The BBC has been accused of misleading the public about climate change, creating a “false balance” by allowing unqualified climate sceptics too much air time and giving opinion the same weight as fact.
In a damning parliamentary report, the BBC is criticised for distorting the debate on man-made climate change – for which it says the scientific evidence is overwhelming – through its determination to put the other side of the argument across.
Radio 4’s Today and World at One programmes come in for particular criticism, as do the BBC’s television news programmes.
The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit well-respected scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson of Blaby, who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies. Andrew Montford, who runs the Bishop Hill climate sceptic blog, former children’s television presenter Johnny Ball and Bob Carter, a retired Australian geologist, are among the other climate sceptics that have appeared on the BBC.
The use of climate sceptics has often resulted in an argument between science-based fact and belief-based opinion, the report by the cross-party Science and Technology Committee found.
Committee chair Andrew Miller said it was “disappointing that the BBC does not ensure all of its programmes and presenters reflect the actual state of science in its output”.
“The Today programme and other BBC News teams continue to make mistakes in their coverage of climate science by giving opinions and scientific fact the same weight,” he said.
“Some editors appear to be particularly poor at determining the level of scientific expertise of contributors in debates, for instance, putting up lobbyists against top scientists as though their arguments on the science carry equal weight,” Mr Miller added.
Mr Miller highlights a World at One report in September of a landmark UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) research project which found concluded with 95 per cent certainty that the climate is changing and that human activity is the main cause.
The programme’s producers tried more than a dozen qualified UK scientists to give an opposing view but could not find one willing to do so – so they went to Mr Carter in Australia.
Pitted against Energy Secretary Ed Davey, Mr Carter described the findings of the most authoritative report ever undertaken into the science of climate change – put together by hundreds of scientists around the world – as “hocus-pocus science”.
“The climate has always changed and it always will – there is nothing unusual about the modern magnitudes or rates of change of temperature, of ice volume, of sea level or of extreme weather events,” Mr Carter added.
Mr Carter was speaking on behalf of the nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, a group backed by the Heartland Institute, a free market think tank that opposes urgent action on climate change.
The parliamentary committee report cites Professor Steve Jones, who conducted a review into impartiality in 2011 and was called as a witness for this report. He criticised the World at One report for giving “equal time to a well-known expert and to an Australian retired geologist with no background in the field: in my view a classic case of ‘false balance’.” Professor Jones’ review concluded with regard to science coverage: “in general, its output is of high quality”.
The report stopped short of saying sceptical views on climate change should be excluded altogether, but the debate should be clearly labelled and the BBC should be especially careful “not to treat lobbying groups as disinterested parties”, the committee said.
Bob Ward, policy director of The London School of Economics’ Grantham Institute, who gave evidence for the report, welcomed its conclusion. Mr Ward, who has presented his evidence to the BBC that he says demonstrates that “inaccurate and misleading statements were broadcast”, said: “I am glad that the Committee has explicitly acknowledged our evidence that the public interest is being harmed by inaccurate and misleading coverage of climate change by the BBC and other media.”
“While the UK media, including the BBC, has some of the best science and environment correspondents in the world, who provide insightful and factual reporting about climate change, too many editors are willing to publish or broadcast inaccurate and misleading information, seemingly on the grounds that atmospheric physics should be treated as just a matter of opinion,” Mr Ward said.
“If you put sceptics on you have to make sure they don’t get away with making inaccurate and misleading statements,” he added.
A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC does its utmost to report on this complex subject as clearly as possible using our specialist journalists. While the vast bulk of our interviews are with climate scientists, as part of our commitment to impartiality it is important that dissenting voices are also heard. We don’t believe in erasing wider viewpoints even if the select committee doesn’t agree with them. In our response to the Jones report we said we would take care to reflect all viewpoints in the debate about the science and policy giving them due weight - that is what we are doing.”
The Science and Technology Committee report also criticised the climate change coverage of newspapers, singling out The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail in particular.
Concern was expressed about the difference between the accuracy of reporting in news items, which was generally viewed as acceptable, and the frequent inaccuracies seen in some opinion pieces or personal columns, the report said.
“We are very disappointed by the heavy reliance that The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph place on the ability of their readers to distinguish between fact and opinion on climate science. This is especially the case because opinion pieces about climate science in these publications are frequently based on factual inaccuracies which go unchallenged,” the report said.
The government was also criticised for “failing to clearly and effectively communicate climate science to the public”.
The MPs found little evidence of coordination among government, government agencies and public bodies on communicating climate science, despite various policies at national and regional level to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
“The mandate to act on climate can only be maintained if the electorate are convinced that the Government is acting on the basis of strong scientific evidence so Ministers need to do more to demonstrate that this is the case,” Mr Miller said.
The BBC’s climate sceptics
Johnny Ball (above), the former children’s TV presenter, on Andrew Neil’s BBC 2 Daily Politics programme in March 2011:
“Why are we scaring our kids to death? There are wind generators everywhere. And not one would be built without public subsidy. I reckon they will end up costing every family half of their fuel bills and more, making every family and child in the country poorer by far. But to what effect?
“All the efforts to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere are patently not working. From my reading around the subject only four per cent of the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere is put there by man. The rest is completely natural – the rain falls and washes it out again and so you have to have a carbon cycle to keep replenishing it. It’s completely natural.”
Bob Carter, retired Australian geologist, talking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One in September, 2013, about the new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (which concluded with 95 per cent certainty that climate change was manmade):
“The problem with what you just said to me about 95 per cent probability – it’s hocus pocus science… The climate has always changed and it always will – there is nothing unusual about the modern magnitudes or rates of change of temperature, of ice volume, of sea level or of extreme weather events.”
Lord Lawson of Blaby tells Radio 4’s Today programme in Febuary, 2014:
“People who have done studies show that there has been globally no increase in extreme weather events… There has been no recorded warming over the past 15, 16, 17 years.”
Andrew Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion and owner of the Bishop Hill climate sceptic blog, told BBC 2’s Newsnight in February, 2014:
“Everybody seems to agree, at least scientifically they seem to agree, that you can’t link these floods [in the UK at the start of the year] to climate change… 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.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies