Scientists urged to take a stand against BBC’s false balance on climate change

| 2nd August 2018


Image credit: Elliot Brown/Flickr CC BY 2.0
The BBC's have Philip Foster, a climate science denier and UKIP supporter, on to debate a scientist about whether or not humans have caused climate change immediately drew ire, writes MAT HOPE

And when they told me they were going to say ‘we’ve got this heatwave, does that mean climate change is real?’, I thought ‘no, this is not acceptable'.

It was all a bit retro. A BBC radio presenter, looking out the window and seeing it’s still hot, and leaning into his microphone to ask “does this mean climate change is real?” 

Do not adjust your wireless. This really is the opening question on a segment about climate change. In 2018.

BBC Radio Cambridgeshire’s decision to have climate science denier and UKIP supporter Philip Foster on to debate a (non-climate) scientist about whether or not humans have caused climate change immediately drew much ire.

Start thinking

Foster completed an undergraduate degree in natural science at the University of Cambridge before teaching secondary and sixth-form schoolchildren in Nigeria. In 2012, Foster organised anti-climate action events to coincide with the landmark Paris climate conference, at which high-profile climate science deniers including the eccentric lord Christopher Monckton appeared.

The response to the BBC broadcast was largely down to Rupert Read, a philosopher at UEA and former Green party candidate for Cambridge, who is now chair of the Green House thinktank, tweeting that he’d been asked to go on but “said NO” after he was told the show’s plan.

“When it was described to me what it was going to be - just a straight back and forth debate between myself and a climate science denier - I thought this was time to say ‘no’”, he told DeSmog UK.

“And when they told me they were going to say ‘we’ve got this heatwave, does that mean climate change is real?’, I thought ‘no, this is not acceptable’”.

“If people start doing what I’m doing and start saying no to them if they’re going to have a climate science denier on to debate, then the BBC will have to start thinking about whether they can do this.”

Scientific credentials

It’s not the first time that the BBC has been in trouble for offering ‘false balance’ - when two sides of a debate are unreasonably given equal weight – for example, when the reality of human-caused climate change is presented as a controversy despite the overwhelming weight of evidence.

In October 2017, the BBC’s Today programme was forced to apologise and admit statements from climate science denier Nigel Lawson “should have been challenged”.

In 2011, Professor Phil Jones wrote a review for the BBC that criticised the network for allowing “an adversarial attitude to science which allows minority, or even contrarian, views an undue place”. It concluded that, “there should be no attempt to give equal weight to opinion and to evidence”.

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, a climate scientist based in Cambridge at the British Antarctic Survey, who pre-recorded a segment for the programme, told DeSmog UK that she felt the programme had “tried but failed” to explore how the recent heatwave related to climate change.

“The main problem is that it wasn’t properly explained what the scientific credentials of the participants were, and when incorrect statements were made they weren’t challenged, which is a dereliction of the BBC’s journalistic duty”.


“I think it’s fine for them to have debates, and invite on whoever they want, but it has to be properly explained who is on. And when basic facts are misrepresented, that they are properly challenged”.

Read’s sentiment has certainly struck a chord. “The reaction I’ve had to this on social media has been far more positive than to any other cause I’ve ever championed”.

“I hope other people will take up this cause and say we’re just not going to play along with your games anymore, you’ve got to make more of a step-change towards the kind of debate we really need to be having.”

A BBC spokesperson told DeSmog UK: “The Chris Mann show is a topical debate show. The majority of time was filled by expert scientist contributors. There was a much shorter contribution from Phillip Foster whose views were rigorously challenged in line with our guidelines.”

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