BBC and UK government ‘failing public’ over climate change coverage

Damning report from MPs says BBC should adopt clear editorial guidelines around climate coverage

(Pic: BBC News)

(Pic: BBC News)

By Ed King

The BBC and UK Government are failing in their public duty to communicate climate science ‘clearly and effectively’, says a panel of MPs in a report published today.

The Science and Technology Committee say the government’s “hands-off approach” to explaining why climate change is a threat has allowed “inaccurate arguments to flourish” unchallenged.

“If [the] Government wishes to retain its mandate for action it needs to improve public understanding of the scientific basis for climate change policy.”

And in a damning indictment of the BBC, which boasts an annual audience of a quarter of a billion, they say editors lack the ability or expertise to decide how to cover climate science accurately and fairly.

“Our greatest concern is about the BBC given the high level of trust the public has in its coverage. It did not convince us that it had a clear understanding of the information needs of its audience,” the MPs say.

They add: “It is not clear to us how a ‘journalistic point of view’ which presumably emphasises accuracy, can be at odds with a scientific approach whose prime objective is the establishment of empirical fact.”

MPs also criticised opinion pieces in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, which they said were “frequently based on factual inaccuracies which go unchallenged.”

‘False debate’

Responding to the Committee’s criticism, UK Secretary of State for energy and climate change Ed Davey said the government was “refreshing” its strategy to help improve how climate change is communicated to the public, but defended its overall performance.

“Monday’s extensive coverage of the UN’s report on the impacts of climate change is testament to the work of Government in clearly communicating the issue,” he said.

In an emailed statement, the BBC said its specialist journalists were doing their “utmost” to report the issue fairly, but refused to back down from its commitment to “impartiality”.

“We don’t believe in erasing wider viewpoints even if the select committee doesn’t agree with them.”

Leo Hickman, WWF’s climate advisor and a former Guardian journalist, said the report demonstrated the need to end a “false debate” around the science, adding: “Opinion and scientific facts must not be confused.”

The last review into the BBC’s coverage of climate change was completed in 2011 by Professor Steve Jones from UCL, who concluded the organisation “must accept that it is impossible to produce a balance between fact and opinion.”

The MPs suggest these recommendations have not been adopted by the broadcaster, calling for it to “develop clear editorial guidelines for all commentators and presenters on the facts of climate that should be used to challenge statements”.

In the last few days the broadcaster has been heavily criticised for saying a recent UN climate science study was perceived as ‘alarmist’ after one of the 300+ main experts said he was concerned about its contents.

Last week direct action group Climate Rush picketed BBC HQ Broadcasting House in protest at what they said was “too little representation of climate science” from the media giant.

The STC report comes at a critical point for efforts to address climate change and achieve a global consensus on how to address its impacts.

On Monday the UN’s climate science panel released a huge piece of research detailing how the world could face dangerous impacts without rapid action to curb carbon emissions, including extreme weather, sea level rise and species extinctions.

And in September world leaders will meet in New York to discuss plans for a UN treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would ensure warming does not rise above 2C, a level governments agreed in 2009 would be dangerous.

But the MPs say public support for a global deal cannot be taken for granted, and thst the government and other bodies, such as the Royal Society and the Met Office, must do more to explain why it is a concern to a wider audience.

“The Royal Society is a publicly funded body with a responsibility to communicate about science. We encourage it to step up to that responsibility.”

In his evidence to the Committee, climate minister Greg Barker admitted the issue had become “a bit of a political football”.

The Conservative MP said sceptics should be treated with “respect”, but cautioned against letting “the views of a relatively small minority dominate the whole agenda.”

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