What's Auntie for, exactly?
Impartiality and the BBC
Beeb Week Recently, we discovered that some of the evidence in Al Gore's film about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, was fictional. But was this the result of a classic exposé from Panorama, or from Newsnight?
In fact, the Gore revelations followed from the persistence of a school governor from Devon, who mounted a High Court challenge to the distribution of the film in schools. In this case, the BBC was the watchdog that didn't bark.
For Auntie, maintaining a reputation for impartiality is a far more intractable task than shrugging off fraudulent phone-in shows. Forget complaints from the Murdoch press, or from blogs devoted to BBC bias. At stake is something deeper.
Take an issue like Sudan. Whatever Mia Farrow and George Clooney say, there's room for controversy here. But that isn't what BBC world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds thinks. When Gordon Brown gave a speech to the UN at the end of July, Reynolds wrote that it "coincided with a welcome development over Darfur in the form of a pending Security Council resolution approving the despatch of a UN-led peacekeeping force – at long last".
Plenty of balance there.
If we all know for certain and agree that genocide is actually going on in Sudan, then we all know for certain and agree that UN action is long overdue.
As for climate change: although environmentalists feel the BBC isn't doing enough, the only criticism the BBC gives of Gordon Going Green is that... he isn't doing enough.
Here, in trendy style, the Beeb plays the cynical oppositionist. But there's a further twist. In practice, the Beeb's campaign to get us all to stop emitting is now so ceaseless, even the BBC Trust is worried. In a summer discussion of the corporation's role, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel, the trust fretted:
The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus. But these dissenters (or even sceptics) will still be heard, as they should, because it is not the BBC's role to close down this debate. They cannot be simply dismissed as "flat-earthers" or "deniers", who "should not be given a platform" by the BBC.
Yes, even a discussion of balance must be balanced. On the one hand, there's a consensus in climate science, so it must have most airtime; on the other, there are of course consensus-opponents who must be allowed their moment.
Two things escape the Beeb.
First, any consensus about climate change by no means implies that there's a cut-and-dried political consensus on exactly what to do about it.
Second, climate science - like research into cancer - has come a long way, and pretty fast too. Yet – again like cancer research – there's still an enormously complex mountain to climb.
- Science ran a piece on how changes to the stratosphere will affect surface climate. It concluded [PDF] that predicting the dynamics was "a substantial task", and one not yet undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
- Nature had an essay on the dynamics of ocean mixing, which in the long term could offset slowing of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation brought about by more rain and more melting at the North Pole. It argued that "much remains to be discovered" [PDF - subscription required].
- The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published on the "irreducible" imprecision of computer models of atmosphere and oceans.
Each of these uncertainties has a texture as chocolatey as the BBC Trust's beloved Wagon Wheel. Yet the BBC insists on the old dry Seesaw approach. It repeatedly puts reporters in front of fast-dripping glaciers or spreading deserts and gets them to express their personal shock, awe, loss, and disgust. Then, back in the studio, a gnarled "sceptic" may occasionally be wheeled on to show that the Beeb still gives a voice to Creatures from Another Planet.
What we need from the BBC is leadership, and - as far as is possible - dispassionate enquiry, objective facts, and dispassionate presentation of those facts. Instead, we get dumbed-down moral absolutes, far-out footage, and a sprinkling of "balance". Nobody at the BBC says this is the strategy; but BBC News, in particular, applies it with the utmost vigour.
One might ask why.
The answer is that, faced with falling ratings, the Beeb is desperate to find emotional connection with the masses. That's why, for instance, it has continued to milk the abduction of Madeleine McCann for all it's worth.
In this kind of approach to the world, the BBC is not alone. The same loss of clear identity, mission, nerve, and legitimacy, and the same flight into a subjective, Narnia world of Good vs Evil, afflicts all other institutions of the British state. For proof, look only at the British Army in Iraq.
Now that it thinks its business is online advertising and iPlayers, what's the British Broadcasting Corporation for, exactly? To answer that, Britain will first have to learn anew what Britain is for. ®
James Woudhuysen is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester and a contributor to Spiked.