Inverting Reality: Peter Sissons on the BBC and Climate Change

by Tim Holmes

Tim Holmes meticulously dissects Peter Sissons’ distortions of the reality of climate science and his fantastical accusations that the BBC is a biased instrument of the green lobby.

First published: 31 January, 2011 | Category: Environment, Media

Peter Sissons’ article in last Tuesday’s Daily Mail is a stark example of the special treatment climate change deniers and their fellow travellers – including those within the BBC – continue to expect. Sissons – having recently left his post as newsreader for the BBC and now publishing his memoirs – complains about a culture that demonises dissenters from a “religious” adherence to the beliefs of the “green lobby”. Sissons tells the Mail’s readers:

“From the beginning I was unhappy at how one-sided the BBC’s coverage of the issue was, and how much more complicated the climate system was than the over-simplified two-minute reports that were the stock-in-trade of the BBC’s environment correspondents. ...

“My interest in climate change grew out of my concern for the failings of BBC journalism in reporting it. In my early and formative days at ITN, I learned that we have an obligation to report both sides of a story. It is not journalism if you don’t. It is close to propaganda.”

It is a truism, of course, that any scientific issue will be “more complicated” than the coverage given to it. As such this is as close to meaningless as a criticism can get. The relevant question is whether the overview of the science given by the coverage gets it basically right or basically wrong.

Yet on no other scientific topic is it expected, and so routinely demanded, that such a fundamentally misleading “both sides” approach should be applied to matters of overwhelming consensus in the scientific community and literature. The BBC does not field deniers of the link between HIV and AIDS against respectable clinicians. It does not accord access to those denying the link between smoking and lung cancer. It does not allow access to members of the flat-earth society to raise doubts every time a satellite successfully orbits the earth. To follow Sisson’s argument to its logical conclusion, it is by failing to give time to such individuals that the BBC is promoting “propaganda”. Not everyone is likely to find that the most plausible conclusion.

Climate change is no ordinary scientific issue, however. It challenges the entrenched power of the wealthiest vested interests in the world. Bound by the pursuit of the bottom-line, such interests do not lie down willingly. They have been able to give bogus arguments a veneer of respectability through the creation and funding of business-friendly think-tanks. They have gained disproportionate shows of public sympathy by spawning and catalysing the growth of popular movements. And their interlocking interestswith commercial media conglomerates impose pressures and “red lines” reporters fear to cross. All of this takes its toll on public perceptions, and on the wider political culture. As a result, embittered reporters like Sissons continue to expect a level of representation for the climate change denial lobby they themselves would deem transparently absurd were it applied to any other scientific field.

Sissons’ mordantly self-pitying account is littered with claims that the BBC failed to give any space to climate change deniers in its broadcasts. He writes of the BBC Trust’s “pretence that climate change­dissenters had been, and still would be, heard on its airwaves”, when

“In reality, the ‘appropriate space’ given to minority views on climate change was practically zero.”

Really? When I asked a similar question in a study for the academic publication Climate Change and the Media, I found that for every article on climate that appears on the BBC website, around 1 in 10 features an Exxon-Mobil-funded climate denier or climate change-denying organisation. Another significant tranche of articles – incredibly irresponsibly – include links to Exxon-funded climate-denying organisations as resources for “further reading”. This study thus revealed a significant level of systematic distortion of coverage that would not be allowed with most scientific issues, to the benefit of a powerful industry-backed lobby. Moreover, this was a study that began by applying extremely conservative methods to an already restricted sample. How many other groups and individuals were, or have since, been granted airtime by the BBC? How many times have presenters been allowed to act as proxies for their arguments?

What is perhaps most tragic about Sissons’ plea for special treatment is the continual mis-statement of the facts it is built on. Sissons refers, for instance, to the issue of:

“global warming (or “climate change”, as it became known when temperatures appeared to level off or fall slightly after 1998).”

