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Andrew Orlowski: How Can The BBC Be Saved From Itself Without Destroying It?

Andrew Orlowski, The Register

Regardless of your opinion of the BBC today, the loss of an independent Beeb would be a loss to British public life.

It’s the BBC’s independence that makes it unique – not, as it likes to insist, its funding from TV licence fees. Many countries have public-funded broadcasters that are bankrolled through a compulsory tax or levy, and they are given a long list of worthy duties to perform.

But many of these outlets are simply government information bureaux beholden to politicians of the day – or they’re shackled and starved of funds, producing dull but high-minded material nobody watches. They’re peripheral to normal life and, unlike the BBC, unable to act as a powerful counterweight to institutions, politicians, corporations and lobby groups.

In reality, the BBC’s independence has only been meaningful since the 1960s when brilliant new TV companies, such as Granada, forced the BBC to compete for talent and show some real courage and imagination.

As this clip from a short film by Adam Curtis shows, for decades prior to that the Beeb treated the politician with forelock-tugging deference.

Critics of the BBC are this week are calling for an end to the separation between the broadcaster and the state. A Financial Times columnist called for communications watchdog Ofcom to take over the running of the BBC, arguing that the corporation is unable to manage itself. This would be ironic: Ofcom boss Ed Richards was shortlisted for the post of BBC director general but lost out to George Entwistle, who suddenly quit at the weekend after presiding over a string of Newsnight blunders. At Ofcom Richards could run the BBC without leaving his chair.

A quick recap: the seminar that brought it all to the surface

Besides the furore over bungled BBC journalism, 28 Gate – the Beeb’s refusal to name the “scientific experts” who convinced the broadcaster to take a firmly warmist position when reporting climate change – is far more profoundly serious than the BBC and its critics yet realise.

What a humble freedom-of-information request has exposed, and called into the question, is the conduct and judgement of the BBC Trust itself. The trust is the BBC’s governing body; it’s essentially the old Board of Governors given a Strategy Boutique-style New Labour makeover when Auntie’s royal charter was rewritten.

The trust is the BBC’s firewall: when things go wrong at the Beeb, it could always promise to step in, with talk about new brooms and fresh starts. But when the trust is found wanting, there is no place to go except into the arms of the state or a regulator.

What the saga exposes is a range of mental black spots that have affected the judgement of the corporation’s key figures, who are otherwise intelligent and rational, for a decade or more. It’s almost as if somebody invented a virus that causes people to act strangely, but it only affects one topic of discussion.

The BBC’s reporting is merely a symptom: the broadcaster failed to report an important issue with the richness and subtlety it required. Instead, it simplified the subject so that people were “aware” – rather vaguely – of the “importance” of the issue, rather than being able to understand its complexities.

And another symptom was the abandonment of the traditional British reserve. Instead of remaining aloof from the fray, the BBC took off its coat and entered the brawl, throwing punches in every direction. Now the Beeb needs that subtlety and sophistication back, but after a decade of scrapping, it has found it doesn’t have the tools it needs. It’s rather like a hypnotist who has hypnotised himself, and can’t remember the trigger word required to stir himself from the trance.

To get a picture of the true tragedy that befell the BBC in the Noughties, we will look through a full historical record of publicly available material – primary sources that include speeches, private emails and official publications.

A most vital clue emerged last week, overshadowed by the ongoing crises and 28 Gate, in a lecture by the BBC’s director general from 2004 to September this year, Mark Thompson.

It started with a list

28 Gate, as it’s predictably called, concerns the identity of attendees of a joint CMEP-IBT-BBC seminar in January 2006 who were credited the following year with shaping BBC policy on reporting climate change. But does it matter? Now we know who attended, thanks to some digging around in the internet’s attic, are we surprised? Critics excited about 28 Gate affair are in danger of failing to see the wood for the trees.

Blogger Tony Newbery’s pursuit of the seminar’s previously secret attendee list highlights two things of much greater significance. One is that it casts light on a strategy by the BBC’s legal department to shield the public-funded corporation from scrutiny by the citizen, by redefining itself as a private organisation.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows facts and figures to be withheld and kept secret “for the purposes of journalism”, and the BBC’s use of this get-out clause is so pervasive it must be considered strategic rather than accidental. This appears to have the full backing of executives: the BBC’s director of news Helen Boaden appeared as a witness during an information tribunal hearing into Newbery’s request; the journalism derogation was trotted out as a key pillar for the BBC’s defence.

And the trust? It appears not to know or not to care about the battle over the climate seminar’s attendees. But the affair also highlights the role the BBC thinks it must perform – and it’s rather different to the one licence-fee payers expect it to perform – that of staying aloof from the fray.

A report written by independent filmmaker John Bridcut for the BBC Trust asserted that the seminar was “high-level” and prompted a significant change in editorial policy. The trust did not refute this. Indeed, the trust would later pitch into the brawl, fists flying, itself.

