What's the point of BBC Editorial Guidelines?

Radio Four programme goes way beyond false balance in a critical period for climate coverage

By Richard Black

Information on this page correct as of:

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

NB This article first appeared on the guardian.com

Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail diarist, sporadically regales BBC Radio Four listeners with programmes that ask ‘What’s the point ...’ of various national institutions. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the MCC and even the pub have come under his “witty but thought-provoking” gaze.

Step One, Open: Step Two, Read. Image: Ryan Adams, Creative Commons licence
Step One, Open: Step Two, Read. Image: Ryan Adams, Creative Commons licence

This week’s offering purports to ask what is the point of the Met Office. But it actually poses a different question: What’s the point of the BBC editorial guidelines?

After more than a decade reporting on climate change as a BBC science and environment correspondent, I became rather familiar with the guidelines. They are basically common sense: people should be treated fairly, programmes should be factually accurate, children should be protected, while allowing room for journalism and creativity to flourish.

The makers of this week’s What’s the Point of… do not appear to have visited the relevant pages, which is odd given the surfeit of banana skins obviously strewn before them, notably an institution (the Met Office) that has been used for years as a political football and a presenter who describes solar panels as “hideous” and is far more a man of wit than watts per metre squared (and to be fair, some of the wit was pretty good).

Extraordinary, too, that Radio 4 bosses did not lend a closer ear before broadcast to a programme which, as it turned out, has not so much ignored the editorial guidelines as burned them to cinders in a joyous coal-fired conflagration.

In his introduction, Quentin Letts tells us that the Met Office takes a “not uncontroversial” stance on climate change. In reality its stance is so uncontroversial as to be shared by every major national science academy and well over 90% of climate scientists.

Two of the three MPs interviewed are long-time climate contrarians Graham Stringer and Peter Lilley.

Quentin Letts. Image: Steve Punter, Creative Commons licence
Quentin Letts. Image: Steve Punter, Creative Commons licence

Mr Stringer is allowed to claim without challenge that there is “no scientific evidence” linking the 2013/4 winter floods, to climate change, which is untrue; it’s not a simple link, but it does exist. He also accuses the Met Office of having forecast a dry winter, which the producers do not appear to have checked. Both MPs recently joined the Board of Trustees of Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, the leading light of Britain’s “brown movement”; either the producers were unaware of this or deemed it of no interest.

The one person Quentin Letts does challenge is the sole woman on the programme, Met Office head of news Helen Chivers. TheMet Office is guilty of “political alarmism”, he says, with spokespeople telling us to “leap for our arks”. He concludes the programme with an unsubstantiated jibe about the Met Office’s “political lobbying”.

This programme ends up in territory unrecognisable in the editorial guidelines. Material was not “well sourced and based on sound evidence”, as the guidelines prescribe. The responsibility to “check and cross check facts” appears to have been neglected, along with the commitment to “corroborate claims and allegations made by contributors wherever possible”.

Radio 4 may argue that these programmes are “personal views” – but even these programmes are required to “retain a respect for factual accuracy” when they cover controversial issues.

Climate change has always been a difficult subject for the BBC. The science is complex, with messy uncertainties, and the political stakes are high. As I saw at first hand during my time there, the corporation comes under sustained pressure from various quarters, particularly well-connected contrarians for whom undercutting scientific institutions such as the Met Office is a time-honoured tactic.

Nevertheless, the BBC generally does a excellent job, with news correspondents, current affairs presenters and science documentary makers who excel – many of whom would doubtless have helped the makers of What’s the Point, had they been asked.

The political rhetoric always escalates at critical times, such as now when the government is overhauling low-carbon energy policies and a major UN climate summit looms – and BBC bosses have to be aware of this context, both in terms of the increased pressures programme-makers will come under and the increased responsibility to get it right.

The editorial guidelines are there to help, especially in difficult subject areas. But, if producers are not going to read them and bosses not going to enforce them – what’s the point in having them?