Sunday 16 September 2018

Heaping on the Bias

Not Ellie

What with one thing and another I've become much less of a regular Countryfile viewer than I used to be. And I've also become much less of a regular reader of Christopher Booker's Sunday Telegraph column.

We all came together today, however, when Mr Booker wrote about last Sunday's Countryfile and, via a tweet, I was reunited with both of them. (I was all ready to run into Ellie's arms, to the strains of cod Rachmaninov, but she wasn't on, alas).

Mr Booker's piece is headlined BBC groupthink is undermining its claim to impartial reporting and its particular focus was last week's report from Tom Heap about fracking:
Apart from a brief, dismissive interview with Cuadrilla’s chief executive, the item was no more than a relentlessly one-sided commercial for the vociferous anti-fracking lobby. 
The report, he says, "makes nonsense of any pretence that this is the 'impartial' reporting to which the BBC is legally committed by its charter". 

Naturally, I had to watch it myself to see if it was anywhere near as bad as Christopher Booker says. I thought he might be exaggerating.

To my surprise, not only wasn't he exaggerating but the piece was actually much worse that he'd led me to believe.

If we do a Top 10 Most Biased BBC Pieces of the Year 2018 award at New Year this year, I'm tipping this to be at No.1 (even with a third of a year still to go). I can't see anything beating it.


A full transcription follows but you really to see the whole thing - the images, the background music, the inflections in Tom's voice, Tom's body language, everything.


How to sum up why it's so biased a piece of BBC reporting? (And whether you favour or oppose fracking is not the issue here).

Well, just look at the was it's framed from the very start, as something "controversial" that flies in the face of hopes and expectations and history. 

And look at the loaded language used throughout, which is heavily biased from the word go. Note especially Tom's uses of  "for some" and "Some say" and "fears" and "some people speculate", etc. It all tends, and trends, just one way (against fracking).

And look out for the Bias by Placard Placement. (The link, if you click on it, explains all).

And the Government's go-ahead is repeated painted as being against the advice of its own experts, with the experts ("impartial", as Tom described them) and their findings being given uncritical treatment by Tom. 

And the Government is, again and again, made to look wrong-headed and shifty by all sort of hints and nudges from Tom. ('They delayed this, to help fracking, didn't they, nudge, nudge, wink, wink?')

And look at the way Francis Egan from Caudrilla is treated - put on the defensive from the start, his contributions brief and obviously heavilly edited, never fully given the chance to advance the case for fracking, very much placed in the naughty corner throughout via Tom's questions and framing narrative. (Why on earth did he agree to participate? Tom Heap ran rings round him and made him - and his company - look stupid and dishonest. It's as if a trap was set by the BBC here and Mr Egan walked right into it, smiling broadly).

And look at how Tom spins the to-me-somewhat-surprising polling evidence to suggest an overwhelming public opposition to fracking that the Government is brushing aside. (I expected the gap to be much wider, and for the opponents of fracking to be well above 32%).

And look how the fears of anti-fracking Jane, with her dreams and her animals, are immediately given credence by Tom. ("Well, it seems Jane may have some reason to be concerned").


I was already ready to write this post, having gone most of the way though the report and gasping at the sheer scale of the bias, when the coup de grĂ¢ce fell.

We were introduced to an expert who turned out to be heavily anti-fracking. And that expert, introduced as being from a "think tank", without any mention of his recent BBC past, was none other than that most biased of all the BBC's recent environment reporters, Richard Black - a man whose BBC reporting was rarely free from charges of bias and even of pro-environmentalist activism. Richard duly trashed fracking.

Dick and Tom

(Didn't the team behind Countryfile have any qualms about that?)

As is Tom's way, his closing paragraph made efforts to appear balanced. But it was the soppiest of all possible sops to impartiality. 'The mother of all sops', you might say.


Seriously, please watch the thing and read the transcript below. And if you want to vote for it in our (possible) Top 10 Most Biased BBC Pieces of the Year 2018 award, I'm behind you all the way.

Anyhow, here's the transcript:

Anita Rani: Now, we're often told that clean, renewable energy is the future, so why then has the deep drilling for gas under our countryside been given the go-ahead? Tom's been finding out. 
Tom Heap: From the air around us... to the water in our seas and rivers, and the sun's rays... ..the search for a greener, cleaner energy supply the UK can rely on continues. So, for some, the news that the UK is about to launch a whole new fossil fuel industry came as a bit of a surprise. And this is it - fracking, the controversial practice of onshore deep drilling for shale gas. It's an issue we've been covering on Countryfile for years, but now there's been a big leap forward. In July, the Government gave gas company Cuadrilla the final go-ahead to start pumping shale gas from here at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire. But is the Government pushing through fracking despite warnings from its own environmental experts? Some say it's putting short-term economic gain ahead of long-term sustainable energy needs. That's something that protesters here would agree with. Today, they're out in force as the site goes into lockdown while preparations begin. 
First female protestor: The residents and the locals have spent over the last seven years, must be clocking up to nearly a million in just fighting this.
Second female protestor: Everywhere that drill rig goes, a protest group will arise out of that community. We will not stop, obviously, because this has never been a choice for us. 
The work causing so much opposition here is hydraulic fracturing, where water and chemicals are pumped at high pressure deep underground to fracture rock and release natural gas. It will be the first such project in Britain since 2011, when exploratory drilling at a nearby site set off minor earthquakes. Since then, Cuadrilla has lobbied hard to convince us fracking is safe. I was supposed to meet their CEO, Francis Egan, on site, but three days before filming, we were told we'd have to have a chat outside the fence. 
Tom Heap: We were originally hoping to get on there today. You suggested we'd be able to, but it's not happening. Why's that?
Francis Egan: Well, there's a lot of activity on the site. The noise you can hear in the background is reversing alarms and I have a site manager who tells me that his job is more important than the BBC, which I know you'll find hard to believe, but that's the case.
Tom Heap: So it's a safety thing, is it? There's not something you're trying to hide from us over there?
Francis Egan: Well, I think you can see everything there is to see there at the moment.
Tom Heap: It shows you're getting pretty close to the moment of actually starting to frack.
Francis Egan: We are indeed, yes.
Tom Heap: And for a lot of people, not least the protesters, that's a worrying moment. They're going to be thinking about earth tremors and air quality issues and things like that. How can you assure them that it's going to be safe?
Francis Egan: Well, this site behind us here is probably the most monitored oil and gas site that there ever has been in the history of oil and gas. We're monitoring air quality, water quality, seismicity, traffic movements, and we've been doing that continuously for a period of 12 months. And if there are any issues, then the operations would cease. 
Despite these assurances, the British public are yet to be convinced. For the past four years, the Government has surveyed people on their support for fracking four times a year. At the last count in April, 18% were in favour, with 32% against. But it seems the Government's no longer that keen to know what we think because in the most recent survey, that question has now disappeared. They will now only be asking once a year. And fears the Government isn't listening to concerns about fracking don't end there. When it comes to big infrastructure projects like energy supply, the Government has a team of its own impartial expert advisers in the National Infrastructure Commission. And this wide-ranging report is its assessment of what the UK needs to run effectively and efficiently. And it clearly states that if we are going to meet our climate change and emissions targets, relying on gas is not the way forward. And yet just a few days after this was published, the Government gave fracking the go-ahead. At the moment, gas makes up more than 30% of the UK's total energy demand, used for heating, cooking and to produce electricity. The Government argues that it would be far better if that gas were home-grown. But some estimates say that could mean 4,000 wells being drilled across the UK, which could swallow up swathes of our countryside, including areas like here in Roseacre, just a few miles from Preston New Road. Cuadrilla are hoping they'll get the go-ahead to frack here next. Jane Barnes and her husband built their home here more than 25 years ago. Then, it was a dream location for her family and her animals. 
Jane Barnes: Hi, Lucy. Hi, Gaby. Good girl. 
Cuadrilla submitted plans to drill here in 2014, and Jane fears the impact fracking could have. 
Tom Heap: So what is it that so worries you about this potential site?
Jane Barnes: There's the light pollution and the noise pollution and of course the 17,000 HGVs coming through our country lanes. You have to realise that this is really heavy industry with all the pollution it brings, and we live and work here. So we will get no respite.
Tom Heap: Is this, in the end, the very definition of "not in my backyard"?
Jane Barnes: No. A local gentleman told me yesterday he calls himself a SIMBY, which is "safe in my backyard", and we do not consider fracking as it is being proposed at the moment to be safe in anybody's backyard. 

