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Has The BBC’s Review Of Science Reporting Been Cancelled?

On 6th January 2010, Professor Richard Tait, a BBC trustee and chairman of their flagship Editorial Standards Committee  (ESC) announced a review of the accuracy and impartiality of science coverage, with particular attention to climate change, and a report was scheduled for Spring 2011. For climate sceptics this was a timely and welcome development. Over the last few years, bloggers have been reporting on an apparent synergy that exists between the BBC and the environmental movement which has led to blatant distortion in reporting climate change.

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On 7th April, Andrew Montford – of Bishop Hill fame – and I sent a joint letter to Professor Tait in his capacity as a BBC Trustee and chairman of the all important ESC in an attempt to ensure that sceptical views were fully represented in the course of the BBC Science review.

It is worth bearing in mind that the primary function of the BBC Trust is to ensure that the statutory obligations under which the BBC operates are enforced. These are set out in the Communications Act 2003 and elsewhere in the BBC Charter and Agreement. Impartiality in news reporting and factual programmes plays a very important part in all these legal instruments and compliance with requirements set out by parliament is not optional.

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The letter was addressed to Professor Tait and was sent electronically to Bruce Vander, the secretary of the ESC, with a request for confirmation when it had been delivered to Professor Tait. Just over an hour later the following message was received from a relatively junior member of the BBC Trust’s staff who described herself as the ‘Editorial Projects Leader’. It would appear that the announcement of the BBC’s review so soon after Climategate was a mere coincidence.

“Thank you for your letter to the BBC Trust, the contents of which I note.

I will, of course, share you letter with Richard Tait and with Professor Steve Jones who is authoring the review, but let me take this opportunity to respond to a number of the points you raise.

Your letter states that: ‘It would seem reasonable to assume that the BBC Trust has instituted the review as a result of concern within the organisation as well as criticisms that have appeared in the media and elsewhere’.  This is not the case, as the press release and published terms of reference make clear. This is the latest in a series of reviews that assess impartiality in specific areas of BBC output. Previous topics covered were BBC coverage of business (2007) and the devolved nations (2008).

It is a key priority for the Trust that the BBC covers potentially controversial subjects with due impartiality, as required by the Royal Charter and Agreement. The review is a ‘health check’ of current coverage, looking to identify both good and bad practice. It makes no presumption of significant failings – or, for that matter, successes – at the outset.

The published terms of reference make clear what is in the review’s scope and what is out, and the means by which Professor Jones will go about assessing the BBC’s coverage, including detailed content analysis, engagement with key stakeholders and audience research if deemed appropriate.

I hope this letter goes some way to clarifying some of the points you raise.”

Of course we hadn’t written to ‘the BBC Trust’ at all, as the Editorial Project Leader’ suggests, but specifically to the BBC Trustee responsible for setting up the review; and ‘sharing’ a letter with someone is a very different thing from actually delivering it to them. It is, of course, a matter for the recipient of a letter to decide who he wishes to share its content with, not for anyone to whom it has been entrusted to deliver to him. And the Editorial Project Leader makes no reference to the main purpose of our letter; that we should have the opportunity to make representations about the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of climate change as part of the review process.

I have now exchanged half-a-dozen emails with Mr Vander in an attempt to establish that our letter has in fact been delivered to the person it was addressed to; the chairman of the committee to which he is secretary, Professor Richard Tait. All that Mr Vander is prepared to say is that our letter has been ‘shared’ with Professor Tait, in spite of a succession of specific requests to confirm that it has been delivered and not merely ‘shared’.

Apart from the gross discourtesy of not, at the very least, receiving an acknowledgement from Professor Tait of what was obviously a thoughtful and constructive letter, this seems very strange.  Why is the BBC Trust not even prepared to confirm that the letter has been delivered to their impartiality supremo, in spite of repeated requests? Why is Mr Vander only prepared to say that it has been ‘shared’ with him?  Surely playing silly word games should have no part in the duties of the secretary of the BBC Trust committee that is charged with ensuring that our national broadcaster complies with standards set out in legislation.

Now we have heard from a source close to the BBC that the BBC Trust’s much-vaunted review of the accuracy and impartiality of its science coverage has been cancelled. Could it be that the BBC has realised that, in view of the damage done to the Climategate inquires by not properly representing the well justified concerns and evidence of sceptics, their review would also have little credibility if the critics of their science coverage is excluded, and conversely, that if this input is allowed, then the review would inevitably have to reach some very unpalatable conclusions.

There seems to be little point in our writing to Professor Tait and asking him whether his review has, in fact, been cancelled.

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