Both are ultimately issues that reflect on the conduct and judgement of the trust itself: it has made decisions where either it doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the consequences. This is why the Newbery saga is so incendiary: as Newbery himself says, this is “merely the beginning”.

You are being manipulated and will thank your masters for it

Firstly, we need to put the seminar into a lengthier historical context. Roger Harrabin, who helped organise the confab and at the time was a BBC reporter, has explained that he had been given the job in the late 1990s of organising internal Beeb seminars. This is a fairly widespread practice: the idea is to invite in outsiders to broaden the knowledge of journalists who are focussed on the daily news agenda, as Boaden said herself a fortnight ago.

What’s more relevant is what Harrabin and others hoped the seminars would achieve. Harrabin established an ad hoc outfit called the University of Cambridge Media and Environment Programme (CMEP) with young undergraduate Joe Smith – his own account is here. It was funded by a variety of organisations including Shell, activist group the WWF, and public money and academia. Harrabin receiving no monetary gain from CMEP, he says.

Roger Harrabin: Speaker, talent, ready to book

In September 2001 Harrabin asked one of his main funders, the Tyndell Centre at the University of East Anglia, for steers on the forthcoming Rio summit:

What should the BBC be doing this time in terms of news, current affairs, drama, documentaries, game shows, music etc? How can the BBC convey the theme of sustainable development to viewers and listeners who have probably seen all the issues raised before?

This is unusual. Drama, game shows and music are beyond the scope of the humble reporter. Harrabin was the protege of a fast-rising news producer Fran Unsworth – who this week stepped into Boaden’s shoes. In 2005, the year of Hurrican Katrina and Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, Unsworth appeared on a panel in The Netherlands alongside Channel 4 news star Jon Snow.

The subject of discussion, titled “What’s wrong with TV news coverage of global warming and weather”, turned to manipulation of the audience. Snow asked why journalists could not weave the theme of catastrophic man-made climate change into their material more subtly.

Snow: Now, let us imagine that we send someone along with some brief to reflect the global-warming aspect of Stella McCartney’s set of clothes arriving on the shelves in Oxford Street [and the] air miles to get the clothes from Taiwan, China, wherever, to the shelves. What was the cost in ozone demolition to get this stuff there speedily? It had to come by air because it was a quick new release of fashion, so didn’t come by sea. Can you imagine a BBC newscast that, as a natural matter of course, reflects that the new Ford Fiesta has an environmentally destructive level of 0.89 per cent – or whatever?

Unsworth: I can, actually, to be quite honest. I think it would be an interesting approach, which I can easily see on Newsnight, and I think that we do that kind of thing quite often.

This is fascinating because the discussion is really one about the audience. It’s a discussion on how to manipulate people by linking climate change to anything that moves, and it reflects several assumptions. One is that the audience will not be aware they are being manipulated.

Another is that viewers will respond to conditioning – a discredited behaviourist assumption. Behaviourism requires a desiccated view of what a human being really is, and it’s a view that underpins pop-neuroscience today. It assumes the human is fearful, irrational and in need of constant nudging. This is reflected in another assumption: that what the audience really needs is conditioning – for their own good – rather than an understanding of a subtle and complex subject that will allow them to exercise their good judgement and make choices.

In 2006, the rising star Unsworth – by now head of BBC Newsgathering – promoted Harrabin over the heads of five environment correspondents at the BBC to a new post of environment analyst. She explained the move in a blog post that August. Meanwhile, Unsworth had support from the very top for presenting a simplified tale of climate change, its effects and an absence of uncertainty in the studies.

According to BBC veteran Peter Sissons, climate-change activist Al Gore “entertained the BBC’s editorial elite in his suite at the Dorchester and was given a free run to make his case to an admiring internal audience at Television Centre”. Mark Thompson, when BBC director general, gave the most powerful backing he could. According to Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, which aims to improve science reporting in the UK: “One long-serving BBC journalist told me that Mark Thompson’s supportive introduction to Al Gore on his visit to Television Centre to promote his climate-change film An Inconvenient Truth was unprecedented in BBC history.”

Before we look at the consequences of this over-simplification, let’s examine why it would become such a costly mistake.

Simplification of climate science

It’s a fact that greenhouse gases, predominantly water vapour, keep the Earth from being hostile and cold; that CO2 albeit in trace quantities is also a greenhouse gas and therefore helps keep the planet warm; and that industrial society increases the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is largely unquestioned.

Beyond that, however, the new field of climate science reveals a rich and complex picture that is poorly understood. Examine if you will, this IPCC summary.

The climate factors (click to enlarge)

There are 16 factors that potentially affect the climate according to that report. Of the 16, 11 have a “low” or “very low … level of scientific understanding”, and only one is considered to have a “high” level of scientific understanding. The influence of ten of these factors has no consensus at all. Only one of the 16 is supported by scientific consensus. The environmental feedback effects of these factors, which may be positive or negative, are hotly contested. The output of computer models even more so.

