By Russel Cook
Did the BBC finally admit fault or effectively defend their broadcast podcast report from August 3, 2020 (and its days-earlier internet-only release), in which the fossil fuel industry stood accused of colluding with skeptic climate scientists to spread disinformation that undercut the otherwise ‘settled science’ of human-induced global warming? Read their official response for yourself. We report, you decide.
To reiterate first:
- my July 31, 2020 blog post, “BBC Radio 4 vs Rush Limbaugh: ‘How They Made Us Doubt Everything’ Episode 6 ‘Reposition Global Warming as theory, not fact’” — on the elemental faults with the accusation within the podcast report about ‘leaked memos’ that supposedly were evidence for the accusation.
- my August 5, 2020 “BBC Radio 4 vs Rush Limbaugh, Pt 2: ‘I don’t remember this stupid ad.’” — the late radio show host reacts to the BBC podcast report and a particular false line in it.
- my October 6, 2020 “BBC ( sort of … ) Corrects Radio 4…” — where the correction explained nothing while making one error bigger.
- my July 9, 2021 “Status Update: my complaint to BBC … ” — in which the senior editorial staff at Radio 4 basically only dug a deeper hole for themselves, via what is described as the Stage 1 part of the BBC Complaints system.
Now, what follows is the August 17th, 2021 verbatim response (in the identical format, including boldface / italicized typeface and links) emailed to me as an attached PDF file form from the Stage 2 BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The next blog post will be my response to BBC ECU, with particular regard to the way the ECU responder apparently failed to understand that his defense against the key parts of my complaint concerned “plans” that were never implemented in any form anywhere and therefore cannot serve as evidence that the fossil fuel industry carried out disinformation campaigns designed to undercut ‘established science.’ I assume that will only be met with a response to take my complaint one further step up to the UK broadcasting regulator, Ofcom.
17 August 2021
Dear Mr Cook
“How They Made Us Doubt Everything, Radio 4, 3 August 2020”
I am writing to let you know the outcome of the Executive Complaints Unit’s investigation into your recent complaint. I am sorry it has taken so long for your
complaint to reach this point. I hope I can now address the concerns you have raised.
I have understood you to say there were three significant errors in the programme. I therefore propose to address each in turn. I have summarised the nature of your complaint for convenience but I have taken account of all the previous correspondence and carried out some additional research into the matters you have raised. I should explain the remit of the Executive Complaints Unit is to decide whether there has been a serious breach of the standards expressed in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines. The most relevant guidelines in this case are those on Accuracy.
1. It was incorrect to present two sets of leaked industry memos as evidence proving the fossil fuel industry engaged in deceptive disinformation campaigns. The two proposals in the memos were never implemented. A strategy to “reposition global warming as theory, not fact” was rejected by the Information Council for the Environment.
The series set out to explore the extent to which doubt can and has been used to influence public opinion, with specific reference to the link between tobacco and cancer, and human-induced climate change. In the first episode, for example, there were interviews with two scientists working for Exxon at the end of the 1980s who claimed their employers were aware their research predicted burning fossils fuels would create unprecedented increases in global temperatures. The programme drew attention to subsequent public statements by the company which appeared to ignore that research and take a different approach. It quoted the company’s Chief Executive, for example, as saying “Currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate” despite the findings of its own scientists. It also quoted a presentation given to the Board of Directors in 1989 and a memo from Exxon’s Public Affairs Manager in 1988 which said the company position was to “Emphasise the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect“. Listeners were, therefore, already aware there was evidence energy companies appeared to be trying to influence public opinion; they were also made aware, it should be said, of the denials issued by companies such as Exxon.
In episode six, in particular, the programme looked at how oil companies, think tanks and scientists sceptical about the evidence for human-induced climate change came together in the late 1980s and 1990s to discuss how to influence public opinion on global warming. It focused on two documents which were drawn up. It explained the Global Climate Science Communications Team produced an Action Plan in April 1998. Its members included representatives from Exxon Corp, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute, Frontiers of Freedom, and the Marshall Institute among others. The second document was a strategy drawn up in 1991 for a group representing the electricity industry which became known as the Information Council for the Environment.
I have listened to the programme a number of times and I do not agree the manner in which the documents were presented and discussed was likely to mislead the audience in any material way. Listeners were told the aim of the two groups I have referred to above was “to discuss how to influence public opinion on global warming“. The evidence does, I think, suggest elements within the US energy industry worked with scientists and campaign groups on potential ways to counteract the view of those who said climate change posed a genuine threat. The documents mentioned in the programme served to illustrate this approach.
