BBC Trust to review science coverage amid claims of bias over climate change, MMR vaccine and GM foods
By Paul Revoir
The BBC’s governing body has launched a major review of its science coverage after complaints of bias notably in its treatment of climate change.
The BBC Trust today announced it would carry out the probe into the ‘accuracy and impartiality’ of its output in this increasingly controversial area.
The review comes after repeated criticism of the broadcaster’s handling of green issues. It has been accused of acting like a cheerleader for the theory that climate change is a man-made phenomenon.
Critics have claimed that it has not fairly represented the views of sceptics of the widely-held belief that humans are responsible for environmental changes such as global warming.
The investigation will also focus on coverage of issues like genetically modified foods, the MMR vaccine and the way it reports on new technologies.
It will scrutinise the way the BBC has handled scientific findings on areas which affect ‘public policy’ and are ‘matters of political controversy’.
A scientific expert will be hired to lead the review and it will concentrate on coverage of the issues featured in its news and factual output.
The corporation’s Royal Charter and Agreement requires that the BBC covers controversial subjects with due impartiality.
The new report will not just include the natural sciences but also aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that include scientific findings or claims.
Richard Tait, BBC Trustee and chair of the governing body’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC), said: ‘Science is an area of great importance to licence fee payers, which provokes strong reaction and covers some of the most sensitive editorial issues the BBC faces.
‘Heated debate in recent years around topics like climate change, GM crops and the MMR vaccine reflects this, and BBC reporting has to steer a course through these controversial issues while remaining impartial.
The review will be launched in the spring and the findings of the probe will be published in 2011.
The BBC is planning to raise the profile of science this year with a focus on the genre across television, radio and online.
But there has been a string of rows in recent years over the way it has handled a number of scientific issues.
Last year a leading climate change sceptic claimed his views had been deliberately misrepresented by the BBC.
Lord Monckton, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said he had been made to look like a ‘potty peer’ on a TV programme that ‘was a one-sided polemic for the new religion of global warming’.
In 2007 the then editor of Newsnight hit out at the BBC’s stance on climate change.
Peter Barron said it was ‘not the corporation’s job to save the planet’. His comments were backed up by other senior news executives who feared the BBC was ‘leading’ the audience, rather than giving them ‘information’.
Mr Barron had claimed the BBC had gone beyond its remit by planning an entire day of programmes dedicated to highlighting environmental fears.
His comments had come after the broadcaster had already been accused of not being objective on green issues and of handing over the airwaves to campaigners. In 2007 it had devoted a whole day of programming to the Live Earth concerts.
The BBC then decided to scrap the Comic Relief-style TV event on climate change amid fears it would make it look biased.
In the past the BBC has also been attacked over other scientific issues. It was accused by an adviser of adding to the hysteria about genetically modified crops with factual errors and bad science.
More recently flagship current affairs programme Panorama was found to have broken editorial guidelines in a programme about the potential health hazards of wi-fi.
The BBC’s editorial complaints unit said in 2007 that the programme ‘gave a misleading impression of the state of scientific opinion on the issue’.
Earlier this year former BBC newsreader Peter Sissons claimed it was now ‘effectively BBC policy’ to stifle critics of the consensus view on global warming.
Mr Sissons said: ‘I believe I am one of a tiny number of BBC interviewers who have so much as raised the possibility that there is another side to the debate on climate change.
‘The Corporation’s most famous interrogators invariably begin by accepting that “the science is settled”, when there are countless reputable scientists and climatologists producing work that says it isn’t.’