"He's a little bit too eager to bend over backwards to be politically respectable," is how Richard Dawkins describes the celebrated snail biologist and broadcaster Dr Steven Jones.
Jones' recent political activity includes campaigning for the abolition of private schools and against a visit to Britain by the Pope. Now Jones has examined the BBC's science coverage – and concluded that there are too many climate sceptics appearing on the BBC.
Jones was commissioned and endorsed by the BBC's independent governing body, the BBC Trust. The Trust invited Jones to report on the impartiality and accuracy of the Beeb's science coverage. Jones found that 75 per cent of the BBC's science stories were based on a single press release, and seven out of eight of those only feature the source – there is no additional view to the story.
Jones also implies the correspondents are lazy: they rely on too few sources, too few experts, are overly dependent on reaction stories (to press releases) and focus too narrowly on too few subjects. Research conducted for Jones by the Science Communications Research Group at Imperial College found no significant factual errors in a monitoring period.
But instead of giving the hacks a dusting down, Jones concludes that the BBC's science output is "of high quality". He recommends creating a Science Editor and an additional internal committee at the BBC that will meet regularly.
The Trust has welcomed Jones' conclusions and will endorse his recommendations. It will hold an impact assessment to report back next summer.
Dr Jones was the BBC's Reith's Lecturer in 1991, has presented a six-part BBC TV series on genetics, and appears regularly on radio and TV.
It's drizzling denialists
That Jones was invited to report on the BBC's traditional policy of impartiality was relevant. The corporation has decided it isn't bound by the requirement, which is part of its charter, for environmental stories - a peace-time first. Jones views on the climate "debate" are unambiguous: there isn't one, he says, despite "a drizzle" of activity from a handful of outside journalists who, he says, "have taken it upon themselves to keep disbelief alive".
Because the BBC is annoying everyone, it must be doing something right, he reasons.
Jones then dons a shrink's hat, and attempts to seek the psychology of the BBC's critics with some generalisations. He compares climate critics to 9/11 conspiracy theorists and pro-smoking campaigners who all "practise denialism", he says.
"Purity of belief makes it easy for denialists to attract the attention of news organisations, but hard for them to balance their ideas against those of the majority. This can lead to undue publicity for views supported by no factual information at all."
"There have been many computer models of what may happen in future," Jones says, adding, "almost every climatologist predicts a period of rising temperature".
"Truth is not defined by opinion polls," writes Jones, quoting six opinion poll surveys, "... but it is difficult to deny the consensus," he suggests.
In light of this, too much emphasis has been given to climate sceptics, the report concludes, singling out Jeremy Vine for asking "Does anyone believe the claims anymore?", and for Vine's claims that "experts" were at "loggerheads". This is unnecessarily antagonistic journalism, thinks Jones, "10 years after the consensus has been reached that (whatever the cause) climate change is happening". Jones concludes: "The factual argument, even for activists, appears to be largely over, but parts of the BBC are taking a long time to notice."
Jones own factual accuracy has already taken a pasting. He claims the Global Warming Policy Foundation made a submission, but it didn't. Jones also claims "95% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, while in fact human activity has been responsible for a 40% rise in concentration".
Many Conservative MPs – I've spoken to several – are itching to abolish the BBC Trust. The body's unquestioning acceptance of Dr Jones' breezy report may have given them all the ammunition they need. ®