Tom Heap himself

Well, it seems Jane may have some reason to be concerned. This is yet another new report by another team of Government advisers, the Air Quality Expert Group. And this one says the local impact of fracking could be significant. Anyone living near a fracking site could see their air quality suffer. But despite being written three years ago, this report only got round to being published three days after the Government gave the go-ahead for Cuadrilla to frack in Lancashire, leading some people to speculate that the Government was trying to bury this deeper than our own shale reserves. Since it was written, air quality monitoring has been introduced, but why did the Government wait so long to publish that report? They said it: "It needed thorough consideration" and was "published as soon as our sign-off procedures had been completed": It added: "Shale gas has the potential to be a new domestic energy source, delivering substantial economic benefits, nationally and locally, as well as through the creation of well-paid, high-quality jobs". But even with those jobs the British shale gas industry would bring, does fracking really make economic sense? Richard Black, from think-tank the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, isn't so sure. 
Richard Black: It's really hard to see what the rationale is, frankly. If you look at what the Government and its advisers have put down for how we need to reduce the use of gas over the next decade, really, you see a declining role for gas.
Tom Heap: But we still need gas for central heating and cooking in our homes. Is it not better that that comes from Britain than Russia or the Middle East?
Richard Black: Something that's often missed is that the gas industry is almost entirely in private hands. So the gas won't belong to Britain, it will belong to Cuadrilla or whoever gets it out of the ground. We will still be in a European gas network, whatever happens with Brexit. So the company that owns it can basically trade it wherever it wants. 
Cuadrilla says its first site will supply the local grid, but how much bigger could this industry become? 
Richard Black: Well, my personal view is that we might see commercially viable shale gas, but it'll be a cottage industry if it's anything. The need for gas is going to decline, so you would be putting your money into an industry that has a finite shelf life. 
With so many experts saying fracking might not be worth it, for the environment or the economy, why is Cuadrilla CEO Francis Egan so fired up about shale gas? 
Tom Heap:  The National Infrastructure Report says we shouldn't be relying on a gas industry into the future. Doesn't that give this place a very short shelf-life?
Francis Egan: Well, I agree entirely we shouldn't be relying on it, in the sense that it shouldn't be the only form of fuel we need, but I don't think there's any credible commentator who doesn't believe we won't be using natural gas for decades to come.
Tom Heap: But gas is something we should be weaning ourselves off. How does this help?
Francis Egan: Well, because weaning yourself off does not mean coming to an emergency stop and halt, or else people will freeze in their houses. So gas is a fuel that in any scenario for decarbonisation will be required for decades to come.
Tom Heap: But you could drill down and find that gas flows really badly out of here, and then the whole thing's been a waste of time.
Francis Egan: That's what exploration is all about.
Tom Heap: So there's real jeopardy there?
Francis Egan: Well, you call it jeopardy, we call it uncertainty. 
That's an uncertainty fracking companies are willing to take a gamble on, but it's clear that divisions on what payoff shale gas will actually deliver to the UK run as deep as ever. With fracking due to start here in just a matter of weeks and gas flowing thereafter, we should soon have a much better idea if shale gas is just going to be a brief sideshow or a key component of our energy system, with all the resulting economic impact and environmental challenges. 


  1. Does Tom Heap ever tell a happy tale?

    But some estimates say that could mean 4,000 wells being drilled across the UK, which could swallow up swathes of our countryside, including areas like here in Roseacre, just a few miles from Preston New Road

    Tom should speak to Mark Easton, he thinks there is plenty of space in the UK for million of immigrants so surely we could squeeze in a few gas wells?

    The 'impartial' Richard Black seems very confused, either Cuadrilla is going to be exporting gas to Europe or it is just a cottage industry. 17,000 HGVs, really? How many HGVs does it take to deliver a wind or solar farm? How do they get the energy out?

    1. Lol - love the Mark Easton reference, not being a Markite myself.

      I'm not really a huge fan of fracking and I don't think it's that commercially viable in the UK but really the drilling site take up v. little space and after a few years can be returned to their former state. The 4000 wells probably equate to no more than 4,000 acres - in a country with 60,000,000 acres of land (yes, I'm starting to sound like Mark Easton now).

  2. Last night’s Countryfile had their presenter in a wheelchair out in the centre of a grass field. At least a couple of times he attempted to propel himself forward and it was obviously extremely difficult for him. But the viewers are to assume he has wheeled himself to where he was conducting the interview. If he had, poor man, he would have been too exhausted to even speak. A small thing, yes, but if the BBC cannot be honest about small things, then they cannot be trusted about anything.

  3. One interview was conducted in a "swathe of the countryside" turned over to those ghastly sunlight panels. Were we supposed to be thinking: "Oh, those panels are lovely, much less intrusive than a little fracking station".
    The whole programme was almost unwatchable: patronizing, telling us what to think, implying that there is only one valid opinion. Pleas sack all these "presenters" with their infant-school intonation and arm-waving!


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