Saturday 13 October 2018

Transcript: 'Feedback' 12/10/2018, James Stephenson on the BBC's climate change coverage

James Stephenson

Roger Bolton: Hello. We're back for our Autumn run. If this is Autumn. The weather is behaving very strangely - sunshine here, floods in Majorca. And is there any real doubt about the cause? 
Newsreader: Climate scientists have issued what's being described as the most comprehensive statement yet on the dangers of rising global temperatures.
The BBC admits it has got climate change coverage wrong in the past. Is it getting it right now? 
Listener: I think BBC News and in particular the generalist reporters and producers and editors are struggling and often get things wrong.
I'll be talking false equivalence with a senior BBC news executive...So let's get on with the show and we begin with a BBC mea culpa:
Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC and we get coverage of it wrong too often.
That's a direct quote from an editorial policy note distributed to BBC staff last month. The note goes on to say to:
To achieve impartiality you do not need to include outright 'deniers' of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you wouldn't have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.
BBC staff are also being encouraged to enrol on a course detailing the do's and don'ts of covering climate change. All of which is rather timely since on Monday the UN's IPCC - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - published a stark warning that urgent action was needed to avoid a global catastrophe. Cue a steady stream of politicians and scientists filling the BBC airwaves with their take on the significance of the report and what actions need to be taken - with no deniers anywhere, on radio at least. Some listeners and green campaigners see that as a distinct change in tone from the BBC, compared with previous times when the issue has been in the news, and they welcome it.
Listener 1: My name is Rachel Platt and I'm from Winchester. I think it is a very positive development and I've noticed the change already. I thought Monday's coverage of the IPCC report was clear and decisive, I felt, in a very, very new and refreshing way.
Listener 2: Wanda Lubneck. I usually avoid BBC news but stumbled into it this morning. They're talking climate change with two people up, both saying it would be disastrous. No deniers. What's going on?
Listener 3: My name's Dr Matt Prescott. I'm a zoologist and I work as an independent environmental consultant. I think it's patchy. I think generalist reporters and producers and editors are struggling. I think it is extremely welcome that the BBC's offering climate training to journalists. There are thousands of scientists working on different facets of climate change and no journalist can be expected to understand everything, or to know it all, just like I would struggle if you ask me about opera.
I'm now joined by James Stephenson, the News Editor for BBC News and Current Affairs. So are listeners right in detecting a change of editorial policy in climate change coverage? Your position, your starting position, now is the argument is over?
James Stephenson: No, I don't think they're right in detecting a change of policy. I mean, it's obviously in the ear of the listener to determine whether they are hearing different tone or whatever, but in terms of policy we've had a policy for a long time that the science on climate change is well established, and that our output should proceed from that point of view.
Roger Bolton: Well, I mentioned there were no climate change deniers on BBC radio but on Newsnight there was Myron Ebell, who's a former environmental adviser to Donald Trump who's known for depicting global warming as a hoax. Why was he given air time?
James Stephenson: Well, I think, I'm glad you asked me that because I think that touches on a very important dimension of this. While the climate science is a settled matter - although you know there are people who dispute that, but they're to the margins of the overwhelming scientific opinion - the same can't really be said of climate change policy, and the the question of what governments around the world are going to do about it. And,obviously, America is a huge player in all of this and, you know, it's no secret that the Trump administration takes a very different view of climate change. And so we wanted to interview someone who was head of the transition team for the Trump administration in this area, so we thought it was important, the programme thought it was important, to have him on because the science only takes you so far. The question of government action, particularly by the biggest polluters, is the crucial next dimension of this, and that was an important thing to interrogate on the programme, as Evan did on on Monday night. We're not in a position where we're saying that people are out-and-out excluded from our output, and we don't think that would be the right thing to do. What we do think is important is to identify why we're speaking to people, and to make sure that is editorially justified, and if it's editorially justified to do it in a rigorous and robust and challenging manner.
Roger Bolton: Does that mean that you will never put on a climate denier when you're talking specifically about climate science?
