Starter for ten: is BBC science too one-sided?

David Attenborough

Accusations of biased coverage force BBC Trust to investigate output

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 08:07 ON Thu 7 Jan 2010

The BBC is to investigate its science output for "accuracy and impartiality". The study, to be carried out by the BBC Trust in the spring, will be published in 2011.

Science "covers some of the most sensitive editorial issues the BBC faces", said Richard Tait, the chair of the BBC Trust's editorial standards committee. "Heated debate in recent years around topics like climate change, genetically modified crops and the MMR vaccine reflects this, and BBC reporting has to steer a course through these controversial issues while remaining impartial."

The BBC has carried out impartiality reviews of its coverage in the areas of business and the devolved nations in recent years. However, the science review is significantly more timely than the business review, which reported in May 2007 - on the eve of the financial crisis.  

Science output is more politicised than ever – an assertion perhaps best exemplified by the furious debate over the science of climate change, which reached its apogee over the two weeks of the doomed Copenhagen climate change conference last month.

While Copenhagen – and the debate over the existence of climate change - rumbled on, David Attenborough, who for decades refused to speak out on environmental issues, made a film for the BBC's popular science strand Horizon, called How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth? The programme, which called for a reduction in the human population to save the environment, was criticised by the Daily Telegraph for being one-sided.

"The BBC decided to show what amounted to a party political broadcast by the Optimum Population Trust," wrote Charles Moore. "It simply would not have occurred to it to allow a similar programme to be made from the other side." Oddly, Moore was backed up by left-wing website Spiked, which called Attenborough's film a "human-hating parable". You know an issue is a hot potato when people start to speak badly of a national treasure like David Attenborough.

Meanwhile, Ben Goldacre, whose blog Bad Science takes great pleasure in mocking dodgy science articles in the mainstream media, questioned the entire concept of impartiality in science reporting, telling journalism.co.uk that accuracy is much more important.

"'Impartial' is a word you use to describe political disputes," he said. "We don't want media coverage of science to be obsessed with representing all political constituencies and extreme interest groups, confusing 'balance' with 'accuracy'.

"We want it to be evidence-based, to come down and say 'that's nonsense' when something plainly is nonsense."

He added that he'd like to see technical details reported so that people can make their own minds up – rather than assuming everyone is "stupid and uninterested".

The BBC Trust has a lot of material to be getting on with; and it's fairly safe to say their conclusions will be as controversial as the subject matter. · 

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