BBC director-general Tim Davie has said it is no longer “politically controversial” to report on climate change with a stance that it has been caused by humanity’s actions.
But for the BBC’s due impartiality requirements to be met its journalists must not take a position on political debates around how to tackle the crisis, he said, adding it must be clear they are driven only by data and science.
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“I don’t think it’s politically controversial now,” Davie said. “The overwhelming consensus is that we, as humanity, are causing global warming.
“There are voices on the fringes but, in my view, when it comes to due impartiality for the BBC, we are now at a point where we have consensus around that.
“But then you do get into political debate around policy, speed of change, the social consequences – there is tough stuff to debate and we will do that as the BBC.”
Times have changed since 2014 when MPs took the BBC to task for attributing the same weight to opinions and scientific fact when covering climate science and accused it of helping to keep the public confused about the issues.
The BBC said at the time: “While the vast bulk of our interviews are with climate scientists, as part of our commitment to impartiality it is important that dissenting voices are also heard.” This position changed in 2018 when staff were told they did not need to balance the debate with a climate denier after a series of controversial interviews.
Davie was speaking on a panel of broadcaster chief executives at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Wednesday, which launched a cross-industry pledge to increase the amount and improve the quality of their climate change storytelling across all types of programming.
But Davie said this did not mean an end to questioning different political objectives around climate change.
“We’ll get stuck in as ever, and the BBC needs to hold those in power to account but also really get that debate moving. That’s part of our role.
“I really don’t think we’re there to campaign for politicised objectives, but there is consensus around certain things in life where as a society we agree, this is something we all have to do. There is common political will around that. And I think there’s common societal will around it.
“You then decide, okay, how do we debate that? I certainly don’t think this stops what I call flavoursome programming and lots of debate. I actually think there is loads to debate, argue about, interrogate, but the overall challenge I think is accepted across the board.”
TV and radio can be effective mediums to simplify the story, he said, adding that he had been left thinking “just how much change are we really making” as he walked through the COP26 stands in Glasgow.
“I think people are slightly confused by some of the facts – what actually going on? What does that pledge mean? Is deforestation really happening?
“I think we owe it to the audience to interrogate hard on that.”
Davie’s comments came a day before the BBC responded to complaints that its climate editor Justin Rowlatt had been “disrespectful and aggressive” when interviewing Boris Johnson ahead of COP26 on Monday.
Rowlatt (pictured, left) told Johnson (right) he looked a “little bit weaselly” for not ruling out a new coal mine for Britain.
The BBC said Rowlatt’s interview was “fair and professional” and that he was right to interrogate the Prime Minister on climate change policies.
“As the host leader of COP26, Boris Johnson has been very vocal about the changes that need to be made to combat climate change and reduce global temperatures,” the statement said.
“This was a lively and robust interview which addressed a number of Boris Johnson’s key priorities for the summit, and he was challenged on whether he had been consistent in his role in meeting these.
“We consider that it was entirely appropriate for Justin to challenge the Prime Minister on these points, as there has been criticism of the failure to increase tax on short-haul flights and for the opening of a new coal mine.”
PM Boris Johnson says he is "not in favour" of a proposed UK coal mine, but that the decision "is not mine to make", ahead of the landmark climate change conference in Glasgow#COP26BBC https://t.co/5GzDhfBPpF pic.twitter.com/hUj1GXEWO5
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) November 1, 2021