Wednesday, 23 March 2011

And the answer comes winging back

Dear Mr McStone

Thank you for your further letter and e-mails regarding the BBC Radio 4 ‘Analysis’ programme entitled “Are Environmentalists Bad for the Planet?” that was originally broadcast on 25 January 2010.

I am a BBC Audience Services Complaints Advisor with responsibility for News and Current Affairs and your complaint has been escalated for my attention.

I understand that you originally complained about the programme via a letter sent on February 5th.

I note that you received our response in June and made a second complaint in your further letter sent on 8th August, making additional reference to “a number of emails,” which you had subsequently sent to us in the interim after your first complaint letter, raising further points about our editorial guidelines on impartiality and personal view.

In the first instance I would like to apologise for the delay in my response, which was the result of a major fault with our systems. I would also like to make clear that the confirmation you were given by telephone, stating that our first letter was a response to all the points you had previously made, was erroneous. I have accordingly raised this mistake with the management team for the department responsible and they are investigating.

I hope that this has helped to clear up any misunderstandings that have arisen with regards to the handling of your complaint and I would now like to take the opportunity to address all the original points you have made.

To this end I have been in contact with Innes Bowen, a week previously at the time of writing, and she has offered a detailed response which I hope you will find useful.

In relation to your request for information on the rules that govern impartiality and your suggestions that “Ms Townsend's extrapolation of what the environmentalists wanted is contrary to Sec 7.9 of the OFCOM broadcasting code,” that her poll was “unscientific” and that Justin Rowlatt was “unfair/biased” by “reinforcing her opinion and not challenging the rationale,” Innes Bowen explained in response that:

“Mr McStone is referring to the following extract from the programme:

‘What worries me is that the political objectives of some greens seem to override their interest in solving global warming. Solitaire Townsend runs a city PR firm, but one which specialises in communicating a single issue: sustainability.

TOWNSEND: I was making a speech to nearly 200 really hard core, deep environmentalists and I played a little thought game on them. I said imagine I am the carbon fairy and I wave a magic wand. We can get rid of all the carbon in the atmosphere, take it down to two hundred fifty parts per million and I will ensure with my little magic wand that we do not go above two degrees of global warming. However, by waving my magic wand I will be interfering with the laws of physics not with people – they will be as selfish, they will be as desiring of status. The cars will get bigger, the houses will get bigger, the planes will fly all over the place but there will be no climate change. And I asked them, would you ask the fairy to wave its magic wand? And about 2 people of the 200 raised their hands.

ROWLATT: That is quite shocking. I bet you were shocked, weren’t you?

TOWNSEND: I was angry. I wasn’t shocked. I was angry because it really showed that they wanted more. They didn’t just want to prevent climate change. They wanted to somehow change people, or at very least for people to know that they had to change.

ROWLATT: I noticed early on in my year of living ethically that all sorts of the advice you get from greens has little if anything to do with tackling global warming. Organic food, for example, is often more carbon intensive to produce than super-efficient industrial agriculture; locally produced goods can sometimes have a higher carbon foot print than imported goods.’”

Innes Bowen responded that:

“Mr McStone complains that ‘her [Ms Townsend's] conclusion that they wanted more cannot be arrived at solely from that poll.’ It's true that we can't be 100% sure what the motivation of those who didn't raise their hands was - for example those who didn't raise their hands might not have understood the question. However, I think it's clear from the context that it is only Ms Townsend's assumption that this indicates that "they wanted more". Having said that, no doubt Ms Townsend's assumption is based not just on that single incident but from extensive contact with different elements of the environment movement and on her other interactions with those attending the conference. We leave listeners to judge whether they think Ms Townsend's assumptions are reasonable in that context.”

In relation to your points about Justin Rowlatt giving his personal view, Innes Bowen explained that:

“Mr McStone complains that the presenter, Justin Rowlatt, by delivering some of his lines in the first person, is in breach of Editorial Guidelines about giving a personal view. The listener gives 3 examples and I will deal with these in turn:

(i) One interviewee, Tom Crompton of WWF UK talks about how issues of collective identity are a barrier to dealing with climate change. The listener complains about this response from the presenter:

‘ROWLATT: Helping people to access their better selves is a worthy project and I agree with Tom that tackling problems like poverty is important. But I can’t but help feel that the identity campaign that he champions carries a whiff of social engineering about it – it seems to imply an almost evangelical approach with green missionaries like Tom spreading the good news. It makes me feel rather uncomfortable and I’m not alone.’

Given that Tom Crompton holds some relatively controversial views about how to bring about a change in collective identity, for example controlling the number of advertising messages to which consumers are exposed as a means of decreasing consumerism and increasing concern for environmental issues, I think Justin's reaction was reasonable. These details about Tom's views weren't included in the programme - perhaps Justin's reaction would have been more understandable if he had included that detail.

(ii) Mr McStone complains about the following script line, which leads into an interview with the theologian and United Nations advisor on climate change and world religions Martin Palmer:

‘ROWLATT: What I find even more worrying is that often the almost evangelical nature of some green campaigning is justified, or perhaps even disguised, by the urgency of the climate issue. Environmentalists campaign on the basis that they are backed by “peer reviewed science” as if that validates whatever solution they are proposing. Indeed, the debate about how to tackle global warming can feel as if it is being conducted against the background of a relentless doomsday clock, ticking down the minutes and seconds until we are engulfed in some burning hell. It is almost as if climate change is some kind of planetary retribution, forcing humanity to pay the price for its greed. For the theologian Martin Palmer, these religious undercurrents show how environmentalism has adopted a familiar Western response to crisis – millenarian claims that the end is nigh.’

Again, I think raising this question, in the first person, is reasonable in the context. Justin is tapping into a much bigger debate (which we plan to explore in the next series of Analysis) about the relationship between science and ethics. Many of the environmentalists Justin has met, and several of those who appear in the programme, make it clear that they are motivated by ethical concerns which they link with scientific evidence about climate change. For example Jonathan Porritt talks about his concerns about consumerism and inequality. Not everyone who is convinced by the science necessarily shares the same views about ethics. Justin was merely pointing out that, in his experience, many environmental campaigners do not emphasise the distinction between the science and ethics. I think this is a reasonable opinion to express in the context.

(iii) Mr McStone complains about Justin's conclusion:

‘ROWLATT: I don’t have a problem with people campaigning for those other agendas for their vision of a better society – for me the problem comes if the fear of the consequences of climate change is used as cover to smuggle in other objectives for social and political change. That’s because many people already have a sense that there’ s something suspicious about the campaign to tackle global warming; they instinctively distrust the science and if they feel that the solutions people are proposing are less to do with carbon than pushing through a hidden agenda that will only serve to confirm their scepticism.’

My response to this is the same as my response to point (ii).”

Innes Bowen went on to further state, in relation to your point that the programme contained breaches of our editorial guidelines that:

“Mr McStone complains that the above breaches BBC Editorial Guidelines on impartiality.

In view of what I've said above, I think Justin Rowlatt came within the limits of the guidelines in that he expresses judgements rooted in evidence.”

In closing she stated that:

“With regard to the point made by Mr McStone in the return complaint about the title of the programme, I addressed this in my original response to him, sent via Stefan Curran.”

I hope that my response has gone some way towards addressing your concerns and thank you once again for taking the time to contact us.

Sean Moss
Complaints Adviser
BBC Complaints

1 comment:

  1. Spoke to David at BBC Compolaints today CAS767002