Samira Ahmed: Hello and welcome to Newswatch, with me Samira Ahmed. Is BBC News denying a voice to climate change deniers, or are they getting too much air time? Monday's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the latest in a series of warnings about the risks of rising global temperatures, reflecting the scientific consensus on this controversial issue. Among the guests discussing the panel's findings on that evening's Newsnight was Myron Ebell. who used to be Donald Trump's environmental advisor and now runs a think tank which campaigns on behalf of the US energy industry. He was questioned by Evan Davis.
Evan Davis: Do you think the scientists, who reviewed these 6,000 papers to produce this latest publication - 86 lead writers - do you literally think they don't believe what they have said? Is that your contention?
Myron Ebell: They're climate campaigners first, at the highest level, rather....
Evan Davis: (interrupting) Wow!...
Myron Ebell: ...than objective scientists...
Evan Davis: (interrupting) But you're a climate campaigner more than they are. They're not even paid, these guys. You're paid. They're not paid. It's absolutely... Go on.
Myron Ebell: Look, look...The study says that we've had about one degree of warming already. They don't consider the tremendous benefits that have flowed to humanity....
Evan Davis: (interrupting) But again..Sorry! Again, you're trying to show you know more about the science than the scientists!
Some viewers thought Myron Ebell had no place as a guest on the programme, with Dr Mike Ward writing:
I'm simply appalled that Newsnight and the BBC generally still find it necessary to have a climate science denier on whenever they report the latest findings on global warming. The BBC don't have moon-landing deniers on whenever they report on space flights, or flat-earthers on when they report on a round-the-world yacht race, so what's the deal with climate science?
And the author Philip Pullman tweeted his agreement:
This is an appalling misjudgement. By giving time to climate-change deniers, you make it harder for politicians to make good policy.
The editor of Newsnight, Esme Wren, took to Twitter before the programme aired to say:
As part of our coverage we currently plan to discuss the politics of climate change, and the mindset of the current US administration. In this section it is relevant to hear from those who have advised President Trump. The issue of false equivalence is only in play when discussing the science of climate change. This point is entirely recognised and adhered to by the programme.
That charge of false equivalence refers to the BBC's perceived practice in the past of balancing the views of the majority of scientists, that significant, man-made climate change exists, with the minority who challenge that analysis. But achieving a balance of that kind is not now the BBC's policy, as was made clear by an internal briefing memo, sent to news staff last month, which found its way into the newspapers. One passage said:
Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often. Man-made climate change exists. You do not need a 'denier' to balance the debate.
But that advice and Monday's coverage did not go down well with everyone:
Eoin McMahon: I watched in exasperation but not surprise at your naked bias all day. No guests who did not agree with the consensus were interviewed. I has been aware of the recent edict wherein your news staff have been directed that they are no longer required to be even-handed, and provide balance on the issue of climate change. But the bias across your news platforms was nothing compared to that which Evan Davis subjected Myron Ebell to on Newsnight.
And Nigel Burn-Murdoch seconded that:
On the Breakfast programme there were three 'experts' who presented the IPCC report as fact, and there was no one present to advance a contrary view. Please do your duty and present both sides of a disputed area.
Well, let's discuss how BBC News handles this contentious issue with Richard Burgess, its UK news editor. Thank you for coming to Newswatch. Can you just sum up what exactly is the policy on giving airtime to climate change deniers now?
Richard Burgess: Well, I think the policy is clear: that the science is settled on climate change, it exists, there is no debate around that. So we're not going to create a false balance or a false equivalence by getting a scientist on and then always getting a denier on. But that doesn't mean that we won't occasionally hear from dissenting voices within this debate, because there's debate beyond the actual science, there's debate around the intensity of climate change and then what to do about climate change.
Samira Ahmed: Just to be clear - BBC News regularly did have on more climate change deniers in the supposed interests of balance. Are you now admitting that you'd got that wrong?
Richard Burgess: No, I think what we're saying is that the science is really clear and that we do not need to get on a denier just to give some kind of, what we would describe as false equivalence. So the science is clear, we report the science, but there will be occasions where we get dissenting voices on. We're not going to shut out all viewpoints.
Samira Ahmed: Because there is some dissent on the science and that Newsnight programme that viewers were commenting on, the moment you have a denier on - even though it's supposed to be about policy - it always ends up being a debate about the science. So the question comes down to, should the BBC be giving climate change deniers any air time any more?
Richard Burgess: Because I think that was really interesting, that interview, because actually I think it really was interesting around the policy and the politics of the Trump administration, which is important in the whole climate change debate. And Evan asked him, "Actually, is there anything the scientists can say that will change the opinion of the Trump administration?" And he was really clear - "No." And when he tried to get into the scientific debate, Evan closed him down really quickly, and was, "You're not a scientist so we're not going to discuss that." So I think we really did gain some insight and some interesting perspective from that interview.
Samira Ahmed: I mean, the trouble is, of course, some viewers are frustrated because - some of them contacted Newswatch - they feel there is scientific doubt and they are unhappy at the assumptions made in the BBC's climate change reporting. They were unhappy with the way Evan Davis was pressing. Can you satisfy them?
Richard Burgess: I think the point is, is that the vast majority of scientific... The science is settled over this, the vast majority of scientific opinion admits that climate change is happening, it's a man-made phenomenon. But can we satisfy everybody? No, but are we going to shut out dissenting voices? Equally, no. But we're not going to create some kind of false equivalence between them.
Samira Ahmed: You say there's a scientific consensus and we're not going to have a debate about that, but because the effects of it are still being discussed as something that will happen and not something that has happened, necessarily, there are people and there are viewers who say, I'm sorry, I think there's still a legitimate debate about the science. And I just wonder if the BBC can ever win this?
Richard Burgess: I think, look, we have to reflect the debate around what we're going to do about this and the intensity of it, but when you have the overwhelming majority of scientific opinion being really clear that man-made climate change exists, then I think it's important we reflect that.
Samira Ahmed: As we said at the beginning, the BBC has now put out a new memo and there is training guidance happening for news staff. So can you explain what that involves and what difference viewers might see and read in their coverage?
Richard Burgess: Look, I think it's an attempt to explain to staff some of the changes in policy, research, science and to try and counteract some of the misconceptions that can be made around global warming and climate change. So we have offered some guidance, there's some training, as well, and it's just to make sure our staff are making informed decisions on this important issue.
Samira Ahmed: But would it include things like "these people are not to be booked"?
Richard Burgess: No, no. As I said before, we're not excluding viewpoints from this discussion, but what we're also not doing is creating this false balance that I've been talking about.
Samira Ahmed: Richard Burgess, thank you very much.