The BBC has accepted it gets coverage of climate change “wrong too often” and told staff: “You do not need a [climate change] ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”
In a briefing note sent to all staff warning them to be aware of false balance, the corporation has offered a training course on how to report on global warming. The move follows a series of apologies and censures for failing to challenge climate sceptics during interviews, including Lord Lawson.
The briefing note, obtained by the website Carbon Brief, was sent on Thursday by Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs. It includes a statement of BBC editorial policy that begins: “Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often.”
It then states: “Manmade climate change exists: If the science proves it we should report it.” In the section warning on false balance it says: “To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2 – 0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.”
The Guardian revealed in October that the BBC had apologised for an interview with Lawson on the Radio 4 Today programme after admitting it had breached its own editorial guidelines for allowing him to claim that global temperatures have not risen in the past decade. The regulator Ofcom subsequently ruled the BBC had breached broadcasting rules.
The Today programme was also censured by the BBC complaints unit for an interview with Lawson in February 2014 and has been criticised for failing to implement fully the findings of the BBC Trust’s 2011 review into the “accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science”.
The four-page briefing note sent by Unsworth starts with a blunt statement on the science: “Climate change IS happening.” It also covers the implications of global warming: “There is a general consensus that it could be devastating in many different ways.” It ends with “common misconceptions” used to deny manmade warming, including that “not all scientists think manmade climate change is real” and “climate change has happened before”.
The briefing note does not completely rule out including climate sceptics in BBC coverage: “There are occasions where contrarians and sceptics should be included. These may include, for instance, debating the speed and intensity of what will happen in the future, or what policies government should adopt.”
But it adds: “Journalists need to be aware of the guest’s viewpoint and how to challenge it effectively. As with all topics, we must make clear to the audience which organisation the speaker represents, potentially how that group is funded and whether they are speaking with authority from a scientific perspective.” Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation does not disclose its source of funding.
Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit thinktank and a former BBC environment correspondent, said: “The creation of this course is welcome news. The BBC was wrong in my view to scrap the science seminars that it set up in 2011 – very few producers and presenters have a science background.
“The course will be criticised by some – words like ‘stifling the debate’ – but those voices are decreasingly important in the country. I think the real takeaway from this is that the BBC has decided it no longer cares about evidence-free allegations of ‘bias’. It’s to be commended for putting its mojo on display.”
Prof Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, said: “This set of BBC guidelines is long overdue. There have been too many occasions when the BBC’s audience has been misled over the realities of climate change.”
Hawkins analysed the briefing note for Carbon Brief saying: “The ‘editorial policy’ could be more explicit about what would constitute false balance in its coverage. In the past, too many inaccurate statements made about climate science have not been effectively challenged by the interviewer.”
In August, 57 prominent environmentalists, including Jonathon Porritt and Caroline Lucas, wrote to the Guardian declaring: “We will no longer debate those who deny that human-caused climate change is real. There are plenty of vital debates to be had around climate chaos and what to do about it; this is simply no longer one of them. We urge broadcasters to move on, as we are doing.”
First published by The Guardian, 7 September 2018.