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Heated row over cooling article

globe_west_540redNASA VE.jpgThe BBC is facing allegations that it altered a news story about climate at the behest of an activist.

A series of emails from BBC reporter Roger Harrabin and activist Jo Abbess were posted on the Campaign Against Climate Change website on April 4th.

After a series of back and forths Harrabin writes “Have a look in 10 minutes and tell me you are happier. … We have changed headline and more”.

The original headline – Global Warming ‘dips this year’ – changed to the current Global Temperatures ‘to decrease’. Needless to say as soon as these emails were noticed they were picked up by unhappy sceptic bloggers (here, here and here for example).

The BBC told us:

A minor change was made to the “Global temperatures ‘to decrease’” piece on our website to better reflect the science. A few people including the report’s authors, the world meteorlogical organisation, pointed out to us that the earlier version had been ambiguous.

Harrabin was contacted by Abbess who asks for corrections to it, sometimes in quite a heavy handed fashion, for example:

It would be better if you did not quote the sceptics. Their voice is heard everywhere, on every channel. They are deliberately obstructing the emergence of the truth.

And also:

I am about to send your comments to others for their contribution, unless you request I do not. They are likely to want to post your comments on forums/fora, so please indicate if you do not want this to happen. You may appear in an unfavourable light because it could be said that you have had your head turned by the sceptics.

The News Sniffer site highlights some changes other than the headline*. These were already annoying some sceptics even before the emails surfaced.

Making corrections to an article in response to a complaint is not necessarily wrong.

It’s certainly a bit much to string up Harrabin as a result of this exchange. I’ve certainly gone over things I’ve written and thought “I wish I’d put that differently.”

To my mind there are only two questions to be answered here.

The first of these is should the BBC have flagged the article as having been changed? The answer here is yes if they thought the original version was wrong, and no if they thought they were just altering for readability. As they think the change is minor then there isn’t really a need to flag it**.

The second question is why on earth Abbess put up the email exchange. Anyone could have predicted the response from the sceptics out there…


Old version [top three paragraphs] New version
Global temperatures will drop slightly this year as a result of the cooling effect of the La Nina current in the Pacific, UN meteorologists have said. Global temperatures for 2008 will be slightly cooler than last year as a result of the cold La Nina current in the Pacific, UN meteorologists have said.
The World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, told the BBC it was likely that La Nina would continue into the summer. The World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, told the BBC it was likely that La Nina would continue into the summer.
This would mean global temperatures have not risen since 1998, prompting some to question climate change theory.

But experts say we are still clearly in a long-term warming trend – and they forecast a new record high temperature within five years.

But this year’s temperatures would still be way above the average – and we would soon exceed the record year of 1998 because of global warming induced by greenhouse gases.
  • Here’s an extract from a blog post by a BBC editor from 2006:

    When we make a major change or revision to a story we republish it with a new timestamp, indicating it’s a new version of the story. If there’s been a change to a key point in the story we will often point this out in the later version (saying something like “earlier reports had said…”).

    But lesser changes – including minor factual errors, corrected spellings and reworded paragraphs – go through with no new timestamp because in substance the story has not actually progressed any further. This has led to accusations we are “stealth editing” – a sinister-sounding term that implies we are actively trying to hide what we are doing. We’re not. It’s just that continually updating the timestamp risks making it meaningless, and pages of notes about when and where minor revisions are made do not make for a riveting read

Cross-posted from Daniel Cressey on The Great Beyond


  1. Report this comment

    Peter said:

    Depending on where you read, the BBC has either not commented, or seen merit in brevity to the point of being a tad terse, as evidenced in the explanatory quote here.

    I have had my eyebrow cocked over this since the first ‘outing’ a few days ago, if only having seen the extent of the exchanges, the speed of replies, the response time of the changes… and that this whole tidy bundle went up verbatim courtesy, I presume, of the proud heroine.

    But is there any confirmation yet, preferably from Mr. Harrabin, that this exchange – as shared on many blogs verbatim – is in fact what went down?

