Confor 'disappointed' by cursory BBC reply to formal complaint

27 May 2020

Confor has described a BBC reply to a complaint about a story claiming UK forests could do more harm than good as “cursory” - and says it does not consider the matter closed.

CEO Stuart Goodall took the unprecedented step of lodging a formal complaint about the story published on the BBC website on 7 April. It followed a report from the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), under the headline Climate Change: UK forests could do more harm than good. 

Quoting the NCC report - on using nature-based interventions to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – the BBC story said “Mass tree planting in the UK could harm the environment if not planned properly”, implying forestry practices that don’t exist in the UK. The forestry and wood industry was not offered a right of reply.  

The story also said “planting trees into peat bogs would be a serious mistake” - but did not seek comment from any professional source on whether such a practice was likely to happen, which it clearly isn’t.  

Former Forestry Commission Chair Sir Harry Studholme described the headline and story as "sorry, sensationalist and unnecessary". 

Confor complained on the basis that no professional foresters, or forestry bodies, were asked to comment to provide balance - and that the BBC report used emotive language, including "carpeting upland pastures with trees". The complaint said: "Having searched the NCC report we cannot find use of the word 'carpeting' which is an emotive term suggesting that Britain's uplands would be covered completely with trees. No-one - not least the government - is suggesting this.   

"A further complaint is that - despite leading with the statement that UK forests 'could do more harm than good' - the reporter did not seek comment from any qualified professional foresters or forestry organisations.  Had Confor been asked, we could have provided an expert response quickly that would have meant a more balanced article as a result."  

The BBC’s reply - from a member of the website complaints team - took just over a month to arrive and said: 

“Thank you for getting in touch about our article Climate change: UK forests 'could do more harm than good' and please accept our apologies for the long delay in our response. 

“We discussed your complaint with Roger Harrabin [the BBC's Energy and Environment Analyst] and stand by how we’ve reported this development. 

“The word carpeting is a journalistic word rather than scientific because we’re writing for a general audience but we believe the premise is still true. 

“Roger acknowledges that he didn’t ask Confor to comment, but the industry was one of many mentioned and we couldn't possibly ask them all.” 

Mr Goodall said: “It’s really disappointing to receive such a cursory reply. The explanation that the forestry industry was one of many mentioned is flawed as the headline and presentation focused the story very much on forestry practises. In the interests of providing the reader with a balanced perspective, it would have been a quick and easy matter to speak with someone from the industry. 

“I would also take issue with the explanation of the use of the word ‘carpeting’ because we are writing for a general audience. There was no indication within the NCC report that anybody had any intention of planting huge swathes of the uplands with trees, therefore choosing either a journalistic or a scientific word to imply something that isn’t the case gave the reader a mistaken perspective on the issue.” 

Mr Goodall pointed out that the BBC Charter says this about impartiality: “The BBC is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output. This commitment is fundamental to our reputation, our values and the trust of audiences.” 

He added: “In this case, I don’t believe that the BBC honoured this commitment and instead it provided comment that is damaging to the reputation of the industry – implying inappropriate, irresponsible and uncontrolled activity. Compounding this is the cursory nature of the response to Confor’s complaint which gives the impression of not taking the matter seriously. I will be writing back saying that I do not consider this matter to be closed.” 

Read the original story here.