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5 Mar 2014

Getting back to the BBC about Lord Lawson’s ‘Today Programme’ appearance.

Lord Lawson

Here is an Open Letter which responds to the BBC’s letter defence of the recent appearance of Lord Lawson on the Today Programme.  My original complaint can be found here

Dear Ceri Thomas,

Thanks for your response setting out the BBC’s defence of Lord Lawson’s appearance on the Today Programme (reprinted in full below).  I understand that I am one of a large number of people who complained and who received your letter.  What puzzles me, and why my complaint to the Lawson piece still stands, is your assertion that it is right to “offer space to dissenting voices where appropriate as part of the BBC’s overall commitment to impartiality”.  While it could be argued that Lawson might have something to contribute to a discussion on policy, I would suggest that his determination to rubbish even the basics of climate science rule him out, given that he doesn’t accept the basis for the discussion.

In the recent book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, which looks in depth at the generation of “doubt” in relation to climate change by various advisers and lobbyists, the authors write:

“The notion of balance … may make sense for political news in a two-party system (although not in a multiparty system).  But it doesn’t reflect the way science works.  In an active scientific debate, there can be many sides.  But once a scientific issue is closed, there’s only one “side”.  Imagine providing “balance” to the issue of whether the Earth orbits the Sun, whether continents move, or whether DNA carries genetic information.  These matters were long ago settled in scientists’ minds.  Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth, and for the seam reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming.  Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either.  But ordinary journalists repeatedly do”. 

If the “dissenting voices” that appear on the BBC seek only to undermine established science, to sow doubt where there is none, then they are not appropriate, contribute nothing and do the listener a great disservice.  Your piece wasn’t just about policy, it was also about whether a link between climate change and the floods can be established.  It really needed to be one thing or the other.

As I noted in my previous letter, Lawson repeatedly misled your listeners, either cherry-picking or misrepresenting the science.  Any listeners who were seeking insights to help them “judge how to assess the recent bad weather in the context of climate change” were appallingly badly served.  They were misled, lied to, led to believe that there is a level of doubt in the science that is not a reality. 

While it may be the case that ‘Today’ has a track record of interviewing climate scientists, I haven’t heard any of them and I am a regular listener.  The Lawson piece was different in that it was served up in the prime 8.10am slot reserved for leading political figures or commentators or scientists with relevant insights on the stories of the day.  Lawson is none of those things.  He runs a think tank which refuses to reveal its funding sources and which lobbies for policies which benefit fossil fuel interests. 

By all means have discussions about what we do about global warming, how we allocate funding and design policy as a response.  But please, do not offer airtime to politically motivated deniers who seek only to sow doubt where none exists, and whose contributions to discussions about policy are undermined by their still being rooted in a fantasy world where climate change is a non-issue. You state that “this was the first interview on ‘Today’ with a climate change ‘sceptic.’“.  I hope that the feedback you have received will mean that, as well as being the first, it will also be the last. 


Rob Hopkins – Transition Network.

* * *

  Dear Rob Hopkins,

Thank you for your email. The BBC is committed to impartial and balanced coverage of climate change. Furthermore we accept that there is broad scientific agreement on the issue and reflect this accordingly. Across our programmes the number of scientists and academics who support the mainstream view far outweighs those who disagree with it.  We do however on occasion, offer space to dissenting voices where appropriate as part of the BBC’s overall commitment to impartiality. The BBC Trust, which oversees our work on behalf of licence fee payers, has explicitly urged programme makers not to exclude critical opinion from policy debates involving scientists. 

As was clear from the discussion, there is no conclusive proof as yet of a direct link between the storms hitting the UK this year and climate change. It was therefore reasonable for Justin Webb to ask Sir Brian Hoskins about the limits of scientific knowledge, in particular how the lay person should judge the evidence. But he also rigorously challenged Lord Lawson – in particular on his assertion that focusing efforts on developing green energy sources was a waste of money and that resources would be better spent on improving our defences against bad weather. Both lines of questioning were designed to help listeners judge how to assess the recent bad weather in the context of climate change. 

Scientists do have a crucial role to play in this debate. ‘Today’  has a track record of interviewing distinguished experts on climate change such as Lord Krebs, Sir John Beddington and Sir Mark Walport; All three have appeared on the programme in single interviews in recent months. But politicians and pressure groups also have their place and in six weeks of flooding, this was the first interview on ‘Today’ with a climate change ‘sceptic.’  

Whilst there may be a scientific consensus about global warming – that it is happening and largely man-made –  there is no similar agreement about what should be done to tackle it; whether money should be spent, for example, on cutting carbon emissions or would be better used adapting our defences to the changing climate. Lord Lawson is not a scientist, but as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer is well qualified to comment on the economic arguments, which are a legitimate area for debate. 

We believe there has to be space in the BBC’s coverage where scientific consensus meets reasonable argument about the policy implications of that consensus view. That said we do accept that we could have offered a clearer description of the sceptical position taken by Lord Lawson and the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the introduction.   That would have clarified in the audience’s minds the ideological background to the arguments. 

I hope this helps explain our thinking, 

Yours sincerely 

Ceri Thomas 

Head of News programmes