Reporters feel the heat over climate change

Ofcom is about to deliver its crucial report on the Channel 4 programme that upset climate experts. Bob Ward examines how science and journalism can misunderstand each other

It is now just over a year since the controversial programme The Great Global Warming Swindle was broadcast on Channel 4, but there has been no cooling in the relationship between scientists and the media. Ofcom is deliberating on whether the programme breached its code, and its upcoming verdict could have far-reaching implications for the media's coverage of climate change and other scientific issues.

The programme, produced by Martin Durkin and his company WAGtv, claimed that climate scientists had been engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to dupe the public and politicians into thinking that global warming is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Instead, changes in the sun's activity should be blamed for the rise in global average temperature over the past century, the programme argued.

Loud protests followed the initial broadcast on 8 March 2007 – and its repeat on More 4 – with more than 200 complaints submitted to Ofcom. Channel 4 attempted to defend the programme by calling it a "polemic" and asserting the public's right to hear from minority views.

Scientists alleged that the programme had systematically misrepresented the research and evidence on climate change, and had only featured interviews with a fringe group of dissenting figures who did not agree with the overwhelming majority of researchers in the field. Two researchers were so outraged that they took the unprecedented step of writing a scientific paper for a leading scientific journal to explicitly rebut the TV programme's central claim about the role of the Sun.

Ofcom is due to rule on the programme in the next few weeks, but it has focused attention on how climate change is covered in parts of the national media.

The BBC, in particular, has been tying itself in knots since Jeremy Paxman alleged in an article in its in-house magazine, Ariel, last February, that the corporation had "abandoned the pretence of impartiality long ago". In June, the BBC Trust said in a report on impartiality that the corporation should allow "dissenters" on the issue to be heard because "it is not the BBC's role to close down this debate".

At the end of August, the BBC was accused by rival broadcasters at the Edinburgh International Television Festival of having a "line" on climate change, namely that global warming was caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Peter Horrocks, Head of Television News at the BBC, seemed to agree, attacking the corporation's plans for "Planet Relief", a day of programming to raise consciousness about the issue. "I absolutely don't think we should do that because it's not impartial. It's not our job to lead people and proselytise about it," said Horrocks. A month later, Planet Relief was cancelled.

Some politicians have increased the pressure on the BBC. In October, John Redwood, a senior Tory MP, attacked the Today programme in his blog for its coverage of a new scientific study, accusing the BBC of being "relentless in their insistence on climate change theory".

The controversy appears to expose a fundamental mismatch between the values of the media and scientists. On the one hand, journalists seek impartiality and balance, being used to the idea that all issues consist essentially of different viewpoints and opinions, and that what is right or wrong depends on perception. The media seeks to present two sides of an argument, and let the public decide what to believe.

On the other hand, scientists value accuracy, having been taught that different views should be assessed according to the evidence that supports them, rather than on the vehemence with which they are held. Researchers seek to present an objective view of the weight of evidence to inform the public.

The scientists point out that their understanding of climate change has developed, as in other subjects, through rational consensus – the accumulation of collective opinion in support of an accepted interpretation of the available evidence. The rational consensus on climate change is that warming of the Earth is unequivocal and very likely due to greenhouse-gas emissions and other human activities.

The existence of a consensus does not mean that there is absolute certainty or unanimity among researchers. But it is based on a large body of evidence that has been documented in many thousands of scientific papers over the past few decades. Almost none of these papers, far less than a fraction of one per cent of the total, has diverged from the consensus.

The BBC Trust report on impartiality acknowledged that "the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus".

But it also suggested a "guiding principle" should be that "impartiality is about breadth of view and can be breached by omission", declaring that, on climate change and other issues, "as long as minority opinions are coherently and honestly expressed, the BBC must give them appropriate space".

So the BBC continues to provide a platform for dissenting viewpoints on climate-change science, even if they are not supported by evidence, arguing that it is a demonstration of the corporation's impartiality. The Great Global Warming Swindle followed the same principle by basing its entire narrative around the views of the dissenters. However, such demonstrations of balance and impartiality appear to be misleading the public. According to an Ipsos MORI opinion poll last summer, 56 per cent of people mistakenly tended to agree or strongly agree with the statement that "many leading experts still question if human activity is contributing to climate change".

Of course, broadcasters do not deserve all of the blame for the public being misled about the weight of scientific opinion on the causes of climate change. The Daily Mail has published many opinion pieces suggesting that climate-change science is wrong, or even an anti-American conspiracy, and The Sunday Telegraph includes attacks by its columnists on the rational consensus almost every week.

Journalists understandably feel they should seek balance and impartiality in their reporting. But scientists will remain frustrated by this approach as long as it appears to undermine the accuracy of the media coverage of climate-change science.



Bob Ward is Director of Global Science Networks at Risk Management Solutions, but the views expressed in this article are his own.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
News
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
music
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

BI Analyst

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency in Central Lo...

DBA

£40000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: DBA, London,...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game