Science and Technology CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Professor Steve Jones (CLC0067)

In evidence given to your Committee’s inquiry on climate science, the BBC Head of Editorial Standard’s, David Jordan said that the BBC “…had decided not to follow Jones’ key recommendations on climate change: ‘[Jones] made one recommendation that we did not take on board. He said we should regard climate science as settled … we should not hear from dissenting voices on the science.’”

While writing my Report to the BBC Trust on science coverage I was in general impressed by the breadth, depth and balance of the Corporation’s treatment of the subject, and have been equally so by its rapid and effective responses to many of the suggestions I made (that of the dangers of “false balance” included). My report was, though, greeted with some disagreement by respected commentators:

Daily Mail (Melanie Phillips): “… wickedly cynical propaganda to promote a false belief”.

Sunday Times (Nigel Lawson): “… characterised chiefly by ignorance and intolerance”.

Daily Express (David Rose) “… seems to want BBC coverage to be subject to quasi-Stalinistic thought policing”.

Daily Telegraph (Christopher Booker) “… the astonishing claim that the only problem with the coverage of climate change was not that it was too biased, but that it was not biased enough”.

Daily Telegraph (James Delingpole) “… a sustained and brilliant rebuttal to the threadbare notion that our state broadcaster is in any way capable of being fair and balanced”.

A similar but less immoderate statement was made more recently in The Guardian by Peter Preston: “2,000 climatologists signing pieces of paper don’t automatically convert a doubting public. … I’m an urgent believer in doing something about global warming. But I also live in a democracy. And nothing is QED”.

In spite of such claims, I emphatically did not say that “we should regard climate science as settled … we should not hear from dissenting voices on the science”. What I did in fact say in the BBC Trust report was:

“For science … there is a wide acceptance of a body of scrutinised fact, interrupted by rare moments when ideas change. Constantly to call in external voices unwilling to accept that principle is not to engage in debate but in meaningless polemic. … Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity for marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite. … There should be no attempt to give equal weight to opinion and to evidence.”

The producers of the recent Today Programme piece on the new IPCC report tried, we are told, more than a dozen qualified climate scientists willing to give an opposing view but could not find a single one (a hint, perhaps, that there is indeed a scientific consensus on global warming). Instead, they gave equal time to a well-known expert and to Australian retired geologist with no background in the field: in my view a classic of “false balance”.

Having said that, I reiterate that in my view BBC science coverage is good and getting better, that the Corporation responded quickly and effectively to most of my recommendations and that the balance problem is now less severe than it was. Indeed, it now seems to be more or less confined to news reporting about climate change. Why the BBC remains so obsessed with contrarian views on this subject I do not know.

October 2013

Prepared 1st April 2014