Saturday 15 December 2012

Shilling against shale?

There were many complaints on various right-leaning blogs on Thursday (13 December) that the BBC was promoting an anti-fracking (hydraulic fracturing) agenda. There have been plenty of such complaints before. Fraser Nelson's Spectator column is fairly typical:
There was something odd about George Osborne offering tax breaks for fracking when it was still banned by another part of his government. The ban has been lifted and exploration can begin again in Lancashire, in what could be the most important piece of economic good news since the discovery of North Sea oil.
But listening to the BBC reports this morning, it’s striking how the corporation already seems to be against it. Fracking has begun, it says. And the two things is listeners need to know about fracking? That it has been accused of polluting water in America and causing earth tremors. The upside, especially for Blackpool and its environs, was not mentioned.
Over at Biased BBC you can read comments like:

Excellent article in The Spectator showing just how little regard the BBC has for the country and society in the pursuit of its own agenda. I’m just glad the government finally had the guts to start developing this form of energy. It could solve more than one problem in the world. 
Today I learned the BBC is worried about Fracking and the fact that there will be in one experts opinion no major impact on gas supplies even though we sit on hugh amounts of of shale gas.
Beeboids increase their devious anti-fracking campaigning. Beeboids are determined to stop, by fair means or foul apparently, the development of shale gas in Britain.
Yes, but, uncle beeb hates “fracking” and is totally against it being done in the UK 

Was Fraser Nelson basing this criticism on watching the BBC News Channel that morning? Or from listening to Today on Radio 4? I didn't watch the News Channel that day and there's no 'listen again' facility to check if the BBC's reporting did come across as being against fracking. What, though, of Today? That can be listened to again. Did it strike an anti-fracking stance? And what of the rest of the day's reporting? It's time to check it out and judge for myself.

Before I begin, I'll lay my own cards on the table. I'm pro-fracking. I hold high hopes for it. We, as a country, need it to be a success.

Having so confessed, I will now try to put my own biases on the issue to one side and see what happens. This post will be through-composed, so Lord knows where it will lead me conclusions-wise. 

Today, 13 December

Listening through Today's coverage just now has been quite eye-opening. The second and third hours of the programme began with segments on the issue. The second hour got under way with a John Humphrys interview with Alastair Fraser, Professor of Petroleum Geoscience at Imperial College, London. You can hear it at the 7.09 slot here

It was a good-natured and interesting interview, but what was so interesting (from a bias-hunter's perspective) was the questioning by John H. For all the world, it sounded to me as if he was actively steering Prof. Fraser in a pro-fracking direction - the exact opposite of what many in favour of fracking are alleging against the BBC. 

John Humphrys began the interview by asking, "Professor Fraser, just deal with  the safety bit first. When we talk about earthquakes, they are really tiny?"

Prof. Fraser agreed that they were "very small". "Micro-earthquakes" called them. 

"It's like a bus driving past?", John asked.

"Absolutely", replied Prof. Fraser. 

"Right, shouldn't worry about that," said John decisively. "What about polluting the water?"

Prof. Fraser said we can worry a little bit more about that, but it's down to good or bad drilling practice. A good regulatory framework is required. The UK has been regulating oil and gas for some 60 years...

"Without any big problems," John interrupted. 

"Without any major problems," agreed the professor. There was Piper Alpha though...

"No, no, but I mean in terms of polluting water...", John interrupted again.

"No major problems there", Prof. Fraser agreed. 

"So, again, that's controllable?", John asked.

"Yes," Prof. Fraser replied. 

They then talked about the amount of gas we could have in the UK. Prof. Fraser said that it was hard to be sure but it seems that onshore gas could a fifth or a quarter of what we've had offshore....

"But still very significant?," John asked/stated.

"Yes, absolutely", agreed Prof. Fraser. It won't dramatically effort our export markets but it will have an effect on the energy that comes into our homes. It may not lower the price but it will stop us having to rely on imported gas and give us more control over the price in that case...

"And that is very important?", John asked/stated. 

"I think it's important. I hope your listeners feel it's important as well."

"Right, but what we won't have is what they've had in the United States, where the gas price has dropped like a stone?", said John. 

"My goodness, it's incredible..", began Prof. Fraser. 

John sounded as if he shared his guest's amazement. "Wow!" he said soon after. 

Please listen to the interview to judge for yourself, but you can surely see from all this that John Humphrys could not, in any way, shape or form, be fairly or accurately accused of asking questions from an anti-fracking stance. Quite the reverse, in fact. It sounded much more as if he was actually promoting fracking rather than criticising it. His questions were framed almost entirely from a similar standpoint to that of, say, Fraser Nelson. 

Now, this could just be good old-fashioned devil's advocate questioning of the kind BBC interviewers might well put to an anti-fracking guest. Questioning from a pro-fracking stance would be entirely justified in such circumstances. Except that Professor Fraser clearly isn't against fracking. 

How John Humphrys conducted the interviews during the 8.10 segment should clarify the matter then.

Here he interviewed two people - John Hofmeister, founder and chief executive of the non-profit group Citizens for Affordable Energy and former chief executive of Shell Oil (who is essentially pro-fracking), and David Kennedy, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (who is essentially anti-fracking). Did the Today interviewer treat them both in a similar way, or did he interview one in a very different manner to the way he interviewed the other? This interview can be heard on the Today website, incorrectly input by whoever adds links to the site at the 7.12 slot (where it should have been Robert Peston talking about Europe). Please take a listen.

What you will have heard is John H. giving the pro-fracking Mr Hofmeister a decidedly gentle interview whilst giving the frackosceptic Mr. Kennedy a right old grilling, full of interruptions and challenges. In terms of how the BBC interviewer handled his two interviewees, again, it gives absolutely no support to those contending that the BBC is forever 'shilling' against fracking. 

The choice of words from John Humphrys at the beginning of the 8.10 segment supports this contention of mine. He could have chosen to make its starting point the fears of environmentalists or some other such negative angle on fracking; however, he chose instead to stress a potential major positive aspect of fracking for the UK:
"Next time you get your gas bill, think of America. The price of gas there has halved and there's no longer any need to worry about supplies of it for at least a hundred years, and that's because of fracking."
John H. then very briefly discussed the issue with BBC industry correspondent John Moylan. John M. outlined the likely events of the day before John H. asked him about "the fear of the environmental impact." John M. began to mention the seismological activity caused by fracking in Lancashire when John H. interrupted to say, "Tiny, tiny earthquakes, yeah". John Moylan then outlined the other main concerns (possible contamination to the water supply and the potential aggravation caused by all the infrastructure that surrounds fracking sites).

The interview with Mr. Hofmeister and Mr. Kennedy then got under way.

John Humphrys began with the pro-fracking Mr. Hofmeister and asked him these questions:
"You're certainly getting more affordable energy in the United States as a result of fracking, Mr. Hofmeister?".
"And at the moment bills are about half what they were? The cost of gas is about half what it was?"
"Still it can't all be perfect?"
"And you have had cases in the United States where water sources have been polluted?"
"I know you're not on expert on this....perhaps you are an expert on what happens in Europe...but you heard what Mr. Kennedy has just said. How does that square with your experience in America given that you don't have the same climate change commitments that we have?"
Do you think, taken as a whole, they show an anti-fracking bias on the part of a BBC presenter? I certainly don't: The first two were helpful to the pro-fracking side of the argument while the second two were not. The fifth question can't be categorised either way. It was a balanced set of questions, taken in isolation. Also note that Mr. Hofmeister was not interrupted at all.

Contrast that with the questioning of Mr. Kennedy, who engaged in something of a running battle with John Humphrys here, repeatedly having his points disputed by his BBC interviewer and having his positions described as "perverse":
"And the other big environmental issue..and this is where you come in, David the effect on climate change. You've produced a report yourself on gas, and you are concerned that it could actually be rather a perverse effect in this country, where we might have to pay more on our energy bills because of climate change charges - in effect, carbon taxes?"
[interrupting] "The Chancellor of the Exchequer, for one."
"Well, but you can't really make that assumption, can you, because you don't know how much is there, how much of it is..."
[interrupting] "Not as much as coal or oil."
[interrupting] "But you're looking at it from just that one perspective. aren't you? I mean, the fact is..."
[interrupting] "Right, but the experience is..."
[interrupting] "No, that's not..."
[interrupting] "Except that..except that you're disregarding the effect of very cheap....and we've got the American experience to support this...of very cheap gas from fracking and surely that is going to bring down the cost...I mean, it really is perverse, isn't it, to say, OK, you've got all this cheap gas underground...whether we can get it out in the way the Americans have done remains to be seen, of course...but there remains that strong possibility that we will have a lot more gas, cheap gas available to us in the years to come than we had before".
[interrupting] "Well, we heard from Professor Alastair Fraser of Imperial College an hour ago that it could be as much as a quarter of our gas supply, another quarter. That is a substantial amount and that would mean that the cost could come down. It's a bit perverse..."
[interrupting] "No, but (indecipherable) is something else. If we've got more energy coming into the mix, one way or the other, the overall price of that energy is going to fall, isn't it? Obviously. The law of supply and demand?"
"David Kennedy?"
That is the John Humphrys style, of course. But he only employed the full John Humphrys style against the fracking sceptic, David Kennedy. The ratio of questions asked from the two opposing standpoints, so neatly balanced with Mr. Hofmeister, went right out of the window here. Only the first question could be seen as being helpful to the anti-fracking side of the argument. Nearly all of the other questions were "pro-fracking" interventions.

This is not to say that John Humphrys is personally in favour of fracking and was allowing his own bias here to show through here. Anti-fracking campaigners and listeners sympathetic to their arguments might well, however, disagree and might well feel that John was interviewing in a biased way - a way biased against them. They've got some evidence to back that up - as presented here. You will have to listen to the interviews for yourselves to form your own fully-rounded opinion about this.

BBC News Website 

There are three full-length articles on BBC Online from 13 December on the subject of fracking:
1. Gas fracking: Ministers approve shale gas extraction  
Fracking: Untangling fact from fiction 
3. Fylde fracking: The new Aberdeen or toxic gamble? 
You can read each of these articles for yourselves, but I would say that....

1. Roger Harrabin's article offers a range of opinions for and against, but the the way he structures his piece by beginning and ending with the negative aspects of the proposed shale gas revolution - and criticism of or defensive responses to those negative aspects - whilst squeezing the positive arguments for fracking into small sections of the article does markedly bias his piece against fracking. I think this piece can be cited as providing some decent evidence for the Fraser Nelson line of criticism of the BBC.

2. Matt McGrath's article is a fair one. It dwells on the negative aspects, but then that's its brief - to investigate the claims of opponents of the fracking. Its 'talking heads' are the boss of Cuadrilla, the company pioneering the process here in Lancashire (naturally, a pro-fracking voice!), and Mark Boling, of the U.S. energy company Southwestern Energy, which also uses fracking (but who isn't uncritical of his industry or unaware of the differences between the U.S. and the U.K.), plus Prof Richard Davies of Durham University, who strikes what seems to me to be a wise-sounding balance in his commentary. You would have to push very hard (and with a certain lack of scruples) to try to make Matt's article fit the bill as evidence for the Fraser Nelson attack on the BBC.

3. Lynette Horsburgh's piece has two sub-headlines - Job creation and Creating jobs (neither, intriguingly, placed in inverted commas) - and features extensive quotes from a pro-fracking small business leader in the Blackpool area, followed by more supportive quotes from a local college lecturer and a local student. We then get extensive quotes from a local campaigner against fracking. We then hear the "mixed views" of three local residents who, indeed, seem to have mixed feelings about the enterprise. A good range of views then, courtesy of Lynette. Except for those (helpful to the pro-fracking side) sub-headlines (which are doubtless nothing to do with the author, being added by an online editor) , there is no evidence of bias - one way or the other - in her piece. Quite the opposite. Just what we want from the BBC, surely?

North West Tonight

This was the one item on the story that I watched live on Thursday. Unfortunately, the 'listen again' function on the North West Tonight website is available for less than a day, so I can't allow you to view it for yourselves.  You will have to rely on my memory of the programme then, unfortunately. North West Tonight is the BBC local news programme in my area, covering from Cumbria to Cheshire, Deeside to Greater Manchester, Liverpool to Blackpool...and, as a result, the area of Flyde where Caudrilla have been fracking and will be fracking again shortly.

