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How can the BBC be saved from itself without destroying it?

Dumbed-down climate coverage is just a symptom

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Scientists are clever, they should tell us what to do - right?

A thought exercise. Imagine, if you will, that an astronomer discovered a large space rock hurtling to Earth. The precise time and date of impact were then calculated. This would leave us with a wide range of moral and economic choices. It would be very strange, in fact inconceivable, if someone handed all these decisions to the astronomer to make.

"Here you go, Man with the Telescope - tell us what to do!"

Yet this is what happened throughout the media and political class in response to the dramatic and simplified tale of climate change. Now we have it from the highest authority, Mark Thompson: he gave three lectures at Oxford University recently, which reveal him to be an intelligent and witty man. But in one lecture he makes a quite extraordinary argument [PDF].

Thompson picks apart a statement made by social scientist Dr Benny Peiser, who stated that the scientific fact of climate change invites a range of policies, economic choices, and moral decisions. Peiser doesn't quibble with the "science", but merely points out the obvious, that we have to decide what to do. Thompson doesn't like this because only "scientists" are qualified to make ethical and economic decisions. Others may get involved, but only if they delegate their authority to the "scientists". This is the course we're told to follow on climate change.

There are enormous problems with this. The mitigation policies being advanced (and they came in a bundle - buy the science, get the policy for free) fall largely on the developing countries most in need of an advanced industrial society. These policies, if implemented, will perpetuate poverty, increase unwanted human misery and cause avoidable deaths.

There is a clear moral choice here, one the public is entitled to debate. It also raises intergenerational issues of fairness. Climate campaigners place huge costs on the current generation to "fix" the problem, when future generations would be better able to fix it. The older generation is effectively telling its youth:

"Awfully sorry, but we've caused an almighty mess. But we're not going to allow you the tools you need to fix it, like nuclear power, or cheap energy, because we don't think you should have them."

This too raised economic questions and moral choices to which we should have a say.

Thompson concluded his Oxford lecture by telling scientists that without the broadcasters they "have no voice" - he is literally saying: "Make us your mouthpiece." Given that Thompson has completely conceded moral authority on the matter, he really has no other conclusion to make. It's a return of Comte's Positivism, in which scientists are the ultimate authority in society on all decisions. Why? Because… well, they do science and stuff.

In the end, air time was given to people not making the most sense but making the most noise. By the end of the Noughties the airwaves were entirely free of policy debate, as Peter Sissons lamented: "It’s the lack of simple curiosity about one of the great issues of our time that I find so puzzling about the BBC."

Conclusion: the BBC jumped the tracks, but it's not too late to save it

Climate change has receded from prominence as an issue since the UN Copenhagen summit of 2009, which failed to produce a global treaty to limit CO2 emissions. The world's developing countries are evidently not going to give up on lifting their populations out of poverty in the name of climate change.

Since 2006, China has added an entire "USA's worth" of CO2 to the atmosphere, so any cuts made by small countries, such as the UK, are meaningless gestures. Technology and adaptation are now clearly the rational policy responses. These entail the long-term development of new energy sources that don't require a restructuring of modern society, don't raise costs, and don't inhibit growth. CO2 emissions continue to increase, but the climate hasn't played along, giving rise to suspicion that the simplified picture, with its "months left to save the world", was not the complete picture.

Yet the debate remains as strange as before, largely as a result of the straitjacket into which the climate ultras (figures such as Thompson, Unsworth and Harrabin) strapped themselves. There has been no awakening of popular consciousness to save the planet - and people realised they were being manipulated, as people always do.

The detritus left behind after the tide has gone is now what haunts the BBC now - it's been uncovered by a blogger using the freedom of information law. Let's bring the story up to the present day.

Two weeks ago, I listened to the BBC's Helen Boaden testify in a court room that one of the most persuasive speakers she had heard on that day, at that fateful seminar, in January 2006 was an insurance man. It had helped convinced her that climate change was having real world impacts. As we noted:

The BBC's director of news said she was particularly impressed by the testimony of a representative of the insurance industry at the 2006 seminar. For Boaden, this attendee's belief that cost of climate change will increase carried enormous weight. This is an odd statement: since profit-seeking insurance companies pocket revenue from premiums, they materially benefit from the higher premiums that accompany predictions of catastrophic climate change. Without the warnings of catastrophe, there is no need for higher premiums, so it's not an impartial observation.

It was an extraordinary thing to say. An accomplished and experienced factual editor, Boaden has first-hand experience of large corporate lobbying, and works for an organisation suspicious of big business. Yet for that moment, she suspended her judgement. It was the climate virus attacking, once again. Insurance company Munich Re set up a climate division and published some wildly alarming material before being disbanded this year.

And now we know who the "insurance man" was. He was actually a former insurance man called Andrew Dlugolecki, who was attached to the Climatic Research Unit at the Univesity of East Anglia. Tyndall director Mike Hulme described him as a lone gun: "An independent consultant close to the insurance and investment communities." In 2002 he was promoting climate work sponsored by the UN Environment Program (UNEP), the IPCC's parent, at the BBC.

There's much discussion about "impartiality" this week, and how it can be measured. The discussion raises good questions that don't have simple answers. There's also discussion about what a "consensus" is and whether it should be slavishly obeyed. But both debates are really beside the point here - they're symptoms of what went wrong. The BBC's tragedy is that it presented a simplified childlike picture of the world.

In a speech last December one of the BBC's most experienced journalists Michael Buerk, complained:

"What gets up my nose is being infantilized by governments, by the BBC, by the Guardian that there is no argument, that all scientists who aren’t cranks and charlatans are agreed on all this, that the consequences are uniformly negative, the issues beyond doubt and the steps to be taken beyond dispute. I don’t need to be told things by officialdom in all its forms, that are not true, or not the whole truth, for my own good."

Climate change, said Buerk, had become a "post-God religion".

Once the media had presented this simplified and dramatic version of climate science to the world, it didn't have the language or intellectual tools with which to reach higher ground. And the BBC couldn't resist jumping into the fray, with its fists pummelling, once again last year.

In a report published by the BBC Trust, the ultimate arbiter of fairness, unfairly criticised two climate critics including former Chancellor Lord Lawson. The report, by snail biologist Dr Steven Jones, attributed to Lawson appearances he didn't make, and quotes he didn't say, and compared climate critics to 9/11 conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers. A defamation lawsuit was eventually avoided. Handing the report to Jones was an error of judgement, but publishing his ravings was a catastrophe: it indicated the BBC would cleave to the simplified picture of the world it had settled upon. It wouldn't be budged.

This suggests it's an institutional blindness, and that scapegoating ultras such as Harrabin is unfair. Activists were in any case pushing at an open door.

Why do we care - or should we care? Partly because it's because we hold the BBC to much higher standards. Following the presidential election, there is much debate in media circles about the fate of US cable channel Fox News. It now appears to cater for a rabid minority of ideologues; the channel's vicious partisanship has permanently tainted its brand - and its own raison d'etre. The parallels with the BBC, with its decade-long climate-change coverage, are fascinating. But the market is already pronouncing its verdict on Fox News.

The BBC is rather different. But now the loss of a powerful independent voice in public life is very real. The prospect of a regulator keeping the corporation on a tight leash is very real too - even before the trust's conduct on climate change is examined. The question is: does the BBC even realise what has happened?

The broadcaster has a long history of courageous reporting. It know hows to tell a rich and complex story without interference. By doing that again and again it can build the public's trust brick by brick. But can the BBC realise the gravity of the situation, and take steps to amend it, before its critics begin dismantle it - throwing it into the arms of a grateful Ed Richards at Ofcom? ®

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