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Is the BBC objective when reporting science?

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By James Dacey

The impartiality of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s science coverage is set to be investigated by the BBC Trust. I caught up with a member of that trust who tells me the review comes as scientific issues are becoming increasingly controversial.

As well as being the largest broadcasting corporation in the world, the BBC is also a public service, funded principally by the licence fee paid by UK households. Given its cultural authority, people often refer to the corporation jokingly as “Auntie”, from the old-fashioned expression “Auntie knows best”. The British public expect high quality, objective broadcasts from the BBC that educate as well as entertain.

To help maintain standards, the BBC Trust was created to draw up company strategy as well as to guard the BBC from undue political or commercial pressure. In the case of certain controversial issues, the trust will carry out an independent review of coverage across its all its media outlets including the BBC World Service.

For this latest review, “science” is defined to include all the natural sciences, as well as those aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that entail scientific statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists.

It is not yet clear who will chair the review, but the process will involve consulatation with a range of stakeholders including members of the scientific community. “We are always open to feedback from working scientists, as it is vital that we get everything correct especially when it involves controversial issues like climate science,” says a spokesperson for the BBC Trust.

The spokesperson told that the review is not a response to specific complaints but a realization that science is becoming increasingly intertwined with other issues that affect people’s everyday lives.

The Trust will reveal further details about the process of the review within the next couple of months and the findings will be published in 2011.

Previous areas of BBC coverage that have been reviewed by the BBC Trust include business coverage (2007) and the political coverage of the four nations in the UK – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (2008).

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  1. William Kelly

    Perhaps this is from them going a little overboard on the global warming bit? I have seen them provide some balance however.

  2. Rod Eaton

    That sounds like excellent news. The BBC needs to get back to a focus on educating people to think for themselves on science (and related technologies) with rounded views from scientists with different theories and approaches. I hope this is taken as an opportunity by the Trust for the BBC to be more objective in science education. The BBC should cast-off any role it saw itself as having in the promotion of state ‘authodoxy’ and one-sided argument.
    If I may quote Professor John Christy, University of Alabama, Huntsville (UN-IPCC lead author)and Alabama State Climatologist writing on the UN-IPCC (not the BBC but the argument is the same):
    “Scepticism, a hallmark of science, is frowned upon. (I suspect the IPCC bureaucracy cringes whenever I’m identified as an IPCC Lead Author}. The tendency to succumb to group-think and the herd-instinct (now formally called the “informational cascade”) is perhaps as tempting among scientists as any group because we, by definition, must be the “ones who know” (from the Latin sciere, to know).”
    The BBC should encourage open deabate, not try to close it. The more people can see the various arguments and debates in science, the more they will understand, especially on the issue of uncertainty in predictive areas of science and computer models.

  3. Carlos Alberto dos Santos

    That is quite usual in newspapers and magazines of low credibility. The tragic is that it is observing in a media icon.

  4. I agree with Rod Eaton:
    The BBC should encourage open debate, not try to close it. The more people can see the various arguments and debates in science, the more they will understand, especially on the issue of uncertainty in predictive areas of science and computer models.
    I also agree with Carlos Alberto dos Santos:
    It is tragic to see obvious bias in a media icon like the BBC.
    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel

  5. Nick Evanson

    I can only assume you have all read a completely different blog article to the one above, as it clearly reads that the review [i]has yet to take place[/i]: in other words, there is no confirmation of an “obvious bias”, lack of “rounded views” or “going overboard on global warming”. Those are your subjective views of the BBC, for which you’ve all provided no evidence to back up. Funny, yes?

  6. Bill Baxter

    I remember listening to a minister for science and education being interviewed on BBC R4. The theme was the swing away from “hard” subjects, particularly sciences, by sixth formers. All well worn stuff of course. The minister said “Yes of course we need scientists and engineers, but we do also need creative people”.
    The interviewer did not think anything remarkable had been said.


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