I found the programme's take on the story to be generally negative, with the concerns of residents and environmentalists being foregrounded. That said, there were supportive voices heard. A good idea of the main report by Ed Thomas can be gauged from a very similar one (presumably from earlier in the day), available in perpetuity on the BBC News website. The negative vibe mainly came from the presenters, who wore the sort of expressions presenters usually wear when something bad has just happened, as well as from the slanting of the story towards environmental concerns and away from the possible economic benefits (which were largely sidelined here) and, above all, from the interview with a boss from Caudrilla with which the segment ended. Every question put to him was a negative one, requiring his every answer to be a defensive one. I would have hoped for at least a couple of 'What benefits do you think fracking could bring to the UK/the local area?-type questions alongside the 'Isn't fracking dangerous?'-type questions.

Watching this episode of North West Tonight would have given the likes of Fraser Nelson some ammunition for their claim of BBC anti-fracking bias. (Shame they can no longer view it for themselves).

A commenter on Biased BBC earlier in the day had spotted something not dissimilar, but doesn't seem to have seen any counter-balance whatsoever:

Another blatantly biased piece against fracking on North West News, featuring a ‘residents’ group who are ‘against fracking’. Nice set of questions primed to elicit the ‘right’ answers e.g. ‘Was the fact there was a delay informing the Cuadrilla board of the earthquakes of concern to you?’ and not a single challenge from the point of view it will bring prosperity to the region, reduce wholesale gas prices (in the U.S. now a third of what they were), potentially provide energy security for the country for the foreseeable future, reduce CO2 emissions (can’t believe I just said that), that the U.S. has been doing it for years on a huge scale without any significant problems etc etc etc. Then back to the studios where the Cuadrilla exec is given a hard time (same set of questions) by a huffy BBC presenter.


The most-watched BBC news programmes are, of course, the main bulletins at 6.00pm and 10.00pm. I didn't watch the 10.00 pm one but recorded the 6.00pm one to compare with the ITV 6.30pm news bulletin. Comparisons between the main news bulletins of the UK's two main TV channels are often interesting and it should be instructive to compare their respective takes on the fracking story on Thursday. So, I will watch them and report back...

The BBC News at Six placed the fracking story second. Presenter Fiona Bruce introduced it like this:
"Its supporters say it could provide cheap gas for decades to come. Its detractors say it will ruin the environment and keep us hooked on gas for decades to come."
John Moylan's report laid out the day's event, explained fracking and set out the situation in Lancashire. The two questions for John were how much shale gas is there down there and what impact would it have on our energy bills. Talking Head Francis Egan, Chief Exec of Caudrilla, was first to present the upside of fracking. Plummeting gas prices in America were then noted by the BBC reporter, though "experts doubt that could happen here." Still, "it could help," he added. Professor Alastair Fraser (of Today fame) was the second 'talking head', says "it's ours. We own it" (the Fraser Nelson line) and that the prices, for once, might not go up once fracking gets underway. The claims of environmentalists are then properly aired - i.e. risk of water pollution and the 'hooked on gas' argument. Helen Rimmer of Friends of the Earth is the third 'talking head', expounding her criticisms of the government and the need to move away from fossil fuels. John then pointed out that "tough choices" are needed to keep the lights on.

Another Ed Thomas's report (slightly different to the one linked to above and not available to listen again) cited the same mix of pros and antis as before. Two critics came first, then came two supporters. It was a very short report, but still gave a flavour of the debate.

I can't find anything to object to in BBC News at Six's take on this. It was as balanced as balanced can be.

What then of ITV's coverage? Was is just as balanced, biased in favour of fracking or biased against fracking? There's only one way to find out: Watch it.

Wow!...and having watched it I can only repeat, 'Wow!'

