Plans to show a TV special on climate change have been scrapped by the BBC under fighting over impartiality. Senior BBC executives protested about the plans for “Planet Relief” which would devote a full day to programmes about the environment, claiming it was “not the BBC’s job to lead opinion on climate change” and that this could breach impartiality guidelines.
Celebrities such as Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Ross had expressed interest in presenting programmes, which were expected to go on air in January 2008. The concept was intended to match things like Live8, which sought to raise awareness of global poverty through entertainment.
The idea was criticised as not in keeping with the role of the BBC. Peter Horrocks, head of BBC television news, said “we should be giving people information, not leading them.” A report commissioned by the BBC Trust on impartiality concluded that “Programmes that are in league with campaigns have no place on the BBC, because of the inherent loss of editorial control.”
However, a BBC spokesperson claimed that the cancellation of Planet Relief was due to audience opinion. “This decision was not made in light of the recent debate around impartiality.”
After the Live Earth concert earlier this year was greeted with a generally negative reception (the Times review of the event was entitled “Live Earth fails to pack a large-scale punch”), media and public enthusiasm for such pop culture entertainment-cum-educational events is waning. The BBC spokesperson added “Our audiences tell us they are most receptive to documentary or factual style programming as a means of learning about the issues surrounding this subject, and as part of this learning we have made the decision not to proceed with the Planet Relief event.”
However, the move has been greeted with disappointment by environmentalists. Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper said the decision is very disappointing “considering the huge potential for the BBC in helping us more quickly make the shift toward a low carbon society. The science of climate change is very clear and if approached in the right way taking up this very serious issue would not compromise the BBC’s impartiality.”
He also questioned why the BBC should treat climate change differently from recent television campaigns over child welfare, international development and wildlife protection.
In addition to the programmes, the Planet Relief event was to have included a mass switch-off of electrical appliances that viewers could participate in, coordinated with the national grid. A similar action known as “Earth Hour” went ahead in Sydney in March and was greeted as a successful way of raising public awareness about energy use.
Peter Barron, editor of the BBC Two Newsnight programme, played a key role in calling for the cancellation of Planet Relief, commenting that it was “not the corporation’s job to save the planet”.
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