord Lawson was obviously determined to dispute the science during the interview, despite his lack of expertise, and made a number of false claims which were not challenged or corrected by Justin Webb, the presenter who was carrying out the interview.

For instance, Lord Lawson contradicted the scientific explanation for the link between climate change and the floods provided by Professor Hoskins, stating: “I think that Sir Brian is right on a number of points. He’s right first of all that nobody knows. Certainly it is not the case of course that this rainfall is due to global warming. The question is whether global warming has marginally exacerbated it. And nobody knows that.”

In fact Professor Hoskins had laid out the scientific case very carefully, pointing out that it is not yet clear to what extent climate change may have contributed to the specific bouts of extreme weather that have occurred since late December, but also noting that the increase in intense rainfall that the UK is experiencing is likely to be the result of the warming of the atmosphere. Furthermore, he highlighted the fact that global sea level rise due to global warming has increased the height of storm surges and therefore made the risk of coastal flooding worse.

The case put forward by Professor Hoskins was completely consistent with the report published earlier this month by the Met Office and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It stated: “As yet, there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change to the recent storminess, rainfall amounts and the consequent flooding. This is in part due to the highly variable nature of UK weather and climate. Sea level along the English Channel has already risen during the 20th century due to ocean warming and melting of glaciers…There is an increasing body of evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly heavy rain events.”

But this was not the only example of Lord Lawson misrepresenting the state of scientific knowledge while arguing against Professor Hoskins. He stated: “People who have done studies show that there has been globally no increase in extreme weather events.” This was entirely false. The report of working group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was published in September 2013, stated:

“Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. It is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on the global scale. It is likely that the frequency of heat waves has increased in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia. There are likely more land regions where the number of heavy precipitation events has increased than where it has decreased. The frequency or intensity of heavy precipitation events has likely increased in North America and Europe. In other continents, confidence in changes in heavy precipitation events is at most medium.”

Lord Lawson also wrongly claimed that “there has been no recorded warming over the past 15, 16, 17 years”. In fact, the IPCC report concluded:

“In addition to robust multi-decadal warming, global mean surface temperature exhibits substantial decadal and interannual variability. Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends. As one example, the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998–2012; 0.05 [–0.05 to 0.15] °C per decade), which begins with a strong El Niño, is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951 (1951–2012; 0.12 [0.08 to 0.14] °C per decade).”

Professor Hoskins pointed out that although the rate of increase in global mean surface temperature had slowed over the past 15 years, measurements have shown that more heat has been absorbed by the oceans. However, Lord Lawson said that Professor Hoskins was wrong and that there was only “pure speculation” rather than measurements. In fact, there have been a number of papers documenting the increase in the amount of heat absorbed by the deep oceans. For instance, a paper last year by Magdalena Balmaseda and co-authors stated:

“Here we present the time evolution of the global ocean heat content for 1958 through 2009 from a new observation-based reanalysis of the ocean. Volcanic eruptions and El Niño events are identified as sharp cooling events punctuating a long-term ocean warming trend, while heating continues during the recent upper-ocean-warming hiatus, but the heat is absorbed in the deeper ocean. In the last decade, about 30% of the warming has occurred below 700 m, contributing significantly to an acceleration of the warming trend.”

It is perhaps not surprising that Lord Lawson’s astonishing display of chutzpah, despite his lack of scientific expertise, meant that he was not challenged by Justin Webb, but the result was that listeners to the programme were given the entirely false impression that both interviewees were conveying accurate information.

In his initial response to complaints about the interview, the Head of Programmes at BBC News, Ceri Thomas, defended it on the grounds that Lord Lawson was “well qualified to comment on the economic arguments, which are a legitimate area for debate”, but he failed justify the broadcast of the inaccurate and misleading statements.

A similar betrayal of the public interest occurred on BBC2’s ‘Newsnight’ on 17 February. Instead of featuring an informative discussion between genuine experts about the link between climate change and the recent floods, the programme instead opted for a head-to-head confrontation between, Kevin Anderson, who is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, and a ‘sceptic’ blogger, Andrew Montford.

