BBC in deep water over climate change censorship row
As Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor, accuses the BBC of banning him from debating climate change at the Corporation, Raymond Snoddy warns that the reputation of BBC News would be seriously compromised if journalists were found to be censoring.
The BBC is getting itself in a huge hole over its coverage of climate change - and it does not seem to see the need to stop digging.
The controversy is best highlighted by the BBC's decision to uphold a complaint against the Today programme for the appearance of climate change sceptic Lord Lawson to discuss the impact of climate on the recent floods.
A complaint against the World at One has also been partially upheld after an interview with a sceptical scientist Professor Bob Carter, head of the department of earth science at James Cook University.
Even though the former Chancellor was more than balanced by his co-guest the scientist Sir Brian Hoskins, chairman of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, the BBC apologised to complainant Chit Chung, a Green Party activist who has a draught proofing and insulation business in Dorset.
In part it was a technical judgement - that listeners had not properly been informed that Lord Lawson held a minority view, though perhaps such a finding is unnecessarily insulting to the intelligence of the average Today programme listener.
In his letter, head of the BBC Complaints Unit, Fraser Steel, made two important statements which give an insight into the BBC approach to one of the most important long-term stories the Corporation has to cover.
Steel said that "minority opinions and sceptical views should not be treated on an equal footing with the scientific consensus."
So far so good - probably.
He added, much more contentiously, that Lord Lawson's views on climate change: "are not supported by the evidence from computer modelling and scientific research and I don't believe this was made sufficiently clear to the audience."
Up to a point. As the science writer and Conservative peer Matt Ridley made clear this week in The Times, linking the words "evidence" and "computer-modelling" in the same sentence is an oxymoron. Computer models try to predict the future and can only be tested as potential evidence when they are proved to be correct.
As many newspapers - but probably not the BBC - have pointed out, such computer models have not exactly been covering themselves with glory in recent years.
By 2014 computer models were predicting there would have been a significant rise in temperature of 0.3 degrees compared with 2004. Despite the fact that the world has been pumping ever-increasing amounts of carbon into the atmosphere during the period there has, in fact, been a slight cooling of global surface temperatures over the past decade.
The computer models also predicted a serious shrinking of Antarctic ice when in fact it has expanded to near record levels.
In a complex subject difficult for non-scientific laymen to penetrate, there could well be perfectly decent explanations within the man-made global warming consensus for such phenomena. The sea may be capable of absorbing more heat, for example.
At the very least there are questions to be answered about computer models and no justification for those who raise them to be effectively censored by the BBC.
In another alarming development this week it was alleged that research questioning the accuracy of such computer models had been censored by climate scientists.
Academic reviewers - the much lauded peer-review process - attacked a paper that suggested that the human influence in climate was being exaggerated and the influence of natural variability downplayed.
One said publication would lead to unnecessary confusion in the climate science community. Another that "the entire discussion has to disappear."
In such a maelstrom somehow non-scientists and policy makers have to have a voice because of the huge economic decisions that rest on the outcome.
If the natural variability of extreme events is more at the heart of the matter than CO2 creation, then more money has to be deployed to strengthening sea defences, for instance, than covering hills in windmills.
There is still an important debate to be had but not it seems on the BBC.
The position of the BBC Trust, as shown again this week, is at face value eminently reasonable. It reiterated the views of Professor Steve Jones, the geneticist, in his report into BBC science coverage that there should not be "an over-rigid" attachment to balance which gives "undue attention to marginal opinion."
And so was born the BBC concept of "due impartiality," as imposed to impartiality. This means that when reporting on contentious scientific issues the BBC should be guided by where "the scientific consensus might be found on any given topic, if in fact it can be determined."
Making such a determination is where the problem lies; a problem exacerbated by the fact that the entire history of science is littered by examples of the consensus being proved wrong by stubborn individuals.
Neither the BBC Trust, nor even the issuing of apologies to Dorset draught proofers, represents the most direct threat going forward.
The danger comes instead from self-censorship. Which editor now is going to invite Lord Lawson or even Prof Bob Carter from New Zealand on to their programmes in the certain knowledge that they are likely to be criticised and perhaps have time-consuming complaints upheld against them?
As Lord Lawson argues, surely correctly, he has, in effect, been banned by the BBC. It is an easy thing to judge. Let's see when he next appears in the climate change context.
There will, of course, be no edict. He will just never ever be invited to take part in any BBC programme on an issue that he has put considerable effort into learning about, and one where he has published a best-selling book.
On the BBC internal contacts list producers add advisory notes against names and you can be sure the former Chancellor will get one.
One of the key components of the case for a new licence fee is the integrity of BBC News. The case for man-made global warming may indeed be the right one, but the reputation of BBC News would be seriously compromised if journalists were found to be censoring, if not inconvenient truths then troubling anomalies.
It would also be better if the BBC stopped activities such as spending hundreds of thousands of licence payers' money trying to protect the identity of the participants in a 2006 climate change seminar - when all the names turned up on the Internet anyway.
To get all the latest MediaTel Newsline updates follow us on Twitter.