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Relief relief

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Peter Barron | 10:50 UK time, Thursday, 6 September 2007

You'll have seen there's a lot of debate about what I and the head of TV news thought of the BBC's coverage of climate change (you can read his thoughts on the matter here). The BBC has now decided not to go ahead with the proposed Planet Relief programme. This blog posting, How green should we be?, from February, sets out my position.


  • 1.
  • At 02:21 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

I think one of BBC's problems is that it attracts and hires people who want to change the world. That is not a reporter's job. Commentary on the other hand can be presented IF it is backed up by strong evidence and is intellectually honest enough to present opposing views it disagrees with if they are from respected sources.

"So what constitutes impartiality on this issue. Should we, every time the issue of climate change is raised, include someone like Myron Ebell from the US Competitive Enterprise Institute, who argues that while climate change may be happening there's no evidence that it's caused by human activity and absolutely no need to reduce carbon emissions?"

No I think picking an extreme point to make an argument look rediculous is unfair. I think what BBC should do is not merely give a platform for those it agrees with to pontificate unchallenged, a normal BBC practice but to present or at least mention that there are alternative points of view from credible scientists who take issue with the presumptions of the guest or interviewee. Not every discussion has to be an in depth debate but so far any real debate of climate change on BBC has been rather scant as far as I can tell.

By taking the basic positions of the majority of scientists on climate change as a given axiomatic truth and then presenting what is clearly a political, not a serious scientific and economic examination of the possible courses of action and their consequences, BBC deliberately misleads its audience in what are surely very complex issues with drastic implications. This seems to be an across the board position of those advocating action to deal with climate change no matter what their other political views. In an interview last weekend on BookTV shown on C-Span2, Christopher Hitchens, the ostensibly conservative right wing half of a pair of Hitchenses (his brother Peter is the left half of the set of bookends) spoke out on climate change saying what does it matter if we act on the assumption that climate change is man made and we turn out to be wrong, what harm could it do? Well for one it could needlessly throw the world into a universal economic depression it would not recover from. And for another, it would likely result in condemning people around the world to mass starvation as energy consuming agribusiness in places like the US which much of the world depends on to eat would have to be sharply curtailed. The flaw in BBC's presentations is not merely that they are political, it is its glibness refusing to grasp the significance of what is being said and what is being proposed. It reduces discussion to trite practiced mantras instead of well reasoned arguments and backs them up with anecdotal evidence. Superficial and biased, this is the sad current state of affairs of much of BBC's efforts.

  • 2.
  • At 02:55 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • Stuart John Daff wrote:

6th September 2007

The problem of climate change is a priority issue facing the international community. However, like other problems faced in the world today, these issues are discussed only by a limited number of people, despite the fact that a lot more people have a genuine interest in life. Climate change and other issues will continue to be discussed by intellecutals, politicians, and members of the business community, but will the interests of the people in general be truely expressed; are the democratic mechanisms in place really expressing the sovereign good? The question arises whether truely "concrete" universal social interests are expressed via the state (however contentious a concept of the state may be), as opposed to an abstract universalism, which, in reality, only expresses the interests of a spurious individuals, and, furthermore, any number of a plurality of issues which may be deemed to lie in the public interest. Even if pluralism does express genuine interests, which are therefore perfectly valid, one has to question as to what the political objectives of social movements are. To clarify the argument, let us consider the problem of social justice, which may entail a recognition of the working class as being equal, in principle, to other social classes. However as far as this may be expressed politically, depends on how the key protagonists of political action play their cards; the state, it may be argued, is the legitimate seat of of sovereignty, and as such, the interests of the "people", the good of the people (and by extension, the world in general; biosphere, planet, economy, "environment", etc.). The only way that this "good" may possibly be realized, is by subordinating other interests to this social goal; "freedom" by definition, implies a necessary recognition of the interests of society as a whole, not simply sectional interests of one social group or another. To fight for sectional interests, may well be legitmate, and protagonists may justifiably suppport these interests (i.e. conservative, liberal, labour, communist parties, etc.), but to fight for such issues, at the expense of the social good, is contrary to freedom, and reactionary. Socialists perhaps should argue this theoretical position tooth and nail, by polemic, discussion, and logical debate, if they get the chance.

This is not a decision based on worries over impartiality. The BBC has no problem over being partial over Saving Whales or supporting wild life parks, or programmes on recycling (Blue Peter even has been pushing that one for years), or feeding starving children in Africa.

This is simply about worries that it would be a flop.

And to be honest, who gives a carbon molecule's chance in hell of what some bloke on blogger has to say? (A posting that recieved NO comments, by the way.) He is just into BBC kicking, and his arguments are meaningless.