Not only did this result in a poor studio discussion, but the presenter, Victoria Derbyshire, also failed to correct numerous inaccurate and misleading statements made by Mr Montford.

For instance, Mr Montford claimed: “Everybody seems to agree, at least scientifically they seem to agree, that you can’t link these floods to climate change.”

This was false. The Met Office made the following statement on its news blog on 17 February:

“As yet, there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change to the recent storminess, rainfall amounts and the consequent flooding. This is in part due to the highly variable nature of UK weather and climate…What the Met Office report – and indeed the IPCC – does say is that there is increasing evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense. It is clear that global warming has led to an increase in moisture in the atmosphere – with about four per cent more moisture over the oceans than in the 1970s – which means that when conditions are favourable to the formation of storms there is a greater risk of intense rainfall. This is where climate change has a role to play in this year’s flooding.”

But Victoria Derbyshire did not challenge Mr Montford at all about his erroneous statement.

Mr Montford also stated: “You have to remember that sea level rise was occurring before man-made carbon emissions were big enough to affect climate change anyway. We’ve seen perhaps a tiny amount of acceleration, but sea level rise has been going on anyway.”

His statement was grossly misleading. The IPCC report, based on a review of all of the evidence, concluded: “Proxy and instrumental sea level data indicate a transition in the late 19th to the early 20th century from relatively low mean rates of rise over the previous two millennia to higher rates of rise.”

But again, Victoria Derbyshire failed to correct Mr Montford’s inaccurate statement.

Mr Montford claimed: “We talk about the rainfall in recent weeks having been completely unprecedented. In fact, it isn’t completely unprecedented. You may find odd places where it is unprecedented, but over the south of England as a whole it isn’t. There have been more rainfall in the 1920s for example.”

Again, this was not true. The Met Office’s records of monthly rainfall in southern England, ranked by year, show that last month was the wettest January since records began in 1910:

But Victoria Derbyshire did not point out Mr Montford’s inaccuracy.

The interviews on ‘Today’ and ‘Newsnight’ created multiple breaches of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines which require “due accuracy” and state:

“Where appropriate to the output, we should:

  •  gather material using first hand sources wherever possible
  •  check and cross check facts
  •  validate the authenticity of documentary evidence and digital material
  •  corroborate claims and allegations made by contributors wherever possible.”

The Guidelines also state: “In news and current affairs content, achieving due accuracy is more important than speed”.

The BBC has some excellent reporters, such as Roger Harrabin, covering climate change and who obviously strive to achieve both due accuracy and due impartiality. Unfortunately, the interviews on ‘Today’ and ‘Newsnight’ showed why many presenter-led news programmes, which appear to value confrontation over informed discussion, too often sacrifice accuracy in order to achieve impartiality between scientific facts and ‘sceptic’ fictions. The programmes elevated ‘sceptic’ bloggers and campaigners to the same level as experts simply because they disagree with mainstream scientists. Not only were audiences misled by the inaccurate statements from the ‘sceptics’, but they were also fooled by the false balance into believing that there is no consensus between experts about fundamental aspects of climate change, such as the contribution of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

This state of affairs is even more disappointing when one takes into account the fact that a review by Professor Steve Jones of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science in July 2011, which was commissioned by the BBC Trust, warned:

“The impression of active debate is sometimes promoted by statements that are not supported by the facts; that (in a March 2011 The Daily Politics show) 95% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, while in fact human activity has been responsible for a 40% rise in concentration, or (a November 2009 Today programme) that volcanoes produce more of the gas than do humans (the balance is a hundred times in the opposite direction). For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability so to do suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story even when the internal statements of the BBC suggest that no controversy exists. There is a contrast between the clear demands for due impartiality in the BBC’s written guidelines and what sometimes emerges on air.”

It is clear that neither the BBC Executive nor the BBC Trust has adequately addressed the serious failings that were identified by Professor Jones’s review, and as a result, the BBC is continuing to broadcast inaccurate and misleading information about climate change.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment  at London School of Economics and Political Science.