Earlier this year BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme came under fire after a discussion it hosted about the possible links between severe flooding in the UK and climate change. Now the BBC has agreed the programme gave “an inaccurate and misleading impression of the evidence.”
The Today Programme featured climate scientist Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, head of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, in a head-to-head with Lord Nigel Lawson, founder of climate skeptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Soon after it aired, the programme received a series of listener complaints accusing it of promoting a false balance, and giving the impression Lawson’s views carry equal weight to Hoskins’ when it comes to explaining the science behind recent storms, heavy rainfall and flooding.
The Today Programme initially defending the interview, saying the lines of questioning “were designed to help listeners judge how to assess the recent bad weather in the context of climate change”.
But in a letter seen by Carbon Brief, the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit has upheld the complaints, concluding the programme “gave an inaccurate and misleading impression of the evidence”.
Cause for complaint
Back in February, The Today Programme invited Lord Lawson to discuss with Professor Sir Brian Hoskins the role, if any, of climate change in the flooding engulfing parts of the UK.
Hoskins began by explaining how scientists know climate change is linked to heavier bursts of rainfall, but made clear that any link with the frequent storms that hit the UK last winter is far less clear.
Lawson, however, dismissed Hoskins’ presentation of the science, arguing:
“Nobody knows… contrary to what he may have implied, in fact people have done studies to show that there has been no increase in extreme weather events.”
This is in sharp contrast to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Based on all the available evidence, the report, concluded:
“Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950 â?¦ It is likely that the frequency of heat waves has increased in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia. â?¦ The frequency or intensity of heavy precipitation events has likely increased in North America and Europe …Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean â?¦ and changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4.”
Complainants to the programme suggested it was inappropriate to have a politician debating scientific questions with a scientist, and misleading to give minority climate skeptic views of climate science equal standing with the mainstream scientific view.
One complainant’s letter asks of the BBC:
“If the aim was to help the public establish for themselves the truth or falsehood of climate change, then I must ask – Why did the BBC not invite a scientist of equal standing to Brian Hoskins to debate the point. If the BBC could not find such a scientist, it should have said so at the start of the interview, and stated that Nigel Lawson was there as a non-expert?’
A complaint upheld
The Today Programme initially defended itself against criticisms of false balance. In a letter seen by Carbon Brief, assistant editor Dominic Groves tells one complainant:
‘Facts and opinion are both important and we have a duty to explore the political and economic aspects of climate change, as well as the science â?¦ What matters is that the debate remains focused â?¦ that both sides are given reasonable opportunity to state their case and counter any inaccuracies they believe are contained in their opponent’s argument. Sir Brian Hoskins and Lord Lawson both had such opportunities.”
In an email to the same complainant, Ceri Thomas, head of BBC news programmes, explains the BBC’s position further, saying:
“Whilst there may be a scientific consensus about global warming – that it is happening and largely man-made – there is no similar agreement about what should be done to tackle it; whether money should be spent, for example, on cutting carbon emissions or would be better used adapting our defences to the changing climate. Lord Lawson is not a scientist, but as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer is well qualified to comment on the economic arguments, which are a legitimate area for debate.”
If the discussion had been focused on economic or policy issues, this argument might hold more weight. But the programme also admits the discussion strayed somewhat off these “legitimate areas for debate” on to the science, Groves adds:
“[We] with hindsight concede that the discussion should have been more tightly focused … This point has been discussed with the team and we do accept there are lessons to be learnt … [I]t would have been preferable had the conversation dealt exclusively with the social, political and economic repercussions of climate change, rather than the scientific underpinning, on which there is agreement among the vast majority of scientists.”
Complainants took the matter further, and asked for a review by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU). In a letter seen by Carbon Brief, Fraser Steel who heads the ECU concedes the programme broke its editorial code of practice, saying:
“I have to say that I share your broad impression and I am therefore upholding your complaint â?¦ Lord Lawson’s views are not supported by the evidence from computer modelling and scientific research and I don’t believe this was made sufficiently clear to the audience â?¦ the implication was that Lord Lawson’s views on climate science were on an equal footing with those of Sir Brian.”
Listeners were also not given enough information about who the two interviewees were, Steel concludes:
“I note [Lord Lawson] was introduced as ‘the founding chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation which is an all-party think tank’, a description which I don’t believe would have given listeners a clear understanding that he represents a minority viewpoint… the implication was that Lord Lawson’s views on climate science were on an equal footing with those of Sir Brian.”
Getting the balance right
False balance is not a new issue for the BBC. A 2011 report by prominent geneticist Steve Jones for the BBC Trust warned against giving equal weight to views that run contrary to the vast majority of climate scientists, decades of research and the conclusions of all major governments and scientific institutions in an attempt to uphold its commitment to due impartiality.
Officially, the BBC Trust supports and upholds the Jones review’s recommendations on impartiality and accuracy. Fraser Steel makes this clear in the letter, saying:
“It is the position of the BBC Trust, the body which oversees the editorial standards of the BBC, that there is general agreement that the scientific evidence shows the global climate is changing and that the change is predominantly man-made; the BBC’s coverage should therefore reflect this.”
Steel says that:
“This does not mean excluding dissenting views, but rather giving them due weight … [T]he Trust does not say that minority views and opinions should be excluded but it does suggest that such minority opinions and sceptical views should not be treated as if it were on an equal footing with the scientific consensus.”
On this occasion, he concludes, the BBC got it wrong.
The BBC has not yet released an official response to the complaints, but one is expected shortly on the broadcaster’s complaints pages.