For any science reporter, in normal conditions, this is all wonderful news. A succession of competing theories jostling for attention make for a rich stream of stories.

It’s also worth noting that the leading “skeptical” scientists, such as John Christy and Henrik Svensmark, say the anthropogenic contribution – the man-made impact – accounts for 25 per cent or so of all the influences on climate. Many “consensus” scientists put it at 50 per cent.

This bubbling cauldron of opposing views is at odds with the BBC’s desired simplification, and thus very little detail is mentioned. Let’s recall one of the most overlooked aspects of the Climategate emails leaked last year – the pressure on academics to simplify and sex-up their work.

“What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation?” mused one scientist. “They’ll kill us probably.”

“The science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run,” one scientist, Peter Thorne, lamented.

“I can’t overstate the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message that the Government can give on climate change to help them tell their story,” a civil servant wrote in 2009 to climatologist Phil Jones. “They want the story to be a very strong one and don’t want to be made to look foolish.”

But it wasn’t just civil servants and policy-makers who were asking for the story to be sexed-up and simplified. It was journalists, too.

The result of this over-simplification, of presenting climate science in childlike terms, was any intellectual curiosity about climate science was expunged. The question of degree – whether mankind’s contribution was a little or a lot, whether it was manageable or harmful – simply disappeared from the discourse.

Skeptics are greeted with a witch’s ducking-stool of a dilemma: if they float and survive then they must be a witch, and if they sink and drown then there was nothing wrong them. In other words, if they reject the alarmists, they’re denounced as rejecting the uncontroversial effects of greenhouse gases. If they acknowledge the basic mechanics of the greenhouse gas effect, then it’s assumed they back alarming predictions of Thermageddon. Heads you win, tails you lose.

It followed that anyone disagreeing with the simplified picture must either be mad or bad; so irrational that they rejected greenhouse gas theory entirely or too immoral to look at the consequences of a nailed-on catastrophe. This led to the almost complete disappearance of debate about policy.

This had some unintentionally comical consequences. For one BBC TV climate debate, a very rare one during Thompson’s tenure as director general, the producers had lined up a group of self-professed skeptics. They then asked them if they thought mankind influenced the climate. Panic ensued when most of the skeptics put their hands up. Skeptics weren’t supposed to say that – the simplified account didn’t permit it. When given the opportunity, viewers were unwilling to be led to the ducking stool that Unsworth and Harrabin had prepared for them.

It also led to the gravest consequence: the removal of debate about which policies should be implemented, if any. This is best illustrated by a story.

Scientists are clever, they should tell us what to do – right?

A thought exercise. Imagine, if you will, that an astronomer discovered a large space rock hurtling to Earth. The precise time and date of impact were then calculated. This would leave us with a wide range of moral and economic choices. It would be very strange, in fact inconceivable, if someone handed all these decisions to the astronomer to make.

“Here you go, Man with the Telescope – tell us what to do!”

Yet this is what happened throughout the media and political class in response to the dramatic and simplified tale of climate change. Now we have it from the highest authority, Mark Thompson: he gave three lectures at Oxford University recently, which reveal him to be an intelligent and witty man. But in one lecture he makes a quite extraordinary argument [PDF].

Thompson picks apart a statement made by social scientist Dr Benny Peiser, who stated that the scientific fact of climate change invites a range of policies, economic choices, and moral decisions. Peiser doesn’t quibble with the “science”, but merely points out the obvious, that we have to decide what to do. Thompson doesn’t like this because only “scientists” are qualified to make ethical and economic decisions. Others may get involved, but only if they delegate their authority to the “scientists”. This is the course we’re told to follow on climate change.

There are enormous problems with this. The mitigation policies being advanced (and they came in a bundle – buy the science, get the policy for free) fall largely on the developing countries most in need of an advanced industrial society. These policies, if implemented, will perpetuate poverty, increase unwanted human misery and cause avoidable deaths.

There is a clear moral choice here, one the public is entitled to debate. It also raises intergenerational issues of fairness. Climate campaigners place huge costs on the current generation to “fix” the problem, when future generations would be better able to fix it. The older generation is effectively telling its youth:

“Awfully sorry, but we’ve caused an almighty mess. But we’re not going to allow you the tools you need to fix it, like nuclear power, or cheap energy, because we don’t think you should have them.”

This too raised economic questions and moral choices to which we should have a say.

Thompson concluded his Oxford lecture by telling scientists that without the broadcasters they “have no voice” – he is literally saying: “Make us your mouthpiece.” Given that Thompson has completely conceded moral authority on the matter, he really has no other conclusion to make. It’s a return of Comte’s Positivism, in which scientists are the ultimate authority in society on all decisions. Why? Because… well, they do science and stuff.

In the end, air time was given to people not making the most sense but making the most noise. By the end of the Noughties the airwaves were entirely free of policy debate, as Peter Sissons lamented: “It’s the lack of simple curiosity about one of the great issues of our time that I find so puzzling about the BBC.”

Full essay