The BBC has been weak on its coverage of climate change

The BBC should have been a leader in educating the public on climate change. But its weakness has only encouraged doubt about the existence of man-made climate change altogether.

Catherine Happer
12 December 2016

People tackling the floods of Cyclone Nisha. Photo by Ranveig. Some rights reserved.In December of last year, climate change, the perpetual poor relation in the battle for media headlines, made the top item as a historic global deal was struck at the UN COP 21 summit – representing an unusual convergence of political, scientific and journalistic priorities. But if the scientific community, NGOs and activists hoped the summit would be a breakthrough, less than a year later, it looks more like a climax. The scientific evidence increasingly consolidates with new records on greenhouse gas concentration, global temperatures, warming oceans and shrinking Arctic sea ice. Talk of a climate emergency is no longer hyperbole as scientists warn that the COP 21 aim to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees pre-industrial level is now moving out of the world’s grasp.  But climate change has slid off the UK’s media agenda.

It’s perhaps predictable that, in a 24-hour news, celebrity –centred, social media culture, attention moves on fast from stories with a complex and often slow-moving science at their core.  But expectations of the BBC – the nation’s most trusted broadcaster – are significantly different. Its news journalism and factual programming, across TV, radio and online, are heralded globally – President Obama was raised on the documentaries of David Attenborough. Its public remit includes the promotion of education and learning and the BBC defines its own personnel as ‘stewards for the next generation’. The communication of the single greatest challenge facing this and every generation should have been the BBC’s to own. But that hasn’t happened – and, in many ways, the coverage is emblematic of the broader crisis in the corporation. 

A closer look at the BBC’s extensive coverage of COP21 – and how fast it dropped off after Paris – gives some indication of the problem. As global leaders lined up to espouse the monumental importance of the task ahead, the BBC dutifully reported the then PM’s opening speech calling for no more excuses with headlines like ‘Climate change action is doable, says Cameron’. The context was his leadership of a government which reduced subsidies on renewables, relentlessly pursued shale gas extraction and actively downgraded climate change as an issue.  The hypocrisy of the speech, and the wider failure of the Cameron government on climate policy, raised discussion around the margins of the broadcast headlines.  But reporting of the urgency of the government’s mitigation efforts in response to the Paris deal fell away once the speeches stopped. 

And this reflects a more general failure to challenge the Tory agenda on climate. In spite of Cameron’s initial enthusiasm for green issues as part of his Conservative party modernising programme, once in office, austerity and fixing the public debt were the priorities. The widely applied ‘household metaphor’ which paralleled state finances with those of the household – paying for the basics and not accumulating debt – effectively communicated where policies like carbon taxes and investment in alternative energies should sit. The resulting lack of focus in major speeches, reports and policy moves, of course, denies reporters news pegs on which to hang stories. But the BBC has done little to open up the debate. So, for example, when flooding hit the South-West in 2014, reporting immediately turned to Cameron’s priority of the release of emergency funds. The scientists increasingly making connections with climate change are largely a footnote, outside the parameters of the debate.

Theresa May has since taken this one step further – by removing climate change from the title of any major department. Mitigation strategy is now subsumed under Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. A move that was described as ‘plain stupid’ by Ed Miliband, the BBC argued that it could also be seen as a positive shift in direction as ‘the UK is already bound by its Climate Change Act’.

There is, of course, nothing novel in politicians setting the agenda. As the primary definers, they have privileged access to media and so are in a mutually beneficial relationship with journalists.  Some of this is about the logistics of newsgathering – reporters can’t be everywhere, so they might as well be at Westminster where news is guaranteed. But the cuts to BBC journalism over recent years have exacerbated this – and the reduced number of science correspondents, in particular, carry a huge burden in creating momentum around the major scientific developments.

If the lack of priority status is a more recent concern, the BBC’s history of reporting climate change has been similarly chequered.  For a number of years the accusation was that coverage suffered from what is sometimes called balance as bias, which gives undue weight to climate sceptics who are unrepresentative of the scientific community, largely at a consensus on the issue. In response to strong criticism at a 2013 Westminster Select Committee, BBC’s Head of Editorial Policy stated:

‘we are engaged with everybody….only a few weeks ago I had a long meeting with Lord Lawson….we have long meetings with scientists who take different views about climate… politicians, scientists and everybody else who has a view’.  

It was a defiant defence of the balanced journalism which is written into the BBC’s DNA. But the BBC Trust took a different view, and told the corporation to review its approach. And recently – with the EU referendum perhaps a turning point - this objective of balance is being widely questioned. In the age of Twitter, when statistics can be checked and challenged by experts in minutes, audiences are asking why evidence-based positions are routinely countered by weightless falsehoods.   

This is a much greater problem for the BBC than it is for other news outlets. Its very existence depends upon audience trust.  Scottish audiences had their moment with the BBC’s indyref coverage in 2014 and some living South of the border, unaware of the significance of that shift, are experiencing a similar awakening with the reporting of Corbyn’s leadership. Media bias, once the preserve of academics, is now a term in common usage. On climate, what Andrew Neill once referred to as the online ‘climate mafia’ have effectively countered sceptical arguments, and with the consolidation of the science, the denial position is no longer a mainstream one. BBC reporting on the latest IPCC report adhered much more closely to the science but the BBC’s role in promoting these arguments still sticks.  

Fundamentally the central problem with BBC reporting of climate change – of BBC journalism – is that it’s too similar to the rest of the industry. But if it’s easy for the public to understand why sceptics are welcomed in the Daily Mail, it’s more difficult to understand why such vested interests flourish in public service broadcasting. To its audiences, the BBC looks increasingly weak in holding the elites in politics (and in the media) to account. The drift of the BBC to a neoliberal model is well documented elsewhere but the politicisation of the climate coverage was not inevitable. As the nation’s great educator, the BBC should have been a climate leader – but instead its coverage has been instrumental in weakening its very claim to exist.

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