Why the BBC should stand up to its climate campaign critics

03 Sep 2007, 09:03

How do you define impartiality?

It is a question of burning importance to many  journalists and it is one we will be hearing plenty more about in the coming months as the BBC, that supposed beacon of impartiality, solidifies plans for a day of programming on climate change and environmental issues.

It is also a debate that should inform the employee engagement strategies of any firm attempting to limit their carbon footprint and promote environmental best practices.

BbcAccording to recent reports, the BBC is planning a day of Comic Relief-style programming on the environment, provisionally titled Planet Relief. The proposals were always going to attract criticism from the motley band of climate change deniers and perennial critics of the Beeb's apparent left wing bias, but the first shot across the corporations' bows has come from the unlikeliest of sources in the form of two of its own senior executives.

Speaking at the MediaGuardian International Television Festival last month, the BBC's head of television news Peter Horrocks reportedly attacked the plans, arguing that "I absolutely don't think we should [campaign on issues such as climate change] because it's not impartial". He added that: "It's not our job to lead people and proselytise about it".

His views were echoed by Newsnight's editor, Peter Barron, who argued that, "It is absolutely not the BBC's job to save the planet. I think there are a lot of people who think that, but it must be stopped."

A recent BBC-backed report on impartiality appeared to support their criticisms, claiming that the broadcaster "has many public purposes of both ambition and merit - but joining campaigns to save the planet is not one of them".

Leaving aside the fact that under the BBC's Royal Charter its primary purpose is to "serve the public interest", meaning that arguably it is absolutely the BBC's job to save the planet if it wants to have any public left to serve, Barron and Horrocks criticisms are based on some pretty dubious assumptions.

The first is their suggestion that the reporting of scientific theories supported by the vast majority of climate change scientists and the promotion of practices designed to alleviate the catastrophic global warming these scientists predict are actually biased.

For such actions to be biased there has to be a viable alternative theory for climate change or a viable alternative course of action for mitigating climate change besides transitioning to a low carbon economy which you could accuse the BBC of ignoring - there just aren't.

If the climate change deniers can produce just one peer-reviewed piece of research contradicting the current consensus on manmade climate change that is not based on outdated and discredited data or selective editing of other scientists' positions then the BBC would have to change its editorial line. Until then what exactly is biased about reporting what is widely-regarded as scientific fact and promoting responsible behaviour in light of that scientific fact?

The BBC has already given a disproportionately high amount of air time and coverage to climate change sceptics despite the discrediting of many of their theories and it doesn't have to give more than a tiny fraction of its current climate change coverage to their views to provide a balanced view of the current scientific "debate".

The second dubious assumption is the idea that true impartiality is achievable or even desirable for the BBC. There is no way for the BBC to ever avoid accusations of bias and any attempt to do so would be ridiculous. Imagine how many alternatives to the scientific consensus a newsreader would have to recite at the end of a story on evolution in order to avoid any accusation of bias – the bulletin would last several months.

The BBC's impartiality guidelines recognise this and call for programme makers to "reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under represented".

The key word here is "significant" meaning that insignificant views can remain unreflected. As a result the BBC can justify its, still only recent, stance of discussing climate change without giving significant air time to climate change deniers on the grounds that, despite their protestations, they are no longer representative of a "significant strand of thought".

The third and final dubious assumption is that any drive for impartiality should trump the public service remit.

Horrocks is entitled to his view that it's not the BBC's job "to lead people and proselytise", but it is obviously not one shared by all of his colleagues.

The BBC has a long and rich history of campaigning and attempting to lead people or change their behaviour, ranging from wartime propaganda to more recent campaigns such as Children in Need and Comic Relief.

These campaigns are not without their critics - there are serious-minded observers who argue that the promotion of charitable-giving that is central to campaigns such as Comic Relief is less than impartial and that the BBC fails to give enough credence to the view that charitable donations distort markets and are ultimately counter-productive – but the BBC obviously feels that its campaigns remain in the public interest and they have become a perennial feature in the schedules.

If these charitable campaigns are justified on the grounds that the majority regards them as hugely beneficial, then similar programming on environmental issues aiming to curb global warming and enhance the UK's energy security is equally valid. If the BBC wants to limit environmental campaigning on grounds of impartiality then it would have to stop campaigning completely, on healthy living, on child poverty, on anti-racism, on everything. There are people (albeit not people you'd want to spend a huge amount of time with) who believe the BBC's coverage in all these areas is biased, but that doesn't mean it should stop these admirable campaigns and programming.

The BBC, however, appears to want to appease critics of its Planet Relief programming, and has insisted the event will aim at sparking a "debate" rather than campaigning. Never mind the fact that the debate is all but over and what we really need now is some vigorous campaigning.

You can understand why the BBC doesn't want a public row with some of its senior execs, but how it responds to critics of its environmental programming in the longer term could hold some interesting lessons for the private sector and any business currently running green employee engagement campaigns.

Of course business leaders are nowhere near as confined by concerns over impartiality as BBC executives and private firms have no responsibility to be impartial when developing a climate change strategy, but it has to be remembered that no employee likes to be preached to and there will be some who feel that it is not the businesses' role to aggressively promote green lifestyles.

Just as the BBC should stick to its guns and make plain that climate change science means that its environmental programming and even campaigning is squarely in the public interest and in line with its own impartiality guidelines, business leaders keen to implement low carbon initiatives will have to clearly articulate to staff the scientific and economic context for such strategies or risk alienating employees by trying to force them to change their behaviour.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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