Climate change is a fact that effects us all. Devoting a day of high profile programmes to it is a great idea - though I think losing the pop stars is sensible. You have fallen to the age old media idiocy of seeing that an idea is not quite right, so rather than improve it you throw the whole thing in the bin.

" it our job to encourage people to be greener?"

The BBC has a duty under it's charter to inform EDUCATE and entertain.

You are worrying about the inform and entertain - you have completely forgotten your duty to EDUCATE.

This would be education. And would be far less biased than, say, Comic Relief!

  • 4.
  • At 04:42 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • Rvvm wrote:

There are better ways to convince Joe Public that Global Warming (or Climate Change as you like to call it after the dreadful summer we've had in the UK) than having hypocritical bandwagon jumping celebs or untrustworthy MP's shoving it down our throats, day in, day out.

Not once have I seen an intelligent programme on the BBC detailing the pros and cons of the more credible scientific theories contributing to the whole debate. (BBC Breakfast doesn't count - see use of the word 'intelligent')

  • 5.
  • At 05:41 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • mark wood wrote:

I was suprised to hear of the BBC`S decision not to go ahead with the planet relief programme.
It seems possible to me and a growing number of others that soon climate change and other enviromental degradtion will be the only issue and will unfortunately dominate over all else.
I`m suprised then that the BBC isn`t ahead of the game with this-the old rules of impartiality etc don`t really apply with such a huge issue.
I heard someone else comment on radio 2 today that the BBC does charity programmes for children-when climate change will affect our children and theirs in ways we probably can`t even begin to imagine today.
I understand if there`s also other reasons why this has been cut but in general I think there should more information given via TV as from where I`m sitting most of us are carrying on the same-driving flying
unnecessarily -internal and short haul flights etc-its not just about light bulbs sadly!

  • 6.
  • At 06:10 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • John, Devon wrote:

While this particular idea does seem to have been ill-thought-out I don't buy the "impartiality" angle.

There is clearly a difference between reporting and campaigning, but most of us are not idiots and can tell the one from the other.

BBC TV (and to a lesser extent radio) is in fact full of content which could be and is questioned on grounds of "partiality" by people from all political viewpoints. Coverage of the Palestinians and Israel springs particularly to mind.

However, I don't mind programmes with a trenchant point of view so long as it is clear what that POV is, and the opposing POV also gets fair coverage where relevant.

It also helps when the people putting across the message are experts in the particular field, not "celebrities".

And as Joss Sanglier also comments, what about Comic Relief and all the "save the blue whale" type programmes? No concerns about impartiality over those!

  • 7.
  • At 06:11 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • J.WESTERMAN wrote:

It should be possible to discuss almost any subject on air provided the sides concerned are properly balanced. Therein lies the rub and the problem that many people have with the media, including the BBC. It is this matter of gratuitous comments and opinions that is so infuriating
A good example occurred shortly after 6.00 hrs. this morning. I had the BBC news on in the background and heard someone, James Westwood I think, comment that a 10 year plan the Government had in mind for children sounded Stalinesque. It is not for the BBC journalists to give that sort of opinion. Get a debate on air if appropriate.

  • 8.
  • At 07:05 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • Jay Furneaux wrote:

As someone who does believe that CO2 concentrations affect climate I don’t really object to the Planet Relief day being cancelled. Most people would see it as yet another ‘dull but worthy’ day of programming and from what I’ve seen it wouldn’t have been that inspiring.

A mass switch-off? Not a great idea (you can see the headlines now) and I suspect many would switch over, not switch off. It also plays straight into the hands of those who claim the aim is to get us all ‘living back as humans did in the Stone Age’. The idea sounds like the result of a brainstorm of people trying too hard to find one of those ‘something everyone can participate in’ activities. And a day of Ricky Gervaise trying not to sound too smug whilst surrounded by celebs… Purlease, it’d be like a 14-hour long episode of Extras.

Two thirds of the BBC’s charter remit is to “inform & educate” . There is a real need to examine and explain the science of climate change. Too many people, scientists included, believe that the public (inc. journalists) fully grasp the issue and have a basic scientific grounding. This clearly isn’t the case and one reason so many counter theories and claims abound in the blogsphere. Concentrating on the factual could cover many different aspects of the topic. Past climates and climate change could involve historians and archaeologists and well as earth scientists; the present day could examine the chemistry, physics, what the difference is between weather and climate, how earth’s atmosphere works and much more. Energy alternatives: look at how the energy companies and car manufacturers are investing huge sums in emerging technologies. Energy efficiency in the home, that’s personal finance.

By all means examine the many counter claims and hypothesises, but subject them to scrutiny. ( The Great Global Warming Swindle was a polemic produced by a journalist with a political agenda. It played well to its intended audience, but science it wasn’t.) And if claims don’t live up what their proponents say then report that.