The programme referred repeatedly, in both cases, to “a plan” and so it is reasonable to assume the audience would understand the documents contained considered ideas, proposals and methodologies to influence public opinion. It is, I think, undeniable both plans indicate a concerted effort to produce a strategy to challenge the science, and to affect the way the media reported the evidence for human-induced climate change. The strategies were detailed, costed, supported by survey data and had a clearly defined goal. The programme included specific details from the 1991 campaign based on contemporaneous documents.
The fact you assert these particular strategies were not implemented does not, in my view, alter the editorial justification for drawing attention to the undeniable efforts which were made to seek to influence public and political opinion on climate change. Furthermore, in apparent contradiction to your assertion, I have seen documents which indicate the Information Council for the Environment did run a test campaign in three US towns from May 1991, which included newspaper and radio advertisements. This is confirmed by copies of newspaper articles from the time which indicate adverts were placed in the three towns in Kentucky, Arizona and North Dakota.
An article in the Bowling Green Daily News published on 23 May 1991 quotes “ICE representative Ivan Brandon” and reports him as saying the newspaper adverts began in early May and would run for several weeks. It said:
The Information Council for the Environment, a coalition of utilities and energy issue-related organizations, has targeted Bowling Green, Flagstaff, Ariz., and Fargo, N.D., for a $500,000 advertising blitz to test the water of global warming beliefs among residents. “Within the scientific community there is a split on this”, ICE representative Ivan Brandon said today. “Nobody disagrees that global warming exists, but the disagreement within the scientific community is over whether it is catastrophic” or even as much a worry as many assert.”
The article concluded:
After the advertisements end, residents will be polled about their beliefs on global warming. The results of the polls will be used to decide whether to carry the message to other cities, he said.
An article in the Arizona Daily Sun published the following day on 24 May 1991 said:
Through radio and newspaper ads running in Flagstaff and two other test markets, Fargo ND and Bowling Green – ICE is ‘trying to get all the information out about global warming’ said ICE spokesman Ivan Brandon.
That evidence would appear to indicate a plan to influence public opinion on global warming was implemented, even if only on a small scale, and was a precursor to a potentially wider roll out.
It’s also worth noting the programme explicitly stated, through a quote from Myron Ebell, the purpose of the later 1998 plan and the reason why it was not put into
Myron Ebell (voiced by actor): The purpose was to formulate a strategy to defeat senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. The plan was never put into effect when it became apparent then President Clinton was not going to submit the treaty to the Senate.
On the basis of the evidence I have seen, therefore, I can find no basis for concluding the details of the plans were misrepresented, the aims of those who drew them up were misrepresented or the extent to which they can be regarded as serious proposals was misrepresented.
I therefore do not believe there are grounds to uphold this aspect of your complaint.
2. It was inaccurate to suggest U.S. radio show host Rush Limbaugh knowingly colluded with one particular ‘campaign’. The advert was not broadcast by him but listeners were led to assume it was.
My understanding is ICE arranged for adverts to be played on three local radio stations as part of the initial campaign in 1991 I have described above. I have seen copies of relevant local newspaper articles and ICE documents, including the one from the Arizona Daily Sun cited above, which indicate the adverts were played out. As you will recall, the programme included a version of a radio advert, using an actor’s voice, which it said was broadcast by the talk radio presenter, Rush Limbaugh, in 1991:
Voice Over of Advert: Global warming. I know you’ve been seeing more and more stories about the global warming theory. Stories that paint a horrible picture. Stories that say the polar ice caps will melt. Well, get real! Stop panicking. I’m here to tell you that the facts simply don’t jibe with the theory that catastrophic global warming is taking place. So folks, grab hold of yourselves and get the whole story before you make up your mind. Right now you can get a free packet of easy to understand information about global warming. Just call this number 1-800…
Peter Pomerantsev: This advert you’re hearing was sent to the radio host Rush Limbaugh in 1991.
Voice Over of Advert: Call today because the best environment policy is based on fact.
Kert Davies: So Rush Limbaugh was the most widely listened to Conservative talk show host at that time on radio stations across the country. We have the language that Rush Limbaugh read on the air.
PP: And who was behind it? Well this was written by a group calling themselves the Information Council on the Environment. Again, it sounds like it is going to be run by an environmental lobby group but it is run by the group that represents the electrical companies in America.
