In 2006 the BBC hosted a climate-change seminar to decide on its reporting of alleged climate-change. The BBC has spent tens of thousands of pounds trying to keep secret who attended this seminar. The publicly funded broadcaster fought off requests for the list of people who attended under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.
This surreal story is only partly about climate change: the disclosure raises questions about the evidence submitted to the information tribunal by the BBC and Helen Boaden – it’s Director of News who stepped down in 2012.
The case also highlights once again the BBC’s corporate strategy of using an FOI derogation, or legal “opt-out” clause, to withhold a wide range of material from citizens who wish to know whether the BBC is fulfilling its statutory obligations for impartiality under its Royal Charter.
And it raises further questions about the effectiveness of the BBC Trust. The trust, which replaced the Board of Governors, was created with a mission: an “unprecedented obligation to openness and transparency”.
A ‘brainstorm’ that became historic
The seminar whose attendees the Beeb sought to keep secret was founded by three organisation. In 2004, the International Broadcasting Trust – a lobby group funded by a number of charities, including many involved in campaigning on climate change – devised the first in a series of seminars on development issues, where the lobbyists could address broadcasters.
One event on 26 January 2006 was a “brainstorm”, in the IBT’s own words, “focusing on climate change and its impact on development”. The BBC sent 30 senior staff, and 30 outsiders were invited. The event was also organised by CMEP, its second parent – a now dormant or defunct outfit operated by BBC reporter Roger Harrabin and climate activist Dr Joe Smith, and at one time funded by the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and various pressure groups.
Harrabin later explained that the BBC’s head of news in the 1990s, Tony Hall, had invited him “to devise meetings with politicians, business people, think tanks, academics from many universities and specialists (science, technology, economic and social sciences, and history), and policy experts and field workers from NGOs – particularly from the developing world”.
The third parent of the seminar was the BBC.
The following year ( 2007) a BBC Trust report on impartiality cited the 2006 seminar and said it had settled the argument once and for all (as far as the BBC was concerned) on climate change.
Filmmaker John Bridcut wrote:
The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts [our emphasis] and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus [on anthropogenic climate change].
The BBC is under a statutory obligation to remain impartial, so this gave the “brainstorm” a historic significance.
An independent blogger, Tony Newbery, was struck by the difference between contemporary evidence that the seminar was educational and composed largely of activists (as confirmed by Harrabin) and the BBC Trust’s insistence that it was a sober scientific presentation that could justify a historic policy change.
Fresh light was shed on Harrabin’s CMEP in 2010, in the second batch of Climategate emails. An email from Mike Hulme, the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climatic Change Research at UEA,complained about a BBC Radio 4 item broadcast in February 2002. The broadcast featured global-warming sceptic Professor Philip Stott and Sir John Houghton, who was a Met Office chief and the editor of the first three IPCC reports on climate change. Houghton came off worst, and an infuriated Hulme wrote:
Did anyone hear Stott vs Houghton on Today, Radio 4 this morning? Woeful stuff really. This is one reason why Tyndall is sponsoring the Cambridge Media/Environment Programme to starve this type of reporting at source.
Newbery filed his FOI request for the seminar’s attendees to the BBC in 2007 and was denied the information, leading to a second round of information tribunal hearings in November 2012. The cross-examination of the BBC’s Helen Boaden in a court room was reported here.
The BBC is regarded as a public authority by the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it can withhold information held “for the purposes of journalism”.
In an earlier and separate FOI case against the BBC, Supreme Court Judge Neuberger argued the opt-out should be interpreted narrowly – otherwise the BBC could withhold information about “cleaning the board room floor” using the journalism get-out clause – an obvious absurdity.
In the Newbery case, the BBC maintained that archival material on the seminar could not be found, but also it should not be found: as a back-up argument it argued that the seminar was held under the Chatham House Rule – an agreement of etiquette, rather than a law, to prevent quotes being attributed to particular speakers at a meeting – information that Newbery had never asked for.
In November 2012 the tribunal ruled against Newbery and for the BBC.
Case closed? Think again
However science writer Maurizio Morabito has unearthed the list of attendees.
