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Fear of the big Greenwash

One of the mildly annoying things about having a deeper knowledge of a specific subject is that your ears get overly sensitive. Due to my Delingpole filter (see ‘Deliver us from Delingpole’) I always check myself when I jump to some rash conclusion a question I might hear, say, a BBC reporter ask on the radio.

It is a common middle class habit, pottering around the kitchen in the morning making eggy bread for your children and shouting at the radio. I try and stop myself, life is too short, it’s only Radio 4, it’s only the Today program, it’s fluff, a stream of mildly Daily Mail style anxiety.

There are many ways a reporter could and should legitimately ask a question about a renewable energy story for example. There was a report on the Today program this morning about the big tidal turbine installation being proposed at Islay in the Inner Hebrides. (Full disclosure, I’ve just been there)

A new, large scale installation like this throws up many problems, for one thing, the connection of this remote generating source to the National Grid. That is a very good point, it’s a question that needs to be asked.

‘How much will it cost to connect this system to the grid?’

There you go, that’s a direct question, there’s no getting out of that.

Here’s what the reporter actually said.

‘But it’s obviously going to cost a fortune to connect this to the grid.’

Oh wait, that’s not a question, that’s a statement.

The spokesman he was interviewing did an excellent job countering the negativity and the key points came across very well. The reporter was just being provocative to get the required response. All good, ‘balanced’ stuff.

There was of course no mention of the cost of connecting a massive new nuclear or coal fired generator to the grid, they are built on the coast and require massive, expensive connections to the grid, and of course they need a constant supply of expensive, dangerous fuel, but I suppose that is so obvious no one is going to mention it. Oh, and just in case you truly don’t know, ‘traditional’ generator systems all receive massive government subsidies, tax breaks and ‘incentives,’ far more than any renewable project ever has.

The next question could have been:

‘How much electricity will these marine turbines generate?’

Perfectly legitimate question. Instead he made another statement.

‘But you’d need at least a thousand of these turbines to generate the same amount as a large coal burning plant.’

The implication being, ‘this is just silly isn’t it, it’ll never work, it’s just greenwash.’

i.e the official Clarksonian line.

Thankfully the spokesman again dealt with the chronic lack of understanding, and short term thinking the statement revealed explaining that the tidal turbines will produce very reliable, predictable zero fuel, zero carbon electricity which is just the thing the National Grid wants.

Now, if I’d been asking the same man questions for Fully Charged, I’d have been chronically biased in the other direction. I’d have said

‘So these turbines produce industrial amounts of power day in day out without burning fuels we have to import at vast expense.’

You see, very biased, very leading, very one sided.

But I don’t work for the BBC, Fully Charged is an independent production not reliant on the license fee. The BBC are meant to be balanced and for 99% of the stories they cover they are.

It is on the topic of specifically electric vehicles and to a lesser extent, renewable energy where they have shown a chronic, long term Clarksonian bias. They sneer and belittle, they josh and denigrate. This isn’t recent, this has been going on for years. I wish someone from the BBC could explain why.

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Reader Comments (12)

Perhaps it is not inherent BBC bias, but the prejudices of individual reporters coming through in the reporting. Still unbalanced, but maybe there's no conspiracy?

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Grant

One problem with the BBC's anti-bias rules is that they also preclude common-sense judgements. For example, if someone comes up with a completely off-the-wall theory, something like this almost hilarious electric car report on Sky News, the BBC will avoid bias by giving equal airtime to the proponents and the sceptics.

However, this isn't unbiassed - it's in fact giving undue credit to those who are ridiculous, and doing harm to the public perception. In cases where there's a genuine unknown, this is a good default position (which is why the rules are written to enforce it), but where there's a scientific consensus, it's counterproductive to put quackery and lunacy an equal footing, and as any scientist with basic GCSE-level-or-above knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics and conservation of energy will tell you, this particular car is at best an honest mistake, and at worst, a fraud.

The dear old Beeb do try - and I love them for trying at all: I'm a strong BBC supporter on most issues, and happy to pay the licence fee! - but they could do with a little refinement of the rules.

