In this post you’ll find our original complaint to the BBC, their predictably dismal response and the dialogue that ensues. Can we prevail against the bureaucracy!!? Read on to find out…
Our Original Complaint – 23/12/20
We write to complain about the article Climate change: Law used as stick to beat government – BBC News written by “environmental analyst” Roger Harrabin and published on the BBC website on 19/12/20.
This article fails to meet the criteria set out in the BBC’s Editorial Standards: “to provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world…We are impartial, seeking to reflect the views and experiences of our audiences.”
The main thrust of the article, demonstrated by the headline and the first line -“environmentalists are using the law to hound the government to force infrastructure plans into line with its climate change commitments” – is that environmentalists are being unreasonable by asking the government to meet their own legal commitments!
This line of argument is demonstrably absurd. Would the BBC write of the “law being used to hound murderers”? Would they write of the law being used to hound anyone other than the government?
The fact that sympathy is extended to the government on this matter is a failure of impartiality. The government, which appears to hold significant influence within the BBC despite the corporation’s nominal independence, are favoured in this article over environmental groups representing the views of members of the public rightfully concerned about climate change.
Indeed, the article is framed in such a way that environmental groups are presented as unreasonable aggressors – “using the law to hound”, “law used as a stick” – and the government the victim of this – under “a fusillade of legal challenges”, “threatened with new legal action”.
We are hugely puzzled as to why Roger Harrabin would use language and framing like this. Arguably even more concerning is the fact that at least one editor at the BBC appears to agree with him! The headline of the article, which we assume is written by an editor rather than the author, fully endorses and confirms Mr Harrabin’s upside down view of the world!
We look forward to a response from the BBC explaining the action that will be taken to correct this failure of impartiality and apologising for misleading the public / painting those who wish for the government to abide by legal commitments as unreasonable.
Steven McCracken and Sean Rankin
BBC Response 30/12/20
Dear Mr McCracken,
Thank you for getting in touch about our article Climate change: Law used as stick to beat government.
Your complaint does not appear to factually dispute the article’s primary focus, which was to report that campaigners have stepped up legal challenges as a means of forcing government infrastructure plans into line with its climate change commitments.
However given that you suggest that the main thrust of the article is that “environmentalists are being unreasonable by asking the government to meet their own legal commitments”, I think it’s important to point out that the article never uses this word.
Indeed the phrases you’ve objected to (stick to beat government, hound the government) seem to me to be intended to describe the pressure being put on the government, without offering any particular judgement on whether this is fair or reasonable.
Similarly, the phrase “fusillade of legal challenges” simply denotes a number of legal challenges in quick succession.
In closing I do not see that the government are favoured in this article over environmental groups, with both quoted in the article.
BBC News website
Our Reply 3/1/20
We write further to complaint ref CAS-6460182-F6F8W5 to which we received a highly unsatisfactory reply on 30/12/2020
We could not have made clearer that our concern with the article was its impartiality, however the BBC’s reply ignores this and instead states that “your complaint does not appear to factually dispute the article’s primary focus”. At no point did we question the factual accuracy of the piece so why have the BBC responded as if we have?
The reply goes on to state that “I think it’s important to point out that the article never uses this word” (word in question being “unreasonable”).
Again, we never suggested that it did. Please address the actual concerns we raised rather than inventing ones we didn’t so that you can burn down these straw men.
When the BBC response finally DOES address something we raised, discussing quotes we highlighted, these are dealt with by an incredibly weak and subjective “seems to me” argument. It seems to US that highly trained journalists are – or at least SHOULD BE – acutely aware of the power of their words and the importance of word choice.
We ask you to look again at the headline of the article and the first paragraph we quote and consider whether the BBC, as an impartial, publicly-funded broadcaster, are happy that this has been framed correctly. We believe that any fair-minded person would interpret the framing and use of language as suggesting that environmentalists are being unreasonable by asking the government to obey the law – a clear violation of impartiality.
We look forward to your response and will take this opportunity to highlight that our complaint and your response (with names redacted) will be published on a blog and on Twitter therefore subject to wider scrutiny by the public.
The BBC professes lofty values and it must uphold them, especially in regards to the existential threat of climate change, which the BBC and other news outlets have a chequered record of reporting.
We look forward to receiving a satisfactory response to our initial complaint.
Steven McCracken and Sean Rankin
BBC Response 2 – 10/2/2021
Thank you for getting in touch again about our article Climate change: Law used as stick to beat government (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-55368922) and please accept our apologies for the delay in our response.
Context is of course key and the context here is that our environment analyst writing under his byline about a significant development in its own right, namely the number and type of legal challenges being brought by campaigners.
We think the article made this clear to readers without taking a judgement and that readers would understand the wider story to be about the interpretation of the law in respect of the government’s climate commitments.
We cannot correspond with you further at this first stage of the complaints process. If however you are still dissatisfied, you can contact the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The ECU is stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process.
Details of the BBC complaints process are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle-complaint/ where you can read the BBC’s full complaints framework. You should contact the ECU within 20 working days of receiving this reply. You will need to explain why you believe there may have been a potential breach of standards or other significant issue for it to investigate.
If you wish to contact the ECU, we have provided a unique url link for you in this email. This will open up further information about how to submit your complaint. The link will then not work after you have submitted your complaint. You will be asked for the case reference number we have provided in this reply.
The Free Press Escalate to Stage 2 – ECU Complaint (22/2/2021)
The BBC editorial guidelines state that “We must take particular care to achieve due impartiality when a ‘controversial subject’ may be considered to be a major matter. ‘Major matters’ are usually matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy that are of national or international importance”
It’s difficult to think of an issue of greater international importance than tackling the threat of climate change
As we highlighted in our original complaint, BBC journalist Roger Harrabin did not show “due impartiality” towards this issue in the article in question.
Indeed, he actively favoured the government. The headline and first paragraph of the article frame the government as under attack (“used as a stick to beat”) for the fact that they are trying to break the law!
How can this be considered “due impartiality” ? Environmental groups (clearly in the right – on the side of the law) are portrayed as unreasonable or aggressive (“using the law to hound”) the government, who are clearly in the wrong (in violation of their own laws, not to mention their public statements on tackling the existential threat of climate change)
In short, the government are favoured in a case where “impartiality” would actually require favouring environmentalists (on the side of the law)
Our second complaint makes clear why we were dissatisfied with the BBC’s initial response, where they manufacture arguments we didn’t make and knock them down
The BBC’s response to our second complaint is virtually content free, with complex, vague waffling about “context” offered up.
The BBC’s use of avoidance then waffle in their responses highlights, we believe, the validity of our complaint.
Climate change is an issue of huge importance. The BBC must get their coverage correct on this issue. To frame an issue in such a way that a reader would be inclined to sympathise with a government (or see them as under aggressive, unreasonable attack for trying to evade their legal responsibilities regarding climate change) is completely unacceptable.
We look forward to finally receiving acknowledgement from the BBC that a mistake was made and this article was framed incorrectly. Everyone makes mistakes, there is no shame in it. Refusing to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them is a different matter altogether – especially from a broadcaster that prides itself on its impartiality, accountability to the public and markets itself as “the world’s most trusted international broadcaster”