The BBC’s environmental coverage has come under fire from a former science correspondent. Award-winning author and journalist David Whitehouse says the corporation risks public ridicule – or worse – with what he calls “an evangelical, inconsistent climate change reporting and its narrow, shallow and sparse reporting on other scientific issues.”
Whitehouse relates how he was ticked off for taking a cautious approach to apocalyptic predictions when a link between BSE in cattle (“Mad Cow Disease”) and vCJD in humans was accepted by government officials in 1996. Those predictions “…rested on a cascade of debateable assumptions being fed into a computer model that had been tweaked to hindcast previous data,” he writes.
“My approach was not favoured by the BBC at the time and I was severely criticised in 1998 and told I was wrong and not reporting the BSE/vCJD story correctly.”
The Beeb wasn’t alone. With bloodthirsty glee, the Observer newspaper at the time predicted millions infected, crematoria full of smoking human remains – and the government handing out suicide pills to the public. Whitehouse feels his caution is now vindicated. The number of cases traced to vCJD in the UK is now 163 – and the only suicides were farmers who had feared their livelihoods destroyed.
“Reporting the consensus about climate change…is not synonymous with good science reporting. The BBC is at an important point. It has been narrow minded about climate change for many years and they have become at the very least a cliché and at worst lampooned as being predictable and biased by a public that doesn’t believe them anymore.”
Whitehouse is a former astronomer (published academic papers listed here) who became a BBC science correspondent and Science Editor at BBC Online.
The threshold for introducing a climate change angle into an unrelated story can be pretty low – have a look at this example involving a fossilized giant snake. Meanwhile activists have discovered that getting the science in a “science” story changed can be relatively easy – it just needs a little bullying by email.
More than two years ago we criticized how the BBC’s TV science flagship Horizon had abandoned explaining science in preference to fantasy. Many of you agreed.
As Whitehouse explains, an epidemic or a natural catastrophe is a compelling and dramatic narrative, too good to be spoiled by contradictory facts. So perhaps all the producers want to do is make movies – disaster movies. And so reporting the catastrophe turns the reporter into a dramatic actor in the narrative: one who’s guaranteed to be top of the billing, as long as the story lives.
You can read the essay on the CCNet list website. It’s merely a pity that he had to leave before going public with such criticism.