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David Whitehouse: The Leveson Report And False Balance

David Whitehouse

The Leveson Report does not have much to say about science reporting, and even less about the problems of reporting climate change. But what it does say ranges from the blatantly obvious to the misguided, in my opinion.

I think all reporters, science and otherwise, would agree that the MMR story that began in 1998 was clearly a disaster for science reporting, and for society as a whole. As a result of it vaccination rates fell by 12%. Cases of measles rose from 56 in 1998 to 1,370 in 2008. But it was not alone. The reporting of BSE/CJD from 1996 onwards, after the link between BSE and new variant CJD was established, was poor. It tended to be alarmist, and relied on too narrow  a range of sources about the possibility of an epidemic, which in the end did not happen. The BBC was particularly guilty of this. Likewise a few years later the coverage of Foot and Mouth disease and genetically modified crops in the press has at times been to coloured by the views of pressure groups and public opinion, and science has not been as prominent as it should have been.

The problem with MMR wasn’t the reporting of the work, of what was after all that of a qualified expert, but the fact that it fell into the old media cliché of the maverick scientist who might be proven right. It is said by some, including the submission by the Science Media Centre to the Leveson enquiry, that the problem with MMR was ‘false balance,’ in which a minority view is represented by one voice (Wakefield) and the view of the scientific consensus is represented by another single voice, giving the impression of a kind of equality or balance of argument that does not exist in the scientific community. The public will get misled, it was argued, and in the case of BSE/CJD and MMR they certainly were.

But this misses the point about ‘false balance.’ It was not Wakefield’s presence that was the problem. The MMR opinions he held were an important news story. The real problem was the failure of newspapers and broadcasters to put them into perspective. The BBC, where debate is a crucial part of getting to the truth on its news programmes, completely failed to stamp the authority of its science journalists on the MMR coverage, and put Wakefield’s ideas into context.

Some have said the solution to the false balance problem is not to interview the maverick at all. Deciding to not interview any expert because he holds a minority view would be censorship and the thin end of an unpleasant wedge in an open democracy. What should have happened is that if Wakefield appeared in a TV or radio report, or in an article, the reporter should have had the knowledge and skill to put it into context and leave the viewer/reader in no doubt where the consensus lies without censoring minority views. This was not done, and it was this that was the greatest failure of science journalism in the whole MMR affair. The BBC should have had the skill and wit to be able to report it as a new story whilst leaving nobody in any doubt where informed opinion lay.

This has led to allegations of false balance in reporting of climate change where a ‘sceptic’ is pitted against a carefully selected scientist. Last year’s Jones’ report concluded, that ‘sceptical’ views on climate change (even views on policy where there is no consensus whatever about what to do) should not be heard as the overwhelming view is that scientific opinion is against them.

The fundamental problem here is that many in the media, the BBC in particular, seem to think that sceptics are all deniers that greenhouse gasses warm the planet, or that the world has warmed in the past 150 years, or that recently there is a human component to it. This is a false definition of a sceptic.

The climate change debate is a much more sophisticated one about a whole range of scientific and policy issues that are extensively debated in the peer-reviewed scientific journals. That debate is not being reflected in the media because of its obsession to equate sceptics with deniers. Leveson missed this important point.

It was also disappointing that Lord Leveson ignored the arguments and comments made by Tony Newbery and Andrew Montford. In my view this renders the section on science reporting in the report little more than a Science Media Centre press release.