That said, I share your frustration about the Auntie's scorn of electric vehicles and alternative energy systems. I realise I'm in a biassed position myself as a (very happy) owner and driver of a real, working electric car, but their continuing negativity towards EVs can't be justified by their 'unbiassing' rules OR by consensus-balancing... it's wrong in either measure. I was reluctant to believe they'd be so biassed, but it's hard to refute.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffery Lay

I think a lot of this might be due to the current miserable trend of journalists thinking balanced means "giving equal time to both sides of the story". We see it with any debate on climate change, equal time is given to supporters and sceptics - giving the public the impression the debate remains in the balance.

It isn't just renewables that get this kind of treatment. Every article on any energy source will include a quote from whatever organisation opposes them. And every energy source has an opponent.

I was recently at a conference where a journalist said he didn't have time to learn about the issues he was covering - what he needed was to be able to contact 'experts' who would give both sides of a debate. But sometimes the story isn't about a debate. It is about learning facts and there aren't two sides to a fact.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Cobb

Interesting you should mention connecting up conventional power stations. They are consulting right now on how to connect the new nuclear stations across Cumbria, and whether the cable should be under or over ground. I can't imagine that will be cheap either way.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Is this the tidal water between Islay and Jura that is being talked about? Ideal place for generation - hope you took the ferry across there - we tried to get one at peak flow just to travel at 45 degrees to the flow.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Osborne

Infuriating! Take heart though, I don't think green energy is being singled out. I've noticed BBC journalists clumsily trying to be devil's advocate in most interviews. This one was clumsier than most. Pillock.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGrumpy Old Ratbag

Andy Osborne
Indeed we did film on Islay, at the location of the tidal turbines. Truly impressive vista and we did watch the ferry going sideways across the water from Jura. Beautiful place and we were blessed with stunning weather

May 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterRobert Llewellyn

I'm afraid that the same approach is taken for practically every news item ever. Because you feel emotionally invested in green energy you're just now noticing it.

Watch carefully the next time you watch the news (a dirty habit which I've given up), and you will see that pretty much all reporters use this sort of passive-aggressive leading questioning.

Notable exceptions are Paxman, Jeremy Vine and Dimbles.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave Boggles

About four hours ago I decided to leave a comment on this page.

I started typing...

I realised I needed to be more informative, so I added more information...

I realised I needed to split the information into nice little sub heading so it was easier to read...

I realised I needed to add useful links to other web sites...

I realised that it wasn't a comment any more, but a blog post...

I realised that I didn't have a blog...

I created one...

Here it is: My Blog Post

I am now going to lie down in a darkened pub!

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike Tonge

It is a shame that there are so rarely two informed people in an interview, who aren't looking to score points or get soundbites.

These turbines do seem a good idea for the island, and as a way of supporting new technology but I'd also argue that they do not produce 'industrial quantities of electricty'. The Islay facility has a capacity of 10MW, which is definitely plenty for those living there but peanuts in comparison to the amount required to make a difference to UK energy generation. A mix is definitely needed and a range of ideas should be encouraged - but this is a very expensive way to do it. I've not seen mentions of expected turbine lifetimes or maintenance costs either...which at sea will definitely not be trivial.

And if you did build this on a much larger scale, there is currently a sensible penalty imposed on you by National Grid if you build power stations too far away from where the electricity is needed (although this may be soon being overturned, partly due to lobbying from Alex Salmond to make Scottish windfarms more attractive!). So although the connection of coal/nuclear/gas plants does cost, the electricity generated doesn't have to traverse most of the country (incurring losses) before it is used. I'm sure everyone would prefer if these things were as far away from population centres as possible, but the sheer cost of transmission lines to move many GWs of power is unfeasible. Germany is having to face up to this as they look to replace locally generated nuclear power in the south with North Sea wind.

May 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe


read my article on EV issues...your so naive about Nissan etc


May 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHoward

I know I've said this before on Fully Charged's channel comments and I tend to immediately post a comment about it as soon as I see the words "nuclear energy" anywhere, but I'd really like to find out what your stance is on thorium nuclear energy, specifically LFTRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors). They are much cheaper than traditional light water reactors.

If you don't already know about it these videos are the best ones:
Kirk Sorensen's Ted Talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2vzotsvvkw
Gordon McDowell's 2012 Remix: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9M__yYbsZ4 (only need to watch the first 5 minutes)

September 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

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