The BBC broadcast a report today by Roger Harrabin entitled “has global warming stalled?“. You can follow the link to listen to the piece. I don’t often submit formal complaints, but I think the framing of the issue is so important that I submitted the following to the BBC complaints department.
I have two specific complaints in relation to your Today programme piece on climate science broadcast on the 17th May. The first is that the report used misleading language about recent developments in the science. My second complaint is that the report gave undue attention to a marginal opinion. Roger Harrabin’s report contained some interesting interviews, but the presentation was entirely misleading.
On my first, I believe it is misleading to suggest that the scientific establishment agrees that “global warming appears to have stalled” as he did in the opening segment.
The media, including Radio 4, covered a Met Office announcement in January by suggesting it showed global warming had stopped. The report was so misleading that the Met Office had to issue a statement.
The short-term fluctuations in the background temperature trend are well known, though as your report pointed out they are not yet fully understand. Carbon Brief produced a very useful summary of these issues back in January.
There are some scientists who have an optimistic view of future warming, believing it could still remain at 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. There are others who believe we are heading towards at least 4 degrees of warming. This uncertainty has been a feature of the scientific debate ever since the IPCC was set-up.
If Roger Harrabin is able to point to evidence of a growing consensus among scientists that global warming has stalled, I would be very interested to read it!
Second, in the BBC Trust’s 2010 review of impartiality and accuracy in scientific reporting, Professor Steve Jones made clear that the BBC was at times applying an “over-rigid” application of the editorial guidelines on impartiality, and giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”. The guidelines were revised around the same time to ensure that the BBC gives “due weight” in relation to impartiality.
A recent study found that 97% out of nearly 12,000 scientific papers agreed with the consensus position of anthropogenic global warming. This reinforced several other studies conducted in the past decade, which found a similar level of agreement.
So I believe that in this item you have given undue attention to an exceptionally marginal opinion of a poorly qualified blogger.
A more balanced and credible piece would have interviewed several scientists and climate policy experts about the implications of tipping over 400 ppm CO2, with a note of caution that, as in all complicated areas, nobody can be quite certain where in the range we will end up.
I won’t hold my breath. Carbon Brief have produced a much more sympathetic write-up of the piece on their blog. I agree that most of the segment was interesting and quite clear, but Harrabin’s opening suggestion – that scientists are now agreeing with sceptics that global warming has stalled – was a grievous misrepresentation.
Update – their response
I received the following response from the BBC:
Thanks for your contact regarding ‘Today’ broadcast on 17 May on BBC Radio 4.
I understand that you felt an item on the above edition of the programme was biased in favour of climate sceptics.
Whilst I appreciate your concerns, it’s firstly worth noting that Roger Harrabin’s report was simply one of many in relation to this topic. In addressing any wide ranging issue such as this, balance cannot be judged simply on the basis of individual reports, and consideration must be given to our overall reporting.
Indeed, the issue of climate change has been covered on numerous recent occasions by the BBC, for example:
Please be assured that we are committed to impartial coverage when it comes to this issue. That said, we don’t ignore the fact that there is broad scientific agreement on the issue of climate change and we reflect this accordingly; however, we do aim to ensure that we also offer time to the dissenting voices.
Nevertheless, please be assured that I’ve registered your comments regarding this issue to our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback made available throughout the BBC, including to programme producers, as well as members of senior management.
The audience logs help to shape future decisions regarding BBC programming and output.
Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.
I’m not really satisfied with the BBC basically saying “I’m not going to respond to your complaint about that specific programme because, look, we have all this other coverage too”. I’ll give a reply some thought… any suggestions gratefully received.