Last week's independent review of the BBC's science coverage was a major setback for climate denialism, concluding as it did that the BBC has given far too much weight to unsubstantiated claims. But one point has been largely overlooked in the extensive news coverage and commentary about the report: climate denial activists had actively campaigned for the investigation in the first place. That campaign has clearly backfired.
The review was announced in early 2010 as a response to heated public debates on the coverage of controversial issues such as climate change, genetically engineered foods, and the MMR vaccine. In particular, the BBC's coverage of the 2009 email hacking scandal known as "climategate" sent denialists into fits of apoplexy, charging that the BBC had not given the story the prominence they believed it deserved.
Unlike other mainstream British media corporations, whose political leanings if not overt biases are well understood, the BBC is expected to be impartial. This is because it is funded through public licensing fees, and is governed by a Trust expressly mandated to "represent the public who own and pay for the BBC."
When the review was first announced, denialist bloggers applauded the victory: "Climategate has moved things along faster than we had hoped: Today, we learn the BBC's governing body, BBC Trust, has launched a major review of its science coverage after complaints of bias, most notably in its treatment of climate change."
As the conservative Daily Mail put it, the BBC "...has been accused of acting like a cheerleader for the theory that climate change is a man-made phenomenon." The result of that review, however, was a major slap down of climate denialism, including explicit recognition of the fact that it was a concerted, organized effort to target the BBC:
The BBC has received many complaints about alleged weaknesses in its treatment of the subject. Many emerge from an organised response by determined climate‐change deniers rather than being objective disagreements with particular programmes.
The report runs to more than 100 pages, but the most scathing climate denier content can be found in pages 66-72. Take this quote for example:
Because so much of science involves uncertainty, it is open to attack from those who have never experienced that sensation. Purity of belief makes it easy for denialists to attract the attention of news organisations, but hard for them to balance their ideas against those of the majority. This can lead to undue publicity for views supported by no factual information at all.
In its early days, two decades ago, there was a genuine scientific debate about the reality of climate change (although that attracted rather little attention). Now, there is general agreement that warming is a fact even if there remain uncertainties about how fast, and how much, the temperature might rise.
Or this one:
For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves.
And it further discredits the factually-challenged claims of some of the campaign's front men:
The impression of active debate is promoted by prominent individuals such as Lord Monckton and Lord Lawson. The BBC still gives space to them to make statements that are not supported by the facts.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the report concludes the BBC has devoted too much attention to global warming deniers, not too little as denialists had claimed (and this is what most of the press coverage has focused on):
The BBC needs to continue to be careful when reporting on science to make a distinction between an opinion and a fact. When there is a consensus of opinion on scientific matters, providing an opposite view without consideration of "due weight" can lead to 'false balance', meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is. This does not mean that scientists cannot be questioned or challenged, but that their contributions must be properly scrutinised. Including an opposite view may well be appropriate, but the BBC must clearly communicate the degree of credibility that the view carries.
But why would the climate denialists, with all of their political and financial clout, have sought a review whose outcome had the potential to backfire so badly?
Maybe they failed to anticipate that a real scientist -- Emeritus Professor Steve Jones of University College London -- would be commissioned to conduct the review. Or maybe they thought some well placed preemptive pronouncements of bias would provide the necessary cover.
Charging eco-conspiracy is a favorite denialist tactic, as evidenced after each of the four independent reviews of the 2009 e-mail hacking incident (none of which found fault with the fundamentals of the science). In this case, however, it is much trickier to make that argument with a straight face given the report's opposite stance on genetically modified foods.
Whatever the reason, it was a badly calculated misstep.
Unfortunately, the denial campaign isn't solely dependent on the media to keep the public misinformed about the scientific consensus on climate change. The denialist Heartland Institute recently launched a fake climate change wiki, revealing a deeper facet of their strategy. In the words of one researcher who tried unsuccessfully to submit content:
The climatewiki is so dangerous because it presents itself as providing 'neutral' information about climate change, when in fact it is a highly selective and ideologically filtered presentation of climate science and politics. The tactics of organisations like the Heartland Institute are well known: funding and disseminating information that aims to undermine attempts to regulate carbon emissions. They have been exposed and discredited on many occasions. But this is more subtle -- it's an attempt to make a grab for the very building blocks of knowledge that the media and political debates develop from.
Perhaps this shift in strategy is the result of growing public concern about climate change in the wake of this year's dramatic weather extremes. Whatever the reason, it is just one more attempt to erode the sense of urgency about climate change and to forestall the one inescapable conclusion we are all making as we look at the events of the past year -- the time to act on climate change is now.