His implication is crystal clear: a standstill in rising temperatures forced advocates to change the public face of the issue (previously “global warming”) to something less incongruous (“climate change”) – with the aim of manipulating public opinion.

Sissons declares later on that “scepticism should be ... the default setting of journalists”. Why, then, has he not bothered to research the (embarrassingly obvious) facts? The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change date from the late eighties and early nineties. A Newsbank archive search of the Times and Sunday Times between 1985 and 1997 and of the News of the World and Sun papers between 1996 and 1997 (the only pre-1998 UK nationals available) turns up a total of 391 references to “climate change”. Sissons has simply been forced to re-write history to substantiate his favoured conspiracy theory.

He has done more than this, however: he has also re-written the science. The UK Hadley Centre data to which Sissons seems to be referring do not actually show that temperatures “appeared to level off” or “fall slightly” since 1998. In fact, they show only – as the Met Office themselves put it – a “relative slowdown in (the warming) trend”.

When AP reporters handed the Met Office’s recorded temperature data to four statisticians – only telling them subsequently what it represented – the results were stark:

“Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880.

Saying there’s a downward trend since 1998 is not scientifically legitimate, said David Peterson, a retired Duke University statistics professor and one of those analyzing the numbers.

“Identifying a downward trend is a case of ’people coming at the data with preconceived notions,’ said Peterson”.

Sissons later mentions “a few simple observations of fact” he dropped into an interview:

“such as there appeared to have been no warming for ten years, in contradiction of all the alarmist computer models.”

Oh yeah? If anything, in fact, the models appear to have suggested the opposite: no downward decadal trend appeared in reality, though it did crop up in models. Consulting the Met Office once again, we learn that:

“Recent Met Office research investigated how often decades with a stable or even negative warming trend appeared in computer-modelled climate change simulations.

“Jeff Knight, lead author on the research, says: “’We found one in every eight decades has near-zero or negative global temperature trends in simulations. Given that we have seen fairly consistent warming since the 1970s, the odds of one in eight suggest the observed slowdown was due to happen.’ ...

“Commenting on the new study, Vicky Pope, Head of Climate Change Advice at the Met Office, said: “’Decades like 1999–2008 occur quite frequently in our climate change simulations, but the underlying trend of increasing temperature remains.’”

But even this misrepresentation is founded on a more fundamental one: it cherry picks from the global climate data sets available, choosing one that features a “hole in the Arctic”. Since the earth warms faster at the poles, the top of our planet has sucked up a large amount of warming over the past two decades. If, as the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research’s Stefan Rhamstorf points out, one chooses a data set that accounts for the warming of the Arctic – like the one used by NASA – there isn’t even a slowing down. Global warming simply continues as before. Need we recall, in passing, this month’s news from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that 2010 and 2005 were the joint hottest years on record?

Meanwhile, a collision with catastrophe seems increasingly likely. As Director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre Kevin Anderson recently put it, with characteristic bluntness:

“There is currently nothing substantive to suggest we are heading for anything other than a 4°C rise in temperature, and possibly as early as the 2060s. Yet over a pint of ale or sharing a coffee it is hard to find any scientist seriously engaged in climate change who considers a 4°C rise within this century as anything other than catastrophic for both human society and ecosystems. Moreover, ask those same scientists if 4°C is likely to be as high as it could get prior to the temperature beginning to fall, and many will shake their heads pointing to a range of discontinuities (tipping points) that may see us witness temperatures increasing well beyond 4°C.”

Sissons’ proves to be a strange brand of “scepticism”, then. It is founded not only on inconsistent and absurdist principles for the treatment of scientific issues in the media, but blithely ignores or contradicts even the most bewilderingly obvious factual information. At one point in his account, Sissons recalls returning home to write a note to himself: “What has happened to the journalism? The BBC has completely lost it.” So it would seem, alas. But can there be any clearer demonstration of that fact than the nonsense this prominent BBC figure seems capable of producing?


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