What’s the point of the Met Office? Easy to miss when you ignore the facts

Fishing for the truth? Tim Ockenden/PA

The BBC is under attack again, but not from its usual right-wing opponents. This time the charge comes from those concerned about the amount of unchallenged air time the BBC gives to climate change sceptics.

The current controversy centres around an episode of the Radio 4 programme What’s the point of …, presented by Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts, in which the work of the UK’s national weather service the Met Office is subjected to unsubstantiated criticism.

Leading the attack is one of the BBC’s former environment correspondents, Richard Black. He has blasted the editors of the programme for allowing Letts to play fast and loose with the BBC editorial guidelines. Black contends that the material in the programme, contrary to the guidelines, was not “well sourced and based on sound evidence”.

The programme is worth a close listen as it raises important questions about the presentation on air of minority views on climate change, the ubiquitous presence of non-specialist opinion in the British media, and its possible effect on audiences. The programme’s sub-title is “expensive liability or essential?”, but much of it is an attack on the Met Office over its mainstream position on climate change.

Challenging the spread of misinformation

One of the first witnesses Letts introduces to attack the Met Office is Piers Corbyn, a well-known sceptic of mainstream climate science. His scientific credentials to speak on the issue are never established. A little later comes Graham Stringer, a Labour MP, who casts doubt on the link between climate change and the 2013/2014 UK flooding:

…the chief scientific officer [at the Met Office] said that this was undoubtedly due to climate change, but most of the scientists even in the Met Office looked askance at that, because there’s no scientific evidence whatsoever that rain was related to climate change.

However, it turns out there is evidence to link the two, according to Dr Friederike Otto from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University. “I would say that Stringer is wrong”, she tells me. “We do have scientific evidence that the likelihood of these kinds of floods occurring has increased.” She and her colleagues have studied the UK floods as part of their wider research on individual extreme weather events becoming more (or less) likely as a result of climate change.

Laughing along with climate scepticism

Stringer is followed by Conservative MP and self-described “luke-warmist” Peter Lilley. He is allowed to put the case for the so-called “climate pause” since 1998 without any challenge. More significantly, there is no mention that both Stringer and Lilley sit on the board of trustees of the sceptic campaigning organisation, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Omitting the interests of interviewees in this way does not give the listener enough context to understand their views. You can argue that in the name of pluralism it’s desirable to have minority views on air, but they must be clearly labelled and fairly challenged. In this instance, Letts laughs along with Stringer and Lilley; only the Met Office representative is confronted.

No respect for facts

As the host of a “personal view” programme, Quentin Letts may enjoy more editorial latitude than most. But the BBC editorial guidelines are clear, stating that authored pieces, “particularly when dealing with controversial subjects, should be clearly signposted to audiences in advance”. I may have missed it, but I did not hear Letts’ programme presented as such. Such pieces should also “retain a respect for factual accuracy”, and “fairly represent opposing viewpoints when appropriate”. Letts could have kept the wit in his text and still have been true to the guidelines.

The wider picture in the UK media’s coverage of climate change is that in recent years it has often been non-specialist opinion that gets disproportionate time or space. A recent study of the presence of sceptical voices in the UK print media concluded that such voices were more likely to be included in pieces written by in-house non-specialist columnists than by environment editors or correspondents. It would be worrying if the BBC was going down a similar path of giving exaggerated space to non-specialists.

The consequences of biased reporting

Despite the recent revolution in the way people, and particularly younger age groups, consume news, the BBC is still a very well used and trusted source. Research shows that the promotion or presence of uncertainty in media reporting of climate science can act as an obstacle to public understanding and lead to disengagement, so it is critically important that the BBC provides proper context when covering such an important issue.

In one of his final comments, Letts describes the Met Office as following a “politically risky intervention on climate change said by some fellow scientists to be plain wrong”. Which scientists say this, and why weren’t they invited onto the programme? Much of the BBC’s coverage that relies on the expertise of its correspondents and editorial guidelines is first class, but problems arise when handing over airtime to others to make assertions like this without due scrutiny.

Maybe it’s time for the BBC editors to dust off their handbooks.