While the BBC struggles to deal with its recent bout of self-proclaimed ‘shoddy journalism’, there’s another ethical scandal simmering away. The simple question of ‘who decides how the BBC covers climate change’ has a rather complicated answer. In 2006, the BBC Trust held a seminar entitled ‘Climate Change - the Challenge to Broadcasting’. As m’colleague James Delingpole has written at Telegraph Blogs, the seminar appeared to be far from a healthy debate. One of those in attendance, conservative commentator Richard D North, has gone public with his take on the event:

‘I found the seminar frankly shocking, The BBC crew (senior executives from every branch of the Corporation) were matched by a equal number of specialists, almost all (and maybe all) of whom could be said to have come from the ‘we must support Kyoto’ school of climate change activists…
I was frankly appalled by the level of ignorance of the issue which the BBC people showed.,I mean that I heard nothing which made me think any of them read any broadsheet newspaper coverage of the topic (except maybe the Guardian and that lazily).

‘Though they purported to be aware that this was an immensely important topic, it seemed to me that none of them had shown even a modicum of professional curiosity on the subject … I spent the day discussing the subject and I don’t recall anyone showing any sign of having read anything serious at all.
I argued at the seminar that I thought most broadcasting coverage on climate change was awful. But I also said there was no need for them to become self-conscious about it, This was because, although the issues were scientifically, politically and economically difficult, the BBC’s reporting of the thing would improve as soon as their audience was asked to vote or pay for climate change policy.’

Curious environmental blogger Tony Newbery filed a Freedom of Information request to the Beeb to find out if these accusations were true by asking who were the 28 participants at this seminar. The BBC refused to release the information, citing the seminar was a journalistic endeavour and afforded the protection of sources by law. This is a get-out clause the organisation has used in the past on questioning of their commercial arm BBC Worldwide.

Newbery disagreed and took on the corporation in an information tribunal. Sadly, as the Register reported a few days ago, Newbery has lost his legal battle. Although the blogger is considering an appeal against the settlement, it looks unlikely we will ever find out the names of these individuals who had a mysterious hand in how the BBC should cover climate matters.  The organisation went to some extreme efforts to protect the identity of the attendees. From the court session, the Register reports that the BBC was represented at the tribunal by six lawyers, including a cross-examination of Helen Boaden, Auntie’s Head of News who is also tied up in the Jimmy Simmy/Newsnight saga.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. At a time when one of Britain’s great institutions is under huge pressure to appear transparent and open to public scrutiny, trying to cover up their decision making is the wrong approach. Whether you agree with the BBC’s coverage or not, it is a tax-funded organisation with strict orders to be balanced. If it has decided against balance, on one of the biggest questions, the public have a right to know why. If the BBC is to acquire a new broom, this is one area of the corporation that deserves a good sweep.

Tags: BBC, Climate change, Freedom of Information, Helen Boaden