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BBC apologises to University of East Anglia for "incorrect" remark

Sat, 7 Aug 2010

The BBC has apologised for an "incorrect" remark made by John Humphrys that UEA researchers had "distorted the debate about global warming to make the threat seem even more serious than they believed it to be".

Professor Trevor Davies, UEA’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Research, received a letter, as reproduced below, from Mr Stephen Mitchell, Deputy Director and Head of News Programmes, BBC News.

Prof Davies said: “I am grateful to Mr Mitchell for this careful and considered letter. UEA is pleased to accept the BBC’s apology.”


Dear Professor Davies, firstly I should apologise once again for the delay in this response to one of the matters you raised earlier this month when you visited BBC News. I had promised to get back to you more quickly than in fact proved possible, given that several people involved in the edition of the Today Programme last December proved difficult to contact and our own archive of a programme broadcast seven months ago proved less reliable than I had hoped !

However I can now share with you the results of my investigation into your complaint about a sentence in a John Humphrys introduction to an item in the Today Programme on December 4th last year.
 

At 8.10 am, after the 8 O'clock news bulletin had ended, John Humphrys opened a discussion on the so called "Climate Gate" affair as follows:

"The theft of a few emails from a relatively obscure university in East Anglia is threatening the future of the planet. And if that sounds like the plot of a bad disaster movie ... well, suspend your disbelief for just a moment. The facts are that the emails were stolen and they revealed that some researchers in the university's Climatic Research Unit had been distorting the debate about global warming to make the threat seem even more serious than they believed it to be. It is also the case that the mightily influential United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate exchange regards this as so serious its head has announced that it will investigate. Where we enter less certain territory is what effect all this will have on attempts to fight global warming by those who believe it really DOES threaten the planet. Not that everyone does. Phillip Stott, emeritus professor of biogeography at London University is sceptical and he's with me. I'm also joined by Jonathon Porritt, the founder of the Forum for the Future and former environmental adviser to the govt .But first our Environment Correspondent, Richard Black:"
 

The first thing to say is that the sentence : "The facts are that the emails were stolen and they revealed that some researchers in the university's Climatic Research Unit had been distorting the debate about global warming to make the threat seem even more serious than they believed it to be" is incorrect. For that I apologise wholeheartedly on behalf of the Today Programme. ….. in mitigation I can only say that this was a live programme being put together under the pressure of events, and as you said when you came to see BBC News, we were dealing with a matter that hadn’t at that stage been fully investigated and which was the subject of widespread comment and conjecture.

However it was still be be decided whether or not the e mails revealed an attempt to distort the debate on global warming and I am not seeking to excuse our failure to qualify that sentence more than we did. Having spoken to John Humphrys and his Editor about it I can assure you that they too regret that his script was not more precise. I have pointed out to them both that the error is frustrating given that the bulk of the programme’s journalism on this subject that morning was about the uncertainties and unknowns in the affair and it is particularly perplexing as, immediately after that introduction John Humphrys went on to ask our Environment Correspondent, Richard Black, to address the question he himself had himself inadvertently and incorrectly answered a few seconds earlier!


John Humphrys asked:

"That data from the UEA, did they, is the evidence from the leaked e mails that they actually fiddled the figures or manipulated the research or what?"


To which Richard Black replied:

"There are certainly some e mails that indicated that some of the researchers were trying to , if you like, increase the appearance of some data or perhaps suppress the importance of others, but what I think is very important with this John is that only have a partial record here, I mean there’s definitely far more e mails in that thirteen years of exchanges between the CRU and other places , we’ve got a small selection, so how was the selection done, what don’t we have, were any of the apparently unresolved issues actually resolved afterwards? "


Richard Black went on to explain to John Humphrys and the audience that the key issue for the University’s own independent review would be "whether there is evidence of the suppression or manipulation of data at odds with scientific practice" .
John Humphrys then chaired a wide ranging discussion with Phillip Stott of London University and Jonathan Porritt where the main issue was the possible impact on policy, and on the upcoming Copenhagen Summit.


So while I do not defend the sentence as spoken by John Humphrys in his initial introduction, and I can only apologise for that error, I would argue that the overall impression on the audience listening to that section of the programme was mitigated by the discussion with Richard Black about the specific issue of manipulation, and by the wider discussions John Humphrys went on to chair.

I would also ask you to consider that there was considerable mitigation of the error in the rest of the programme that morning. The offending sentence was heard in the context of a three hour programme for which the e mails affair was a major agenda item dealt with several times giving the audience a broad picture. The affair was the main news of the morning and thankfully the impression taken by the audience would have been informed by the totality of the journalism, not just a few ill judged words from John Humphrys.