I appreciate you think this gave the impression Mr Limbaugh knowingly colluded with this one particular ‘campaign’” and implied the advert was “broadcast to his audience of millions“. I have some sympathy with this aspect of your complaint because I think the language used in the programme was not as clear as it could have been. The radio advertisement campaign was limited to three towns and the intention, according to ICE documents, was for Mr Limbaugh to pre-record one of three adverts to be broadcast on a local station in Fargo. My understanding is the advert was to be played out during the local advert break in his national show.
In my opinion, the description provided by the programme-makers didn’t make that clear and I can see how some listeners might have assumed the advert was played on every station across the United States which broadcast Mr Limbaugh’s show. However, in order for me to consider this lack of clarity to amount to a serious breach of the BBC’s editorial standards, it would be necessary for the audience to have been left with a seriously misleading impression. On balance, I don’t think that was the case. Listeners may have assumed the advert was broadcast to a nationwide audience rather than on one local station but, regardless of how many radio stations broadcast it, the editorial justification for including it in the programme was to draw attention to the language used and the approach taken to cast doubt in people’s minds about the extent to which global warming was a genuine cause for concern. The fact the campaign adopted the use of phrases such as “Stop panicking. I’m here to tell you that the facts simply don’t jibe with the theory that catastrophic global warming is taking place” gave the audience a sense of the tone of the campaign and how it sought to cast doubt on the scientific evidence. That, I think, is true regardless of the number of people who heard the advert.
I therefore do not believe there are grounds to uphold this aspect of your complaint.
3. The episode incorrectly suggested the intention of one campaign was to target “lower educated white males”. The word “white” does not appear in any of the memos about the proposed campaign. The correction on the BBC Sounds and BBC website pages is an inadequate remedy.
The programme included a contribution from Kert Davies of the Climate Investigations Centre in which he referred to campaign strategies which were suggested on the basis of benchmark surveys carried out in the three areas in 1991 and which apparently informed the ICE Test Market Proposal. As I am sure you are aware, the survey document suggests “two possible target audiences” one of which was “those who are most receptive to messages describing the motivations and vested interests of people currently making pronunciations on global warming“. This is how it was reported in the programme broadcast on Radio 4 (the version on BBC Sounds contains a slightly longer extract from the strategy document):
Kert Davies: They talk about targeting lower educated white males and they have, like, specific demographics that they are going to target. It’s that mercenary. Let me find the exact quote. Here it says …
Voice Over: One possible target audience includes older, lesser educated males from larger households who are not typically information seekers. They are good targets for radio advertisements. Another possible target segment is younger low income women. They are likely to believe the earth is warming and to think the problem is serious. However, they are also likely to soften their support for federal legislation after hearing new information on global warming.
Kert Davies: So they are targeting those two audiences, seeing if they can bend the needle from what they’ve already secured as the baseline data, that people are very concerned about this.
Peter Pomerantsev: For me, this document is one of the most revealing things I’ve seen while making this series. It shows how, in 1991, pollsters had already clocked that what they called low educated, older, white males could be swayed on climate change.
It’s clear both Mr Davies and the presenter, Peter Pomerantsev, referred to “white males” whereas the extract from the campaign proposal only mentioned “older, lesser educated males“. I agree it would have been better if they had avoided an interpretation which was not in the actual wording and I think it’s appropriate this has been acknowledged on the relevant BBC Website and BBC Sounds pages. Such mistakes obviously shouldn’t occur.
However, I don’t regard the reference to “white males” in this context as likely to have misled the audience in a significant manner. As I stated above, in order for this to be materially misleading, and therefore in breach of the BBC’s editorial standards, there would have to be persuasive evidence the “older, lesser educated males from larger households” identified by the benchmark surveys were not likely to be predominantly white, or that older, white men would not make up a significant proportion of the group considered as “good targets for radio advertisements“. The initial surveys were conducted in Chattanooga in Tennessee, Fargo in North Dakota, and Flagstaff in Arizona. The vast majority of people in each town are white, according to the United States Census Bureau, and my research indicates that was also the case in the early 1990s. A census published in 1990 indicates 79.6% of the population of Hamilton County in Tennessee, which includes Chattanooga, was white. The census for Arizona shows the population of Flagstaff City was 79.6% white. The census for North Dakota shows 97.6% of Cass County, which includes Fargo, was white.
I therefore do not have grounds to uphold this aspect of your complaint.
There is no further right of appeal against this decision within the BBC’s complaints process but if you do wish to take the matter further, it is open to you to ask the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, to consider your complaint. You can find details of how to contact Ofcom and the procedures it will apply at the following website: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/how-to-report-a-complaint. You can also write to Ofcom at Riverside House, 2a Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 9HA, or telephone either 0300 123 3333 or 020 7981 3040.