Is the BBC biased? Many on the right believe that it is – and cite the corporation’s coverage of climate change as a prime example.
And yet, as Ehsan Masood reveals in the Guardian, this is an issue on which the Beeb can’t win:
“Last week my friend and onetime colleague, the UK government’s former climate adviser John Ashton, berated the BBC for giving Australian climate sceptic Bob Carter undue airtime in its reporting of the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The geneticist Steve Jones also weighed in, reminding the corporation not to fall into the trap of ‘false balance’ by treating the views of sceptics equally alongside mainstream climate researchers.”
The false balance argument is an interesting one:
“Very few journalists (at least in the developed world) would give space to those claiming HIV doesn’t cause Aids, to flat-Earthers, or those who believe that vaccines make us ill. In the same way it is right that we turn off the microphone to those who say that human-induced climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the shadowy forces of world government at meetings of the Bilderberg group.”
Should the BBC have a creationist on every time it does a programme about evolution? Or a Marxist whenever the problems of the economy are discussed?
Then there’s the question of what kind of climate sceptic gets interviewed, because they’re not all the same:
“…those of us in the business of science and environment journalism need to be careful that we don’t overstep the mark: sceptics are not all climate deniers. Scepticism is complex and encompasses a range of opinions, many of which are perfectly valid, even if, personally, we don’t agree with them.”
Indeed, they don’t even agree with one another. Someone who might respectfully disagree with other climate scientists about the rate of atmospheric warming has little in common with someone who denies the basics of climate science or who suspects it to be the greatest conspiracy of all time.
These are difficult judgments for a public broadcaster to make. But to close the debate altogether, featuring only the establishment view, is a cop out. In fact, it does a great deal of harm:
“…shutting out dissenting voices is a disservice to our audiences, to institutions such as the IPCC who benefit from the scrutiny, and ultimately doesn’t help engender much trust in institutions of government.”
On every issue of widespread public interest the debate needs to be opened-up – and not only in terms of the variety of opinions that are included. The BBC also needs to improve the quality of debate on scientific and technological issues. A five minute to-and-fro at the end of the Today programme (when three of those minutes are John Humphreys interrupting) is no good to anyone. Furthermore, as well as getting the opportunity to challenge the established view, it is important that minority viewpoints should themselves be challenged. It would be refreshing to see certain high-profile contrarians confronted with the tricky questions they can so easily avoid when preaching to the choir.
Whether on climate change and other important issues, the BBC has a duty to bring the sceptics out into the open. Not least because it would help us to distinguish the cranks and attention-seekers from people with serious points that deserve a serious response.