Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The BBC and Climate Change

Last week, on April 3rd, Benny Peiser's CCNet mailing included a piece (the linked article is not the original version, as I make clear below) from the BBC's website, written by Richard Black, which begins:

Scientists have produced further compelling evidence showing that modern-day climate change is not caused by changes in the Sun's activity.
This is the latest piece of evidence which at the very least puts the cosmic ray theory, developed by Danish scientist Henrik Svensmark at the Danish National Space Center (DNSC), under very heavy pressure.
But there was no response from Dr Svensmark in the piece, and Benny commented:
EDITOR'S NOTE: It would appear that Sloan's paper is so 'compelling' that the BBC didn't even bother to ask Svensmark for a response to the latest claims and findings. I'm afraid this is another example of poor journalistic standards that brings back to mind recent accusations of "institutional bias" within the BBC:
I emailed Richard Black, as follows:
Dear Mr Black,

I just received Benny Peiser's CCNet mailing, in which he comments: "It would appear that Sloan's paper is so 'compelling' that the BBC didn't even bother to ask Svensmark for a response to the latest claims and findings."

Is that so? Or did you contact Svensmark - something that would not have been exceptional journalistic practice?

I think this is a matter of public interest, so would like to publish this mail and your reply.


Peter Risdon.
On April 7th (after the weekend), Black replied, but I can't tell you what he wrote, because he said it was not for publication. He did give a reason for this which, though strictly correct was perhaps a little legalistic. Of course, I can't tell you what that was either. However, by that time the BBC website had been updated to include a response from Svensmark. As you'll see if you click through, this response is sandwiched between quotations from scientists hostile to Svensmark's ideas, rather than appended to the foot of the piece, as might have been more normal. Other elements of the article were also strengthened. For example, the phrase "But Lancaster University scientists found..." had been changed to "But UK scientists found...". UK scientists. All of them?

So Black issued the article before he had a response from Svensmark, then added Svensmark's response, but did so in a way that emphasised dissent from his view and at the same time strengthened some of the original language. That, to my mind, is the sort of approach an advocate would take, rather than a dispassionate reporter.

I have also had some correspondence with Nigel Calder, who is handling enquiries about this as Svensmark's co-author. I have his permission to quote the following line from one of Nigel's mails to me:
... if the headline had been "No CO2 link to climate change" it's pretty hard to imagine the BBC putting it out without giving several of their greenhouse-warming contacts adequate time to comment. The asymmetry is remarkable.
That seems fair to the point of understatement.

Obviously, the precise timing of communications between Black and Svensmark might be interesting but, for one reason or another, I can't comment on this at the moment. That situation might change and, if it does, you'll be the first to know.

Another aspect of this is the simmering controversy over the BBC's approach to "stealth editing". The date and time shown at the top of the modified, updated article is April 3rd, 13:04 GMT. The following screen shot was taken today, April 9th at 12:30pm BST:

Bishop Hill recently wrote about the BBC and stealth editing, quoting BBC policy as described by a BBC editor on his blog:

When we make a major change or revision to a story we republish it with a new timestamp, indicating it’s a new version of the story. If there’s been a change to a key point in the story we will often point this out in the later version (saying something like "earlier reports had said...").

But lesser changes - including minor factual errors, corrected spellings and reworded paragraphs - go through with no new timestamp because in substance the story has not actually progressed any further. This has led to accusations we are "stealth editing" - a sinister-sounding term that implies we are actively trying to hide what we are doing. We’re not. It’s just that continually updating the timestamp risks making it meaningless, and pages of notes about when and where minor revisions are made do not make for a riveting read.
It's a pleasure to be able to say that Google's cached version of the page, retrieved on 3 Apr 2008 at 21:33:46 GMT, included Svensmark's response, which suggests Black DID update the timestamp.

UPDATE: Date corrected - thanks to Mike in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Yes... the Harrabin change was just a minor revision... no need for a time-stamp change....

Zero credibility BBC....

Harrabin must go!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

The paragraph directly above your screenshot reads:

The date and time shown at the top of the modified, updated article is JULY 3rd, 13:04 GMT. The following screen shot was taken today, April 9th at 12:30pm BST:

Shouldn't that July be April?

thruppennybit said...

I think Messrs Harabin and Black have given up all pretence of balance. I wrote to Richard Black last month when he reported on the climate change declarations of American Southern Baptists (
This was a week after the New York Climate Change Conference and the Manhattan Declaration, which the two "reporters" have completely ignored. The BBC is quite happy proselytising for the Church of Global Warming (Souther Baptist Branch) whilst ignoring the reasoned arguments of respected scientists plus the President of an EU State

thruppennybit said...

I should have said that, to be fair to Richard, he did reply promptly to my email, and pointed me in the direction of this:
Excerpt: "Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently.

We do not need consistently to ‘balance’ the reports of the IPCC."