It would be useful to have some science reporters with a science background; it’s obvious that on occasions the role has landed on the desk (‘hey, you are doing science this week’) of people who struggle with subjects they report. This is an important topic; how it is covered should become a long-term strategy involving history, science, technology, current affairs & politics. Examine it in detail. If nothing else we are living through a major real world, real time experiment.

It would also be useful to acknowledge that the climate debate is value driven. It’s interesting that just about all the sceptics share a similar political ideology; but that is the role ‘conservatives’ play in such debates; to resist new ideas and prevent any activity based on such ideas. This is the political debate that needs be brought into the open. Should we act or not? How concerned are we about peoples living in third world countries? Are we planning for when oil and gas reserves eventually do begin to run out? What are the options facing us? Should the state act or should it be left to individuals?

In many ways it’d help the debate along if a political party said – ‘OK, global warming is happening, humans are responsible - but let’s do nothing, we’ll probably be OK’. Because behind all the spurious science arguments that are put up this is the real debate struggling to get out. That might be a debate the BBC could help along; perhaps staging a ‘hypothetical scenarios’ debate between leading lights of the main camps.

PS: Earth science has always been contentious. 200 years ago the heated argument was between uniformitarianists and catastrophists. The idea that the Earth was older than 6,000 years upset many. (As for species evolving through natural selection!) Louis Agassiz’s later theory that great ice sheets had shaped present day landforms was hugely controversial. James Croll’s hypothesis that ice ages followed regular cycles took another 100 years to become established.
At it has with all the above, at some point the BBC has to make a judgement as to what is speculative and what is largely accepted as fact.

  • 9.
  • At 09:32 PM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • Paul Holden wrote:

Human induced climate change has become the New Puritan's religion of choice.

Irrespective of whether you believe the science or not, the best industrial and economic approach to the issue of by no means as clear cut as the likes of BBC and the the other eco-evangelists would have us believe. By degrading their coverage to trite soundbites for the yoof audience, the BBC is failing totally in its remit to be impartial and objective.

Cancelling Planet Relief is a step in the right direction, albeit for the wrong reasons. Can I suggest it is replaced by a series of serious programs looking at the subject in depth, giving a range of opinions about causes, effects and possible solutions. OK it probably won't engage with the "average" viewer, but better that than pandering to glassy-eyed, pseudo-religious fanaticism. There is more than enough of that in the world as it is - let's get back to the Age of Reason.

Joss Sanglier, comment no. 2.: you casually dismiss a blog post referred to by Peter that I wrote because 1) it's a blog post; 2) it has, you claim, '0' comments.

In answer to your specific points:

1) Yes it's a blog post. A post on Biased BBC, a serious blog written by a team of people that has been operating for more than five years, frequented by BBC insiders and often linked to both from the BBC's internal blog system and the BBC Editors blog. Try attacking me for what I say, nor for who I am or where I choose to say it.

Also note that the main point of that post is not what I had to say, but rather what Jeremy Paxman had to say about the BBC's partiality on the subject of global warming (see Peter's links for a reminder).

2) You obviously didn't click on the comments link - there are lots of comments on that post. The reason the comments link says '0' is simply that the comment system only keeps totals for recent comments, not those as far back as February. My apologies for the confusion and loss of credibility that 'feature' has caused you.

Since I'm here, let me add my thanks to Peter B. and Peter H. for their prominent roles in getting this BBC Comedy unit (really!) eco-propagandathon axed - it's not the BBC's role to proselytise either one side of an ongoing politicised debate about scientific research or just one leftie anti-capitalist approach to solving the problems highlighted by that debate.

More truth and facts please, less emotional speculation and supposition - better for the BBC, and better for everyone else too.

  • 11.
  • At 01:40 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • James S wrote:

Joss - Rather than have a whole day based on climate change wouldn't it be better to have a program lasting an hour or two with a neutral presenter and a number of experts from each side of the AGW debate?

Surely that would be a better way of "Educating" than the constant brainwashing the lesser educated section of the populace have to endure?

  • 12.
  • At 08:17 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Natalie Moore wrote:

The idea that airing a programme such as Planet Relief would in some way jeapardise or contradict any journalist's - or, indeed, the BBC's - commitment to impartiality is bizarre. The IPCC report issued this year, compiled by approximately 2,000 scientists and sanctioned by governments worldwide, demonstrates just how strong the consensus on this issue truly is. The fact that certain corporations and governments have successfully been able frame global warming in the context of an "argument" with two balanced sides, the conclusion of which is yet to be decided, shows how desparately we need a programme like Planet Relief.

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