    The facts of the original vs. subsequent posts are already beyond doubt, sadly, for public trust in news reporting and editorial standards when ‘passionate agendas’ are at involved. Sorry, I can live with the original and still think the weather is acting damn strange, so it don’t need ‘clarifying’ for me. Just another piece in the jigsaw.

    But if proven, I fear the work of those of a more balanced viewpoint just got heaps harder in advocating that if things are as bad as some are saying (I don’t take phrases like ‘The most serious threat to mankind…’ from major international public figures lightly) then some mitigating actions should be embraced, when such activities between protagonists like a minor activist and major medium end up splattered around like this.

    The more you seek to suppress inconvenient views (even, or especially if they are possibly ready to be found wanting), the more you will make them attractive. The best action, surely, is to share, and debate, openly. It is a concern that highly significant data is subject to the interpretation and vetting of such a limited number of persons of questionable analytical qualifications in a huge, objective-by-charter media outlet. Who else, beyond Mr. Harrabin, decides what is or is not put up, changed or removed? And what science training and ethical objectivity is in place to guide them on ‘our’ behalves? Especially if so easily swayed by a lone voice with a different take?

    I freely confess I don’t know yet what is going on with Probably Man-Worsened Negative Climate Change, but in making judgements I certainly don’t feel too on board with the notion that what I am getting fed is being pre-adjusted by such as my national broadcaster… to help with my understanding in a ‘better’ direction.

    I will be very interested in how this plays… or possibly fizzles out. But whatever happens, if as described I suspect it will lurk as a rather potent card should the reporting of significant state-backed media ever be cited in support of contentious science issues.

  2. Report this comment

    Jo op het Veld (Eindhoven) said:

    I just wanted to add my own opinion on this story:

    The activist has caused more damage to the climate change cause then the original post by the BBC reporter.

    If this activist and her disgraceful bullying behaviour is the ‘norm’ for green campaigners then my sympathies to the general UK public.

    To put a message across requires that both arguments are heard, if militant activists attempt to stop alternative views being heard then all they will achieve is pushing people into the opposing camp.

  3. Report this comment

    Bishop Hill said:


    The answer to your question about what scientific training is available is that Roger Harrabin has a degree in English. This may explain why he was so sensitive to the accusation of not having sufficient education.

  4. Report this comment

    Jack Hughes said:

    Harrabin’s original story looked like this:

    “The glass is half full…”

    After some bullying by Jo Abbess it now reads:

    “The glass is half empty…”

    His job is to report the facts – not his own or the BBC’s house opinions.

    PS: Harrabin has a degree in … English. No science qualifications at all – not even an O-level or CSE.

  5. Report this comment

    Laurence Francis Sheldon, Junior said:

    Probably a good thing to say that it would have been a lot warmer as predicted by the settled science, if only it had not gotten colder.

    What does my full name add to the picture?

  6. Report this comment

    Timo Hämeranta said:

    Current state in Climatology is still as follows:

    “The research found that the climate change discourse in the UK today looks confusing, contradictory and

    chaotic. For every argument or perspective, whether on the scale of the problem, its nature, seriousness,

    causation or reversibility, there is a voice declaring its opposite. The conclusion must be that the battle is

    not won: climate change is not yet an issue that is taken for granted. It seems likely that the overarching

    message for the lay public is that in fact, nobody really knows.”

    Quote from

    Ereaut, Gil, and Nat Segnit, 2006. Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better? Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) publication, August 3, 2006, online

    Every time media ignores the fact “nobody really knows” media is biased and will mislead public.

    Uncertainty is the only certainty.

  7. Report this comment

    Mike said:

    An animation on the BBC story alteration is available here.

    BBC before and after

    To stop the animation press the “Esc” key; to restart it press the “F5” key.

    The original story which the Ministry Of Truth doesn’t want you to see is still available via Yahoo Cache but make a copy quickly before it times out like copies in Google and Live.

    Global warming ‘dips this year’

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