Lord Winston knocks the BBC’s treatment of science

I am a big fan of the BBC, and I have reviewed some of its historical and scientific output in this very blog. But if you are a bit more “hardcore” than me, or have a special interest in certain politically-charged subjects, like climate change for example, the venerable broadcaster can be subject to criticism.

The eminent scientist, fertility expert and Labour peer, Lord Robert Winston, is singularly unhappy with the BBC’s treatment of science, and of him. Lord Winston is an all-round good egg, and though I might be saddened by his timing (the BBC is under heavy fire for the Saville affair right now, and this new attack feels like kicking a man when he’s down), I can certainly see his point. The BBC’s approach to the climate change debate is to give equal time to all sides, even though climate change sceptics do not have the weight of evidence on their side, thus misleading the public into assuming the argument is wide open. Similarly, their lack of commitment to Winston’s Child of Our Time series seems short sighted and contrary to what should be expected from a public service broadcaster.

Still, I wonder whether he or the subjects he cares about will really get better treatment from a commercial broadcaster. It seems to be that all channels, commercial or otherwise, can turn out some stonking science documentaries when the urge takes them. I see the biggest issue as being with science reporting, where complex facts in a politically-charged context need to be coherently marshalled and delivered in a few minutes of air time, all the while pitching the style just right for the audience and nodding to journalistic standards, practices and ethics. It is notoriously hard to get science reportage right, but I don’t necessarily see the BBC as worse than anyone else. Indeed, on the climate change topic in particular, Channel 4 has a worrying reputation in some quarters for favouring the sceptical viewpoint, perhaps in some misguided attempt to appear anti-establishment and supportive of the underdog.

Damning with faint praise, I know.


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