Ofcom is about to deliver its crucial report on the Channel 4 programme that upset climate experts. Bob Ward examines how science and journalism can misunderstand each other
It is now just over a year since the controversial programme The Great Global Warming Swindle was broadcast on Channel 4, but there has been no cooling in the relationship between scientists and the media. Ofcom is deliberating on whether the programme breached its code, and its upcoming verdict could have far-reaching implications for the media's coverage of climate change and other scientific issues.
The programme, produced by Martin Durkin and his company WAGtv, claimed that climate scientists had been engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to dupe the public and politicians into thinking that global warming is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Instead, changes in the sun's activity should be blamed for the rise in global average temperature over the past century, the programme argued.
Loud protests followed the initial broadcast on 8 March 2007 - and its repeat on More 4 - with more than 200 complaints submitted to Ofcom. Channel 4 attempted to defend the programme by calling it a "polemic" and asserting the public's right to hear from minority views.
Scientists alleged that the programme had systematically misrepresented the research and evidence on climate change, and had only featured interviews with a fringe group of dissenting figures who did not agree with the overwhelming majority of researchers in the field. Two researchers were so outraged that they took the unprecedented step of writing a scientific paper for a leading scientific journal to explicitly rebut the TV programme's central claim about the role of the Sun.
Ofcom is due to rule on the programme in the next few weeks, but it has focused attention on how climate change is covered in parts of the national media.
The BBC, in particular, has been tying itself in knots since Jeremy Paxman alleged in an article in its in-house magazine, Ariel, last February, that the corporation had "abandoned the pretence of impartiality long ago". In June, the BBC Trust said in a report on impartiality that the corporation should allow "dissenters" on the issue to be heard because "it is not the BBC's role to close down this debate".
At the end of August, the BBC was accused by rival broadcasters at the Edinburgh International Television Festival of having a "line" on climate change, namely that global warming was caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Peter Horrocks, Head of Television News at the BBC, seemed to agree, attacking the corporation's plans for "Planet Relief", a day of programming to raise consciousness about the issue. "I absolutely don't think we should do that because it's not impartial. It's not our job to lead people and proselytise about it," said Horrocks. A month later, Planet Relief was cancelled.
Some politicians have increased the pressure on the BBC. In October, John Redwood, a senior Tory MP, attacked the Today programme in his blog for its coverage of a new scientific study, accusing the BBC of being "relentless in their insistence on climate change theory".
The controversy appears to expose a fundamental mismatch between the …