The Lady Doth Protest too Much…

by | Jul 14, 2009

After a 20-year-long role at the BBC, Peter Sissons has attacked the anti-journalistic culture at the BBC. Writing in the Mail on Sunday (the article has been taken off-line for some reason), Sissons outlines some key reasons for his decision to leave.

This bit caught our eye – look out for a familiar name.

Two other events disturbed me during the last few years.

Before I left News At Ten, I had to read out on air the BBC’s longest apology. It lasted nearly two minutes, and in it the BBC apologised to a diamond-mining firm called Oryx Natural Resources.

A report had falsely linked the firm with Al Qaeda, accusing one of its major shareholders of being a convicted terrorist. The two men had the same surname.

This humiliation for the BBC could have been avoided if one of journalism’s basic rules had been followed: if you think that you’ve got someone bang to rights, ring them up and ask them what they’ve got to say about it. But the story was, as they say, too good to check, and it greatly dented the BBC’s journalistic reputation, as well as its libel fund.

The other episode happened more recently. On a wintry Saturday last December, there was what was billed as a major climate change rally in London.

The leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, went into the Westminster studio to be interviewed by me on the BBC News channel. She clearly expected what I call a ‘free hit’; to be allowed to voice her views without being challenged on them.

I pointed out to her that the climate didn’t seem to be playing ball at the moment. We were having a particularly cold winter, even though carbon emissions were increasing. Indeed, there had been no warming for ten years, contradicting all the alarming computer predictions.

Well, she was outraged. I don’t have the actual transcript, but Miss Lucas told me angrily that it was disgraceful that the BBC — the BBC! — should be giving any kind of publicity to those sort of views. I believe I am one of a tiny number of BBC interviewers who have so much as raised the possibility that there is another side to the debate on climate change.

The Corporation’s most famous interrogators invariably begin by accepting that ‘the science is settled’, when there are countless reputable scientists and climatologists producing work that says it isn’t.

But it is effectively BBC policy, enthusiastically carried out by the BBC environment correspondents, that those views should not be heard — witness the BBC statement last year that ‘BBC News currently takes the view that their reporting needs to be calibrated to take into account the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made’.

Politically the argument may be settled, but any inquisitive journalist can find ample evidence that scientifically it is not.

I was not proud to be working for an organisation with a corporate mind so closed on such an important issue. Disquiet over my interview with Miss Lucas, incidentally, went right to the top at the BBC although, naturally, they never sought to discuss it with me. For me, this is not an issue about the climate, it is an issue about the duty of the journalist.

The truth of the matter is that for all the above reasons, I was no longer comfortable at BBC News. It remains an iconic organisation, but it stands at the crossroads.

The BBC is not able to challenge politicians in its mainstream output. Sure, there are occasionally sceptic opinions permitted onto the airwaves, but for a high-profile journalist to ask a challenging question is to speak out of turn. As Sissons implies, the BBC sees its responsibility principally to reproduce environmental ideology, not to hold politicians to account.

But let’s not single out the BBC. The culture that exists at the BBC is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of which the BBC is just another victim. Lucas’s reaction demonstrates that she is simply not used to being challenged. Rather than seeking to explain Sissons’s challenge – perhaps using the very science she claims gives her political ideas legitimacy – she merely gets angry. It’s not even as if Sissons’s questions were particularly probing. She could easily have replied along the lines that a single bout of cold weather does not detract from an upward trend, for example. It is the fact that she does not that makes the question so revealing.

As we have argued here on Climate Resistance, climate change has become the means by which journalists and politicians alike have sought to reorientate their moral compasses. Accordingly, the world is increasingly seen through the prism of climate change. But by grounding themselves in ‘facts’, rather than in more philosophical commitments to principles, values, or even political ideas, politicians and journalists make themselves vulnerable. It means that if the ‘facts’ are challenged, their entire perspective on the world crumbles, and their value as journalists/politicians disintegrates. This is why we find journalists and politicians reacting so angrily to even the merest hint or whiff of ‘denial’.

