Whether the staff of the BBC, facing budget cuts and the loss of 3,000 jobs, will consider last week’s BBC Trust Review of the corporation’s science coverage as money well spent is doubtful: according to a spokeswoman, it cost £140,000. Unfortunate as this is, the Review’s wider impact is rather more pernicious.
On a superficial reading, the Review, by the London University biologist Steve Jones, looks dull and bureaucratic. But beneath the surface it is an attempt to shut down debate and impose ideological conformity on a highly controversial issue – the extent and likely consequences of man-made global warming.
Why Professor Jones was thought a suitable person to conduct the Review at all is not a trivial question. Having long toiled in obscurity on the genetic makeup of snails, Jones owes his sudden metamorphosis into a ‘media tart’ (to use his own phrase) entirely to the BBC, which chose him to deliver the Reith Lectures in 1991.
Numerous further radio and TV appearances followed, and with them book sales of which he could not previously have dreamt.
It is also worth asking why the Trust decided to blow its money (a little under half of which went on Jones’s fee) on examining its science reporting: there are surely other areas of public policy significance – immigration, for example – where a casual viewer might conclude that BBC coverage can be self-censoringly selective.
Such subjects are uncomfortable, and for that very reason, an objective analysis of the way the corporation handles them is arguably overdue.
But the real problem with the Jones Review is its bewilderingly misleading content. Jones writes that his own knowledge is ‘remarkably broad, but fantastically shallow’.
Presumably he meant this as a joke and yesterday the BBC Trust spokeswoman insisted it is ‘a major piece of work, involving extensive research, consultation and content analysis’. If that is what the Trust believes, it has been fooled.
For its first 65 pages, the Review attains a tedium so intense it might be self-parody, and is mainly focused on the Byzantine BBC hierarchy. Then, under the heading ‘Man-made global warming: a microcosm of false balance?’ the document wakes up, and Jones’s previously anodyne prose is suddenly flooded with passion.
Interviewed last week when the Review was published, this was the subject on which Jones dwelt, and it seems clear he sees this as the main point of the exercise.
The report contains a startling statistic: 46 per cent of all BBC science news stories deal with global warming, although, as Jones writes, this massively over-represents the tiny number of researchers who work on it compared to the thousands working in other fields.
But this grotesque skewing of emphasis is not Jones’s beef. His problem is that the BBC gives far too much space ‘to the views of a determined but deluded minority’ – those he terms climate change ‘deniers’, whose views, he writes, should be seen as on a par with the conspiracy theories that claim 9/11 was a ‘US government plot’.
Such individuals Jones sees as victims of a psychological ‘syndrome’. Unfortunately, he goes on, awareness of the anathema such heresy represents has not yet ‘percolated’ throughout the BBC.
With disgust, he cites a Panorama broadcast in one of last year’s bitter freezes, which had the temerity to ask whether the science that predicted an imminent warm Armageddon was any longer valid.
In Jones’s view, this is ‘an exhausted subject’, where only ‘the pretence of debate’ remains.
The Beeb must now accept that ‘the real discussion has moved on to what should be done to mitigate climate change’ – by which, one presumes, he means vastly expensive energy taxes and investment in ‘renewables’ such as wind-farms.
Not the least surprising aspect of this thesis is the rarity with which BBC news correspondents do challenge warmist orthodoxy. Panorama may have subjected the science to scrutiny but I recall a TV news piece shown in the same cold snap by David Shukman.
Filmed in the snow at Kew Gardens, he solemnly informed viewers that however cold they were feeling, this was merely ‘weather’.
Climate, he warned, was quite different, and was still warming inexorably. There was no real news story – merely the reinforcement of a familiar BBC message: that without drastic measures, future generations will fry.
Meanwhile, Jones is highly selective with the data he cites to support his position. Yes, as he says, the past decade has been the warmest globally in recent history (though the early Middle Ages and the Roman era may have been as warm).
It is also true CO2 levels have risen since the start of the industrial revolution, a phenomenon that has probably caused warming by half a degree.
But the problem for the warming catastrophists, which despite a recent spate of peer-reviewed papers Jones totally ignores, is that the world temperature trend since 1995 has been flat, with no evidence of warming at all.
The computer models in which he evidently places his faith did not predict this, and cannot account for it.
According to Jones, the ‘pessimists’ who believe the world will warm by up to five degrees this century – ten times as much as in the past 200 years – are ‘in the ascendant’, something the BBC should reflect.
But who is the ‘denier’ here? Finally Jones resorts to an argument that is truly laughable: ‘To bring matters up to date, 2011 saw the warmest April in Central England for 350 years.’
Maybe it did. But January and December 2010 were exceptionally cold and July 2011 has been pretty chilly too. To draw a conclusion from one month’s weather in a single place is, as he must know, simply dishonest.
But this is not the only dishonesty in his Review. The only ‘deniers’ he names are Lord Lawson and his colleagues from the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
To be sure, Lawson and his colleagues are sceptics – they do not accept doom is round the corner if we don’t enact self-impoverishing emission cuts. But they make their arguments with reference to peer-reviewed literature – something notably absent from Jones’s Review.
And they are in no sense ‘deniers’, as their writings make clear. ‘It’s scandalous to claim we deny that there has been global warming due to man-made carbon dioxide,’ says Foundation director Benny Peiser. ‘What is this really about? Is it simply an attempt to get us off the air?’
A few weeks ago, I listened to an eloquent speech by the Czech president Vaclav Klaus, who spent much of his life under the ideological yoke of communist repression.
Now he saw old patterns re-emerging: ‘The arrogance with which global warming activists and their media allies express themselves is something I know well from the past.’
The attempt to insist on an iron ‘consensus’ was undermining democracy and free debate.
Running through the Jones Review is a bizarre and anti-scientific assumption: that there is an orthodox scientific truth which the BBC should strive to reflect, and which – at least in the case of global warming – is no longer subject to revision.
As a scientist of four decades’ standing, Jones surely knows this to be false. Science is a process, not revealed dogma, and indeed, Jones’s Review even describes the way in which almost 100 years ago the laws of Newtonian physics were suddenly swept aside by Einstein, relativity and quantum mechanics.
Yet when it comes to climate, he seems to want BBC coverage to be subject to the kind of quasi-Stalinist thought-policing to which Klaus so strongly objects. To let that come to pass would be to confirm the Czech president’s worst misgivings.