By Paul Homewood
h/t James Mason
Last year, Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s “energy and environment analyst”, retired
He tweeted as follows: “Only a month to go now before I leave BBC after 35 years. I did my last turn on Today Prog earlier. Felt very upset walking home. Not for me, but for the fate of the planet.”
On reading this, I burst out laughing. Although most journalists have delusions of grandeur, few of us think the fate of our planet turns on our individual career path. But I am glad Roger said it, because it displays succinctly the mentality which governs BBC coverage of climate change – very self-important, very emotional and very, very one-sided.
Since his release from BBC employment, Roger says frankly what he is. On Twitter, he describes himself as a “Green pioneer broadcaster”. That is an accurate phrase for how he did his job.
It does not seem to strike him as an odd way to work in a national broadcaster committed by Charter to impartiality. More to the point, it does not seem to strike the BBC as odd either. Yet it is like saying, “I’m a fascist broadcaster” (or a communist, Remainer or Leaver one): it declares a committed point of view. Roger Harrabin’s effective successor, Justin Rowlatt, seems, if anything, even more in thrall to his own beliefs. Who can forget his staring-eyed interview with Boris Johnson when he harangued the then prime minister for refusing to stop Britain’s solitary new coal mine?
Justin is preaching busily. Yesterday, he tweeted: “The world has just recorded the highest average global sea temperature ever – more evidence of the progress of climate change.” Within an hour, Roger Harrabin tweeted in support: “Ocean heat record smashed, with grim implications… Will BBC join the dots? @BBCJustinR.” The answer to Roger’s question, which I think he knows already, is: “Yes. The BBC still thinks as he does.”
The BBC website this week carried a story by Justin Rowlatt, entitled “The truth about heat-pumps”. It describes them as “extraordinarily efficient”. He admits a few snags but blames the Government for not subsidising installations generously enough. “Whatever choices we make about how we heat our homes in future,” he adds, “one thing is certain, we are going to need a lot more electricity. And it all needs to be green.” His first sentence is factually correct. His second is his point of view. His confusion between the two exemplifies how the BBC has covered climate change for 20 years.
In recent weeks, the dam which contained popular discontent about net zero policies has burst. Accumulating resentments about the costs and inconveniences involved have taken political form.
Problems about wind turbines, heat pumps, solar panels, new pylons, electric vehicles, charging points, wood-burning stoves; about energy security threatened if we have no fossil fuels against Putin’s adventurism, energy bills, low traffic zones and Ulez have at last made politicians aware of a blindingly obvious point: citizens and businesses resent having to pay much more for goods and services which are often worse than what they had before. Hence Labour’s surprise failure to win the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election.
Voters can see the disparity between the highly speculative and distant achievement of global net zero and the concrete and imminent prospect of becoming colder and poorer (which gets worse the further north you live). They face intimidating deadlines – an end to new petrol cars by 2030, to oil boilers by 2026, and achieving “complete clean-energy production” by 2035; and they don’t like them. The BBC’s attitude to this mood is the environmentalist equivalent of “Let them eat cake”.
It won’t do. The public are still being shamefully ill informed by the BBC about differing views on climate change policy – on the science (the role, for example, of “natural variability”), the efficacy of government intervention, the real costs, the possibilities of adaptation rather than resistance and so on – but polling suggests people do now know that the main players in the emissions game, China and India, have no intention of decarbonising by 2050.
In which case, Britain, “the world leader”, is inflicting serious self-harm without discernible gain for the planet. A political party that cannot see this, cannot win. Whatever the rights and wrongs of global warming theory, political climate change is happening.
A little bit of history helps explain how the BBC got itself in the wrong place. In 2005-6, a BBC executive, Fran Unsworth, was much influenced by Roger Harrabin. He submitted a report asking what the BBC wanted to be remembered for in future years. He suggested it should want to be remembered for warning of climate disaster. This was debated in private meetings of BBC high-ups whose contents the corporation never divulged.
The BBC changed its approach to the subject, agreeing that “the science is settled” and appearing to move away from traditional impartiality. From that time forth, it became obvious that anyone wanting a career as a BBC science journalist would have to proclaim climate-change orthodoxy.
The BBC’s culture formally discourages what it calls “a fixed habit of thought”, yet it adopted just that. It therefore sought to refute rather than investigate various green scandals, such as the “Climategate” email leaks of 2009. If a political leader claimed, as did Gordon Brown before the Copenhagen summit which failed, that there were “50 days to save the planet”, the BBC reverently reported it and never explained afterwards how the unsaved planet had somehow survived.
This went to comic extremes. After Barack Obama became president of the United States, a Newsnight report intoned: “Scientists calculate that President Obama has just four years to save the world.” Those four years elapsed without President Obama achieving this feat, yet here we still are more than 10 years later. It is incredible (literally) what “scientists” will “calculate” if the BBC indulges them.
Extreme voices were magnified; contrary ones were silenced. Have you ever witnessed a BBC cross-questioning of Greta Thunberg’s claims about imminent destruction? On the other hand, Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, and author of a well-reasoned and best-selling critique of climate change arguments, was, in effect, banned from the airwaves on the subject.
One reason the BBC has got away with this bias for so long is that the political parties too have been all but unanimous. The BBC’s formalistic idea of impartiality is more closely related to party balance than to genuine diversity of thought. That unanimity is starting to change. If we reach a situation where, say, Tories campaign to put off net zero deadlines and Labour campaign to keep them, the BBC will have to air both points of view.
What would the BBC like to be remembered for in its coverage of climate change? How will the last 20 years of partiality and suppression look? I am not saying the corporation should be the voice of climate scepticism: as an establishment institution, it naturally follows the prevailing wind.
But surely one of the biggest stories of our time requires particularly careful impartiality. Predictions should not be treated as statements of fact. Science, being a method of inquiry, should never be treated as unanimous. Costs and benefits should be interrogated. Excited films on people’s phones of floods in Chinese streets or burning forests in Greece should be used as part of stories about the now, not as evidence of global collapse, morality lessons for the greedy West or horror stories to frighten the next generation out of having babies.