James Stephenson: We will not have the kind of discussions that you've heard occasionally in the past, where you have someone who is outlining the scientific position on man-made climate change and someone else who says that's not the case. We've moved away from that and beyond that, on the basis that while they're entitled to their opinion, and those opinions definitely still exist, they are to the margins of the scientific consensus, and we don't want to be giving the audience the impression that it's a sort of 50/50 arm-wrestle between those two positions.
Roger Bolton: Can we move on then from the policy you've announced to the way in which you're trying to make sure that your journalists understand it? How widespread is this going to be? Is every journalist in the BBC now going to have to take. as it were, an examination on this issue?
James Stephenson: No, no. We expect all our journalists to be prepared for the work they're doing and we're offering a training course for journalistic staff in this area, so...
Roger Bolton: (interrupting) Presumably you want all your journalists to understand these issues, so you want them all to be educated in this? 
James Stephenson: We certainly want all our journalists who will be handling this editorial subject matter to be familiar with it, and overwhelmingly to be confident in doing what is and important, and likely to be an increasingly important, part of our editorial agenda. It's a complex area, it's a scientific area. Many of our staff don't have that sort of a scientific background. They need the tools to do the job, and this is just one of the ways in which we provide our staff with the tools to do the job.
Roger Bolton: And you accept, well the BBC does formally accept, that it does accept, that you got this wrong in the past? And your own director of news, I noticed, talking to staff accepts this... you got it wrong in the past?
James Stephenson: There are occasions on which we haven't got things quite right and that's...
Roger Bolton: (interrupting) Not just that. Badly wrong.
James Stephenson: Well, that's the spirit in which we're approaching this. This is a difficult area. We've got a lot of journalists and producers who we want to encourage to be confident in this area. We're trying to provide them with the tools to be confident in the future.
Roger Bolton: We have talked about producers, but some would say presenters need to be educated as well. A number of listeners picked up on the fact that John Humphrys and Sarah Montague seem to get confused between percentages and degrees centigrade. Here, for example, is Professor Martin Parry. He's a former co-chair of the IPCC. He emailed us to say this:
Well, I was listening to the BBC's reporting and stunned, on four occasions I think it was, to hear this misread by newsreaders and presenters not as a 1.5 degree increase but 1.5% increase - which is totally different.
John Humphrys: The report by the intergovernmental panel of scientists says we must stop global warming rising to more than 1.5% above pre-industrial levels...
Sarah Montague: It says if world temperatures go up by one-and-a-half percent then we are dicing with the survival of mankind.
It's not sort of nerdy and trivial this. It's pretty important, because it seems to me to represent just a complete misunderstanding and, in a way, ignorance of the issue.
Roger Bolton: Do you accept that was wrong, and are you worried that your presenters got it wrong?
James Stephenson: Well, it clearly wasn't accurate but it speaks to my point...
Roger Bolton: (interrupting) It was wrong. It was wrong. 
James Stephenson: It was wrong, and we've clarified that and corrected it and apologised for the error. It speaks to my point though that this is an area where we need people to be aware of the material that they're working with, and that's the spirit in which we've made this course available. And in both those cases, the bulletins made clear that it was one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, so I think the audiences would have recognised that it was a slip and not something...
Roger Bolton: (interrupting) A slip by two presenters? Maybe a slip by one, but two of them?
James Stephenson: Well...
Roger Bolton: You're looking not that comfortable about answering that question, I have to say.
James Stephenson: Well, I wasn't quite clear that it was a question but...
Roger Bolton: (interrupting) Well, it is a question. You know, it's one thing to get a bulletin, written presumably, perhaps by a young producer, and have two senior presenters look at it and both not spot the problem.
James Stephenson: We've apologised for the error. I not sure I can add...keep adding more to that.
Roger Bolton: Some people would say that what that illustrates is that in this extraordinary complex area, and generalist interviewers are always going to be liable, if you like, to make a mistake, and what you need is really expert ones. And Dr Matt Prescott has a suggestion. He says he thinks the BBC needs a small team of internal experts available 24/7 who have the time and the availability to help all BBC programmes, not just news. Is that something you would consider?
James Stephenson: We do have a small team of experts. We have a science editor, David Shukman, and we have a team who work in this area. So we do have that expertise, and we bring that expertise to bear on the coverage we do in this area. And that's the way we think that this is best handled.
Roger Bolton: James Stephenson, News Editor for BBC News and Current Affairs, thank you very much. 

1 comment:

  1. And,obviously, America is a huge player in all of this and"

    America co2 emissions have been falling. The huge player now is China, and in the future, India.


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