ITV made it the day's main story on their main evening news bulletin. Their opening words ran as follows:
"Forcing gas from the ground to resume despite strong protests against fracking."
[Talking head:] "Why are they doing this quick-fix, short-term nonsense instead of investing in getting it right?"
The presenters' initial outlining (after the theme tune) was just as inclined towards the negative and the report that followed from Science Editor Lawrence McGinty was hardly any more positive. He outlined the day's events and then featured the Lib Dem Energy Minister Ed Davey talking about the controls put in place to prevent earthquakes. A brief explanation of the process of fracking was followed by 'talking head' Helen Rimmer of Friends of the Earth attacking it and calling for renewable energy instead. Lawrence briefly outlined what will happen next before airing the concerns of residents of Balcombe in West Sussex. "There local people are worried [what all of them? No "mixed" feelings then?] about earthquakes and of pollution from fracking....", he said, before giving us our next 'talking head' - Vanessa Vine, another anti-fracking campaigner - to talk up those concerns yet further. The Energy Secretary has "a lot of work to do in villages like Balcombe to convince people that fracking should go ahead here," Lawrence concluded.

Next up Consumer Editor Chris Choi talked to the presenters about the issue of whether fracking will or will not cut our gas bills. Chris said, "If I was to make a prediction it won't bring bills down". He then explained why.

So, an ITN bulletin predicated on the fears of anti-fracking campaigners, with loaded introductions and a main report that, except for Ed Davey, chose to use two anti-fracking campaigners and no pro-fracking campaigners as its 'talking heads' and painted a picture of unalloyed opposition to the process among local residents, before ending with an account from their Consumer Editor dismissing the John Humphrys line about the possibility of lower gas bills in the UK as a result of fracking. Could ITN have been more biased against fracking?

People who complained about the BBC's reporting of fracking should think themselves lucky that they didn't see this ITN bulletin.

The rest of Radio 4

For the sake of completeness, how did the Radio 4 staples follow Today? Well, only one of them did. Neither PM nor The World Tonight joined the debate.

The World at One, hosted by blog favourite Edward Stouton, began by outlining the day's events, then featured a clip of Caroline Lucas of the Green Party denouncing fracking. The next 'talking head' was Tina Rothery, a Fylde-based anti-fracking campaigner, also denouncing fracking. Then Ed talked to Francis Egan of Caudrilla, who put the other side of the argument. Ed put the concerns of campaigners to him and Mr. Egan had to defend the process for the bulk of the interview. This was balanced by the interview with anti-fracking campaigner Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth followed, where Ed put some appropriate questions to him from the other standpoint - that of exponents of fracking. Finally came Conservative Energy Minister John Hayes, a supporting of fracking. Ed allowed him to state the benefits but then challenged him over the possibility of prices rises in the UK as a result of fracking and the calls for more emphasis on renewables. He then asked the minister what would come next, before talking politics. Fair enough, I'd say.

Bit at the end

I must admit that after viewing that edition of North West Tonight, I had a feeling that a survey such as this would probably go some way to confirming the anti-fracking bias alleged against the BBC by many a pro-fracking columnist, blogger and commenter. Well, I got that wrong! Really, except for that report from Roger Harrabin, there's very little evidence to back up that contention at all; indeed, the Today programme's treatment of the subject is more likely to raise a quizzical or a disgruntled eyebrow among anti-fracking folk than among pro-fracking folk.

Or so you might think. Apparently not.

Christopher Booker in tomorrow's Sunday Telegraph appears to have heard things very differently:
Which brings us back to that moment on Thursday when, in its own relentless campaign to promote the “green agenda”, the BBC wheeled on David Kennedy, chief official of the Climate Change Committee (a man so green that even David Cameron recently had to veto his appointment to become the permanent head of DECC).
Mr. Booker says John Humphrys failed to pick Mr. Kennedy up on something he should have picked him up on.

Doubtless lots of commenters will now pile onto Mr. Booker's thread to denounce the BBC for its relentless campaign to promote the "green agenda", for only inviting on Mr. Kennedy [let's not mention Professor Fraser or Mr. Hofmeister, eh Christopher?] and for John Humphrys's anti-fracking bias, as manifested in that failure of his to pick up Mr. Kennedy on something [despite the pro-fracking nature of most of Mr. Humphrys's questions, which Mr. Booker also seems to have not taken on board].

Christopher Booker is, I believe, displaying confirmation bias here.

So there you have it (whether you want it or not!)

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