Environmentalism is a symptom of being unable to explain the world, particularly on behalf of the establishment. It seeks to ground itself on facts, but cannot tolerate criticism. As we are fond of saying, the crisis is in politics, not in the sky.

(H/T: Austin and Rupert).


  1. teh

    I take the complete opposite view. The problem is that principles are adhered to at the expense of facts, just like in religion. If the data supported your philosophy or politics, then there would be no reason to react so violently to it.

    Under normal circumstances, faced with evidence that conflicts with a theory (or in this case a model), one would seek to improve the theory, thus increasing our knowledge and understanding. However, a more accurate description of the human effect on climate – ie. one that fits better with the facts, might also destroy a pillar of environmentalism, and a great deal of political credibility. It is far easier psychologically to deny reality than it is to change your mind.

  2. Vinny Burgoo

    Re: ‘But let’s not single out the BBC. The culture that exists at the BBC is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of which the BBC is just another victim.’

    While I was sorting out some old magazines last night I stumbled on a 1999 editorial in New Scientist. It started by stating a properly scientific aversion to scientific consensus.

    ‘Consensus is a dangerous thing in science. The notion that researchers can ever prove their theories is long gone – they can only wait for others to knock them down. This means that to be healthy, science needs an opposition, and when politicians ask scientists to reach a common view, it pays to be wary.’

    But that was just for form’s sake. The rest of the editorial argued for the exact opposite: ‘the IPCC has turned consensus into a virtue’; the only danger is that it still ‘makes a point of drawing sometimes hostile sceptics into its deliberations’; politicians must show us ‘that they can act as one to halt the coming nightmare’. In other words, forget what we just told you about proper science. When it comes to global warming, sickness is a virtue, safety is danger and wary is scary.

    Heroic doublethink from Britain’s leading popular science mag!

    (Perhaps the writer was drunk. The editorial was in an ‘End of the Millennium Special Edition’ devoted to alcohol.)

  3. Stefano

    It may well indeed be a symptom of a wider cultural trend. The book Spiral Dynamics lists 6 or 7 cultural values stages, and one of the later/more recent ones to emerge, “green”, is the one that puts great value on community and resolving problems and conflicts through mutual understanding. Like, if only we could all talk to each other as human beings, and drop the traditional divisions of race, gender, nationality, and so on, we could come to understand each other and find harmony.

    Well that works up to a point. The downside is that people at green, in trying to build understanding, end up frowning upon those who don’t want to join the group. Like, we’d get world peace if only you’d stop being so awkward with your disagreeable opinions. It is political correctness, smothering (with gentleness) feel-good causes. And the people who don’t want to agree, well, they suffer the shadow side of green, namely accusations that they’re greedy selfish people.

    Anyway, with the caveat that this is my reading of the book, I think we can recognise this as quite pervasive now in our western culture.

    Now not all of environmentalism fits the green values stage, but at a place like the BBC, there’s more likelihood of finding green values culture, and hence their ethical decision that it is actually better to suppress different opinions (even scientific ones) in the cause of serving the people by moving them towards consensus and world harmony.

    Unfortunately, at the end of the day, whatever your values, the scientific method is about reality.

  4. Stefano

    Does anyone think

    The Second Climate Consensus

    would be a catchy name?

  5. teh

    A catchy name perhaps, but for a really bad idea. We are in the “Second Consensus” anyway, and are poised to enter the third. The first consensus was called Global Warming, the second Climate Change, and the third is The Pipeline. All are characterised by putting ideology and politics before science.

  6. DennisA

    The link didn’t post properly but search on google, it will come up.

    “BBC Seduced by Tale of ‘al Qaeda Diamond Trade,’ Now Being Sued”

    The Guardian – December 10, 2001

  7. Roger H

    Many of us would love to see Lucas’s sanctimonious blustering. If anyone has a copy of the interview with Peter Sissons, please put it online.


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