To recap the programme coverage as a whole:

In the 0600 News Bulletin which opens the programme there was a report by Simon Cox a reporter who had presented one of our long form Current Affairs programmes, "The Report" earlier in the month which had dealt with the issue of the leaked e mails. The introduction to this item reads as follows:


"The United Nations Panel on Climate Change has said it will investigate claims that British scientists manipulated data on global warming to strengthen the argument that it's man-made. The allegations emerged after emails written by members of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were leaked on the internet. One of the government's chief scientific advisors, Robert Watson, has called for all the raw data to be published. Here's Simon Cox:

A 0630 John Humphrys spoke to the BBC Environmental Analyst, Roger Harrabin: introducing this section as follows :


"The intergovernmental panel on climate change is going to investigate what's been going on at the University of East Anglia. Why? Our Environment Analyst is Roger Harrabin.

At the start of the 0700 News Bulletin there was a report by Roger Harrabin introduced as follows:


"The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said it will investigate claims that British scientists manipulated data on global warming to strengthen the argument that it's man-made. The allegations emerged after emails written by members of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were leaked on the internet. More details from our environment analyst, Roger Harrabin:"

After the 0700 News Bulletin Justin Webb talked to Simon Cox again who in turn brought in the Head of the IPCC Dr Rajendra Pachuri:… this section of the programme went as follows:


"Climate-gate is what the sceptics call it. The leaking of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia suggests to them that that some scientists warning of climate change are cheats -- more interested in rubbishing those who oppose them than in providing properly researched facts. Such a serious challenge is this -- that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the UN body that drives efforts to get us all to accept the science -- is to investigate the emails. The head of the IPCC told the BBC that the scandal is a "very serious matter". Simon Cox is from the Radio 4 programme The Report,

Simon how significant is this?

SIMON COX replied: Dr Pachauri had initially put out a statement last week defending the IPCC's procedures in response to one of the emails from Phil Jones head of the CRU. He talked about trying to keep several research papers out of the next IPCC report he says "even if we have to redefine what peer review literature is".


Dr Rajendra Pachauri told us the IPCC would now look into the matter in detail and were taking it very seriously…..

There then followed some material from Dr Pachauri…
 

At 0800 the News Bulletin carried the report by Roger Harrabin that had run at 0700 with the following introduction:

" The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said it will investigate claims that British scientists manipulated data on global warming to strengthen the argument that it's man-made. The allegations emerged after emails written by members of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were leaked on the internet. More details from our environment analyst, Roger Harrabin: "
 

Finally at the very end of the programme, at almost 0900 am, Today returned to the issue, with Justin Webb and Roger Harrabin discussing the matter further:

Justin Webb:
 

"Where does this row about stolen emails leave the chances for an agreement on climate change at next week's talks in Copenhagen ?. Roger Harrabin our environment analyst is back with us;

Justin Webb and Roger Harrabin then tried to address the question of whether the affair would affect the thinking of lay people on climate change -- Harrabin told Webb "difficult to say but the fundamentals won’t be challenged" , --- and what the impact would be at Copenhagen. This in turn led to Roger Harrabin to illustrate the changing views of industry towards climate change and the probable lack of impact on that thinking of the UEA affair. He brought in Richard Lambert of the CBI who said his members were sure there was to be a transition to a more sustainable economic model and that Copenhagen would play its part, their only real interest was in whether the transition was to be orderly or disorderly."


Finally Justin Webb read out an e mail from a listener who concluded:

"Those emails haven't "rocked the world of climate science", they've rocked the world of climate politics. There's still a mountain of evidence that points to a clear conclusion, regardless of what one researcher may have done. Over the last few days the media has been either grossly irresponsible or grossly uninformed in suggesting otherwise."

My point at setting out in some detail the totality of Today’s coverage of the UEA affair that morning is to seek to reassure you that overall our journalism was open minded on the issue of manipulation, that John Humphrys misconceived assertion was the exception that morning. In the body of the programme as a whole any misapprehension in the minds of the audience caused by John Humphrys sentence would have been outweighed by the majority of our work which left open the matters which, at that time, were still be investigated by various inquiries. I feel that this is particularly true for people listening at 8.10am who would have heard the offending sentence alleging manipulation from John Humphrys and then immediately afterwards would have heard him ask Richard Black to address the very same issue in terms that made clear that the question of manipulation was very much an open issue at that stage.

Once again my apologies to those at the University of East Anglia on behalf of the Today programme for what I believe was an isolated albeit significant lapse.


Stephen

Stephen Mitchell

Deputy Director & Head of News Programmes, BBC News

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