About the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme and Earth Reporters

An apology to my regular reader/s. This is going to be very dull, but I’m aware of some comments over at Bishop Hill blog that require correction.

Some are about a long term series of seminars I co-organised with Roger Harrabin of the BBC. Below I paste in a couple of pages that describe the seminars, their purpose, organisation and funding between 1996 and 2009. The same information has appeared in various places in the public realm over the years, but I sent this particular text in reply to a query from Tony Newbery in July 2009. The only amendment made to that document is to add that date and my name at the top for ease of attribution, and I should make clear that several elements of the document are out of date: the CMEP residential seminars (titled ‘Real World Seminars’) that ran more or less annually for nearly fifteen years ended at that time. It is probably worth adding that the ‘Environment’ bit of the CMEP title came to be a bit misleading – the range of topics was generally far wider as the note below makes clear, but it reflected where we started with that work.

On a separate issue, the post and comments raise questions about the Earth Reporters series on which I was the Open University’s nominated academic adviser. Two of the programmes appear in a list that the BBC Trust have reviewed in terms of the nature of their sponsorship and the visibility at the beginning and end of the programme of any sponsorship arrangements. There isn’t much for me to say on this. Institutionally we were very happy with the programmes: they make for really handy documentaries on diverse environmental topics and very successfully help to bring individual examples of human ingenuity and doggedness to the fore in problem solving around the world. However the content of the programmes was not the Trusts’ concern: once they had established that they were not current affairs programmes they were looking at the nature of the crediting of the sponsorship on these and a large number of other programmes. The Open University have a forty year history of partnership with the BBC on the basis of shared public service objectives, and hence we are very uncomplicated partners as co-producers in this and many other instances of great programming (e.g. the wonderful Frozen Planet currently on BBC One in the UK). My institution does not get involved in the BBC’s consideration of how other parties are credited on e.g. BBC World – its just not our business. As an aside I can say in a personal capacity that I thought the BBC Trust’s judgements were spot on. It is critical that the BBC and its governance structures constantly walk the border to protect public recognition of the institution’s impartiality.


July 2009, Dr. Joe Smith

In recent years a group of BBC managers and editors have met in Cambridge with outside contributors in an on-going series known as the Real World seminars. They are designed to stimulate creative thinking about media coverage of world issues, deepen the understanding of guest participants of the potential and limitations of the media as well as helping the BBC towards its Charter obligations.

Diverse discussion topics under the broad heading of ‘making sense of an interconnected world’ have included: ageing, food, risk, future superpowers, technology, climate change, business investment, biodiversity, entrepreneurialism, public health, population, investment flows, immigration and innovation. Other themes have stimulated different ways of storytelling and narrative ideas prompted by, for instance, material objects.

In order to facilitate frank discussions the meetings are run according to the Chatham House Rule so individuals attend in response to a private invitation rather than to represent their organisations, and their comments cannot be reproduced in such a way as to allow attribution. The idea is to create the setting for interesting and wide ranging conversations, and to avoid dogmatic positions being taken. Participation is diverse in terms of opinions and background.

Recent seminars have included experts from multi-national business and SMEs; think-tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and Overseas Development Institute; academics and researchers from many universities and specialisms (science, technology, economic and social sciences, and history); and policy experts and field workers from agencies and NGOs -particularly from the developing world.

The seminars are organised by a partnership comprising BBC News, BBC Vision, The International Broadcasting Trust and myself, a senior lecturer in Geography at the Open University.

The first of the series of seminars over 12 years ago was devised by me during my time as Director of Programmes for the University of Cambridge Committee for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (CIES), in conjunction with Roger Harrabin, then a Today programme reporter on sabbatical at Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Roger´s sabbatical research investigated the challenges for news journalists of reporting on long-term slow-moving systemic trends like environmental change. We were asked by the head of BBC News Tony Hall to engage senior managers and editors in discussion on how to improve broadcast debate of long-term issues like these which do not always offer ready news “pegs”.

The early seminars were run under the aegis of the CIES. Since the demise of that committee we organised the meetings under the title Cambridge Media and Environment Programme. Not a particularly snappy or, as time went on, apt title: the seminars of the last six to eight years have ranged much more widely than environmental issues. We co- directed the early seminars. Roger undertook this as part of his BBC work and was not paid extra. He has been made an honorary Associate Press Fellow in the Press Fellowship Programme at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in recognition of his work. Again, this is an unpaid post. CMEP is currently negotiating to find an appropriate new academic home for the work.

The BBC has now become an acknowledged global leader in bringing complex environmental news and debates to a world audience so the remit of the seminars has broadened over the last five years with the addition of another partner, the International Broadcasting Trust. The current remit of the seminars is to illuminate the challenges and opportunities facing an increasingly inter-connected world.

Roger Harrabin is now BBC Environment Analyst and alongside his broadcast responsibilities he plays an advisory role with a particular responsibility towards ensuring impartiality on the BBC’s behalf.

The only purpose of CMEP is to research and plan media seminars. It has been funded across the twelve years by donors who have included: HSBC; Vivendi; the Bowring Trust; WWF UK; ESRC; Dept of Environment; The Tyndall Centre and BG Group. The funding pays for my time on a consultancy basis, administrative support and incidental expenses, and travel expenses for some overseas contributors. Some of the donors have been asked to provide experts to the seminars in years when this has been pertinent, but they have no say in topics or participation. The programme is currently seeking funders.

The costs of the residential seminars e.g. hiring of the venue are paid for by the BBC, reflecting the fact that the BBC make up the vast majority of the media participation. Feedback on the seminars is typically extremely enthusiastic as the seminars provide thinking space for hard-pressed executives to examine creative issues in an informal setting. We know that the specialists that attend also get a great deal out of the insights they gain into media decision-making.

Participants are invited in a personal capacity, hence we do not supply lists of attendees.

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