The curious case of the BBC and climate change

Rumours that the British Broadcasting Corporation plans to cut its coverage of climate-change are a reminder that we need to find new and better ways to communicate about this issue.

In 2007, something curious happened at the BBC’s White City studios in London. The cream of the corporation — a couple of hundred top producers, editors, reporters and presenters — had gathered in a large recording studio there.

I glanced around and saw many famous faces. David Attenborough was perched up in one of the back rows. He looked a little bemused as down below his colleagues took their seats in anticipation. There was a sense of nervous excitement. Something was about to happen.

A few minutes earlier I had seen a large car pull up outside. A tall, broad man in a sharp dark suit and black leather cowboy boots stepped out of it. It was Al Gore, and he had come to give a private performance of his landmark lecture on climate change.

The BBC had arranged this event to bring its senior staff up to speed with this subject and Gore was slick and engaging. There was no death by Powerpoint here — and I’m sure that most of the audience had their eyes opened by his presentation.

After Gore left, the audience stayed to watch as Andrew Marr chaired a debate whose panel included my IIED colleague Saleemul Huq and the Danish economist Bjørn Lomborg.

My sense then was that the BBC was doing the right thing (albeit imperfectly). It had made an important decision to take climate change seriously, and it had chosen an interesting way to inform its staff of the issues.

From my front row seat, I watched as the corporation’s director general Mark Thompson made what seemed to be a big speech. He said the BBC would be a world leader in efforts to address climate change and that this was the “UK’s biggest peacetime emergency in history”.

So I was surprised to learn yesterday that former BBC journalist Mark Brayne had made the following comment on the Climate Progress blog.

I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

The notion that there is “nothing new to say” about climate change is clearly false. This year has seen many new temperature records and extreme events that are consistent with what scientists say we should expect more of as the planet heats up.

The evidence that climate change will have profound impacts on almost every aspect of society is staring us in the face, as is the evidence that we need concerted global action to address the threats it poses.

How then could the BBC possibly think that climate change has been “done”?  I emailed some BBC journalists who cover climate change to ask what is going on — but not one of them had heard of the reported policy shift.

One said: “I have absolutely no idea. These things happen way above my pay grade. Nothing has communicated down.”

Another replied to say that: “No idea – and it wouldn’t be that formal a decision but in terms of looking at Big Stories in which we will invest special funds I can see a rationale for it. Climate change has a big slice of that already. The Big Story cash only goes to a few stories a year and has to be shared round. It’s limited, sadly.”

Perhaps it is that this way of looking at climate change — as a discrete story — that is at the heart of the problem. Climate change is an ongoing process, and that makes it hard for journalists to go to their editors with something new to report — a phenomenon that Andy Revkin at the New York Times called the tyranny of the news peg.

Think about it — political action is slow,  stunts from environmental organisations are predictable, and most new scientific reports just add another piece of evidence to a growing body of work. A flood or a hurricane can be a big story but it will always be impossible to say for sure that climate change is to blame.

People need to know about climate change, how it will affect their lives and what they can do about it. But if the public and policymakers and the private sector must wait for the media to lurch from one news peg to another then there is a risk that we will just receive a stream of contradictory messages.

The challenge for media outlets is to go beyond reporting climate-change news — and to focus instead on getting accurate information about climate change into the bodies of many stories, rather than into the headlines of a just a few.

As I argued at the UNESCO International Conference on Broadcast Media and Climate Change in September 2009, climate change itself is no longer the story — it is the context.

Until media outlets can recognise this and integrate peripheral coverage of climate change throughout their reporting of all other sectors, they will be stuck with the task of chasing big stories one day and doing nothing the next.

That’s no way to report on what the BBC boss called “the biggest peacetime emergency in history”.

6 thoughts on “The curious case of the BBC and climate change

  1. Great insight Mike! We’re seeing the same thing happening in the Philippine media reportage of climate change. Would be glad to help you change this. Just email me what needs to be done.

    best regards,

    Mike Baños

  2. That is why we have to break new ground and every new mag or web portal which accepts our stories is a win for Climate Change reporting.

    I just got a column in a mag called – Furs, Fins and Feathers and they agreed to a focus on climate change provided it was ‘light’. We have to look at new ways of writing Climate Change. No one really wants to read about the politics cause they feel its just a game.

    Personal ‘what can I do’ stories seem to rule the day and get accepted more easily rather than the finger pointing.


  3. Seems to me that by keeping climate change the issue rather than the context, the so-called ‘climate change skeptics’ have succeeded in pushing CC from the media agenda. Perhaps it’s time to stop arguing with and start ignoring people who resist the evidence, and report on issues that people consider ‘news’ within the overall context of the changing environment in which those stories occur.

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