The author of a 2011 BBC Trust report on impartiality and science coverage has accused BBC News of ‘sticking two fingers up at BBC management’ and failing to act on his findings.
Professor Steve Jones’ 2011 review of BBC science coverage impartiality and accuracy found that the corporation gave undue weight to minority opinions on subjects like climate change.
Speaking at a debate organised by City University journalism department in London last night he said the corporation was still making the same mistakes.
He particularly singled out the appearance of Lord Lawson (pictured above) last month on the Today programme opposite scientist Sir Brian Hoskins to talk about climate change.
Jones said that BBC science coverage is on the whole "excellent", and he applauded the fact that since his report the corporation has appointed a dedicated science editor – David Shukman.
But setting out the problem with science coverage on programmes like Today, he said: “A top scientist will discover that two and two equals four.
“A tongue-tied mathematician will come on and give a clumsy account of how two and two is four for one and a half minutes, then someone from the ether, a spokesperson for the duo decimal liberation front, will make a very clear case for two and two equals five. At the end of it Jim Naughtie will say two and two is probably closer to four than five but the debate goes on – and that drives you mad…That happens most of all with climate change.
“It seems to me that the BBC has not learned the lessons. After the International Panel on Climate Change report on the recent rain storms the Today programme had a debate between Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for the Study of Climate Change, and Lord Lawson of Blaby…who is a denier of climate change.
“The Panorama programme that day had Kevin Anderson, professor of energy policy at the university of Manchester, and Andrew Montfort who blogs about climate change and is an accountant…
“They wouldn't do that to politicians, they would be more serious about it. It seems to me that BBC News is sticking two fingers at BBC management and the BBC Trust and saying we are going to do this anyway and I think it's a real problem.”
Professor Steve Jones pictured below (source: BBC)
Responding, BBC head of news programmes Ceri Thomas said: “An awful lot of things have improved. The understanding of science in the media has improved. We wouldn't be having this discussion 15 years ago.
“We still need to improve our scientific literacy. We should employ more science graduates…
“Science says whatever we are talking about is too important not to involve non scientists…Science should be prepared to take its chances out there in the rough and tumble of the media. Most of the time that would be on terms that people like Steve would find agreeable.
“Sometimes those debates should push boundaries and sometimes scientists should engage with people who are not scientists and actually who are opposed to the science as well.
“When that happens we need to be clear and we need be accurate about describing what we are dealing with and what they represent."
Director of policy at the LSE Grantham Institute, Bob Ward, said: “The BBC has a problem. It is an organisation dominated by people who don't have a science background and think that everything is a matter of opinion. The laws of physics are not a matter of opinion…
“The case of Nigel Lawson being on against Brian Hoskins was a prime example. He spent most of the interview disagreeing about the science, he was offering a counter opinion about the science of climate change. The interviewer did nothing to intervene to try to establish who was telling the truth.
“With the newspapers, many of them treat climate change as a political issue and feel they can sacrifice accuracy altogether. That is why half are pursuing to some extent a climate sceptic line.
"The mere idea of always having to balance in itself misleads the public. If you look at papers published on climate change you will find that less than one per cent disagree with the idea that humans are the main driver of climate change.
“You find the prominence of sceptic voices in the media far outweighs this. So you find that in opinion surveys more than 40 per cent of the British public think that scientists are divided on climate change.”
Are there really two sides to every science story debate panel (left to right): Mike Hanlon, Ceri Thomas, Fiona Fox (chair, from the Science Media Centre), Steve Jones, Bob Ward:
Former Daily Mail science editor Mike Hanlon agreed that man-made climate change is a fact but added: “Our political response to climate change is open to debate. There are many possible responses to climate change.
“A lot of people do not understand atmospheric physics, a lot of of people have been told that the response to climate change is an increase in taxation and people are very sceptical about that.
“When the Mail runs a piece that is sceptical about climate change it will be put on a page shrieking out that it is opinion.”
Describing the likes of Lord Lawson as being part of a “despicable gang”, professor Jones said “they present themselves as talking about policy, but whenever they give interviews they talk about facts and they get the facts wrong.
“In the infamous case of the Today programme he said there has been globally no increase in extreme weather events, that's entirely wrong. The media falls for it every time.”
Thomas said: “The intention was that Lord Lawson would be talking about policy and Hoskins about the science. It is one of those things that goes wrong in a live debate sometimes. It goes off the rails.”
To which Bob Ward replied: “I don't know why you were surprised, it happens every time he goes on the BBC.”
Thomas agreed with Ward's suggestion that, as with big political interviews, specialist science correspondents should provide analysis and context after science interviews.
Ward also insisted that labeling something ‘comment’ does not allow editors to publish untruths.
He said: “It is no coincidence that the Daily Express and the Mail on Sunday, which are the worst newspapers in Britain when it comes to covering climate change, don't have science correspondents. Science is essentially a big black area for them, they don't really care. They are guilty of some of the most ridiculous coverage because of it.
“Opinion is still covered by the PCC Editors' Code of Practice, you can't get away with saying 'the Earth is flat – I have lots of opinions none of which are based on evidence'. Newspapers are betraying the public interest by using that feeble defence.”
Dr Evan Harris, speaking from the audience, defended the role of good journalism noting that it took a non-science specialist journalist (Brian Deer) working for a “Murdoch newspaper” (The Sunday Times) to expose MMR “fraudster” Andrew Wakfield.
And professor Jones noted that the BBC had acted on his report by airing programmes about the biggest area of science in the UK, cellular and molecular biology, for the first time since it had been published.
He said the most important thing science journalists could do was to learn about the way scientists communicate with each other.
He said: “I remember a meeting on the Today programme with the science team when David Shukman said 'what you don't understand is that every time a scientist makes a discovery he or she puts out a press release'. That's not true.
“I've written 500 science columns for the Daily Telegraph, I never use a press release. I go to the Web of Science which has all the scientific journals.”
He said that when he compiled his 2011 report he could only find one science journalist at the BBC who had even heard of the Web of Science.
He said: “That’s like being a political journalist who has never heard of Hansard.”