BBC's cooling tower smokescreen blown away by Trust ruling

20 October 2009

A complaint lodged by a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry last year has led to Panorama having its knuckles rapped by the BBC Trust for inaccurately portraying cooling towers.

BBC1's Panorama: Comeback Coal repeatedly illustrated its warnings about greenhouse gases with images of cooling towers emitting nothing but water vapour - despite internal BBC guidelines specifically stating this should be avoided.

After repeated rejection by the usual BBC complaints handling process, it was finally raised at the highest level possible when it was passed to the BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee, who upheld it, stating "the image of the cooling towers when associated with comments of greenhouse gas emissions had been inaccurate."

They arrived at this decision taking into account internal guidelines from BBC News saying: "So can we please take extra care and not talk specifically about CO2 when showing the cooling towers emitting steam. Even a wide shot including the exhaust chimneys which do release greenhouse gases could continue to give a misrepresentative picture without careful scripting."

Panorama is only the latest of many media to fall foul of this misconception. The maligned image of the cooling tower as a greenhouse-gas-belching behemoth has pervaded advertising and entertainment media for decades.

Chartered chemist and RSC member Clyde W. Paris complained to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit in December of last year, citing a public engagement initiative by the RSC in 2007.

RSC chief executive Dr Richard Pike had asked people on the streets of London to identify from photographs the billowing plumes emitted from cooling towers.

More than two-thirds of the surveyed public wrongly assumed the emissions were smoke or other harmful emissions, with only one in a hundred having a good understanding of what cooling towers are used for.

"The results of our 2007 survey showed how misleading imagery in programming and advertisements can lead to public misunderstanding," said Dr Pike.

"While science exams get less and less challenging and teachers are placed under more and more demands to meet bureaucratic targets, public service reporting of scientific issues has never been more important.

"In the BBC's own words, 'accuracy is a core editorial value and fundamental to [their] reputation.' If the public cannot rely on Panorama for accurate information, where does that reputation stand?"

The ruling comes as the RSC launches its chemical sciences roadmap titled "Chemistry for Tomorrow's World".

Trust in science, and engagement in debate on the benefits and burdens of new technologies, is essential for the chemical sciences community to meet the challenges of sustainable food, water and energy, the report says.

Unless the public is provided with accurate information by the information sources it already trusts, such as the BBC, we will face major difficulties addressing the challenges of the future.

Related Links

Link icon BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee report July 09 (published Oct 09)
A report outlining the response to several complaints about BBC programmes, including one from an RSC member

Chemistry for Tomorrow's World

How can the chemical sciences provide technological and sustainable solutions to the problems faced by tomorrow's world? See the RSC's roadmap for the Chemical Sciences.

Myth of cooling towers is symptomatic of global warming information shortage

15 February 2007

More than two-thirds of people in the UK believe, wrongly, that smoke or harmful emissions emerge from cooling towers.

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