It confirms the accuracy of Harrabin’s description of the composition of the invitees, with most coming from industry, think tanks and NGOs. And as suspected, climate campaigners Greenpeace are present, while actual scientific experts are thin on the ground: not one attendee deals with attribution science, the physics of global warming. These are scarcely “some of the best scientific experts”, whose input could justify a historic abandonment of the BBC’s famous impartiality.
Intriguingly, Tony Newbery had been supplied with a later version of this document, he tells us – but with the attendee list stripped out.
The dramatic appearance of the list raises many questions. Did the BBC know the information was publicly available? If so, why were corporation lawyers spending thousands of pounds to keep a public document “secret”? (FOI requests for public information typically state, quite simply, “this information is public”.)
Questions abound online about the ability of the BBC Trust to maintain its duty to transparency. The BBC’s legal strategy entails the indiscriminate application of its FOI derogation “for the purposes of journalism” – this effectively rewrites the 2000 Act, and redefines the BBC as a private body. The trust is surely aware of this; it has a small mountain of correspondence on the subject. But it has yet to enquire, let alone pronounce on whether this is healthy – or legal.
All the names on the revealed seminar list
Here’s the list – according to the FOI Act reply.
January 26th 2006, BBC Television Centre, London
Robert May, Oxford University and Imperial College London
Mike Hulme, Director, Tyndall Centre, UEA
Blake Lee-Harwood, Head of Campaigns, Greenpeace
Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen
Michael Bravo, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge
Andrew Dlugolecki, Insurance industry consultant
Trevor Evans, US Embassy
Colin Challen MP, Chair, All Party Group on Climate Change
Anuradha Vittachi, Director, Oneworld.net
Andrew Simms, Policy Director, New Economics Foundation
Claire Foster, Church of England
Saleemul Huq, IIED
Poshendra Satyal Pravat, Open University
Li Moxuan, Climate campaigner, Greenpeace China
Tadesse Dadi, Tearfund Ethiopia
Iain Wright, CO2 Project Manager, BP International
Ashok Sinha, Stop Climate Chaos
Andy Atkins, Advocacy Director, Tearfund
Matthew Farrow, CBI
Rafael Hidalgo, TV/multimedia producer
Cheryl Campbell, Executive Director, Television for the Environment
Kevin McCullough, Director, Npower Renewables
Richard D North, Institute of Economic Affairs
Steve Widdicombe, Plymouth Marine Labs
Joe Smith, The Open University
Mark Galloway, Director, IBT
Anita Neville, E3G
Eleni Andreadis, Harvard University
Tim Jackson, Surrey University
John Ashton, Director E3G
Jana Bennett, Director of Television
Sacha Baveystock, Executive Producer, Science
Helen Boaden, Director of News
Andrew Lane, Manager, Weather, TV News
Dominic Vallely, Executive Editor, Entertainment
Emma Swain, Commissioning Editor, Specialist Factual
Fergal Keane, (Chair), Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Fran Unsworth, Head of Newsgathering
George Entwistle, Head of TV Current Affairs
Glenwyn Benson, Controller, Factual TV
John Lynch, Creative Director, Specialist Factual
Jon Plowman, Head of Comedy
Jon Williams, TV Editor Newsgathering
Karen O’Connor, Editor, This World, Current Affairs
Catriona McKenzie, Tightrope Pictures
Liz Molyneux, Editorial Executive, Factual Commissioning
Matt Morris, Head of News, Radio Five Live
Neil Nightingale, Head of Natural History Unit
Peter Horrocks, Head of Television News
Peter Rippon, Duty Editor, World at One/PM/The World this Weekend
Phil Harding, Director, English Networks & Nations
Steve Mitchell, Head Of Radio News
Sue Inglish, Head Of Political Programmes
Fran Unsworth,Head of Newsgathering
Pete Clifton, Head of News Interactive
Liz Cleaver, Controller Learning
Keith Scholey, Head of Specialist Factual
Sarah Brandist, Head of Development, Drama Commissioning
Michael Hastings, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility
Lorna Walsh, BBC TV
Roger Harrabin, Today Programme