Deforestation, Palm Oil and The BBC: The end of impartiality?

A Response from Deforestation Watch to the BBC program called “The End of the Jungle” hosted by Angus Stickler on 7th January 2010

“The lofty editorial guidelines issued pursuant to the BBC Charter reads:

“Impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. It applies across all of our services and output, whatever the format, from radio news bulletins via our web sites to our commercial magazines and includes a commitment to reflecting a diversity of opinion.”

“The Agreement accompanying the BBC’s Charter requires us to produce comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the UK and throughout the world to support fair and informed debate. It specifies that we should do all we can to treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality in our news services and other programmes dealing with matters of public policy or of political or industrial controversy. It also states that the BBC is forbidden from expressing an opinion on current affairs or matters of public policy other than broadcasting.”

The guidelines promise:

“In practice, our commitment to impartiality means:

·    we seek to provide a properly balanced service consisting of a wide range of subject matter and views broadcast over an appropriate time scale across all our output. We take particular care when dealing with political or industrial controversy or major matters relating to current public policy.
·    we strive to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under represented.
·    we exercise our editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.
·    we can explore or report on a specific aspect of an issue or provide an opportunity for a single view to be expressed, but in doing so we do not misrepresent opposing views. They may also require a right of reply.
·    we must ensure we avoid bias or an imbalance of views on controversial subjects.
·    the approach to, and tone of, BBC stories must always reflect our editorial values. Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC, they can have a significant impact on the perceptions of our impartiality.
·    our journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgments but may not express personal opinions on matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal views of our journalists and presenters on such matters.
·    we offer artists, writers and entertainers scope for individual expression in drama, arts and entertainment and we seek to reflect a wide range of talent and perspective.
·    we will sometimes need to report on or interview people whose views may cause serious offence to many in our audiences. We must be convinced, after appropriate referral, that a clear public interest outweighs the possible offence.
·    we must rigorously test contributors expressing contentious views during an interview whilst giving them a fair chance to set out their full response to our questions.
·    we should not automatically assume that academics and journalists from other organisations are impartial and make it clear to our audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint.”

The BBC Trust was set up to ensure that the BBC adheres to its strict code of editorial impartiality. In fact, the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage, including eco-issues such as global warming, are to be investigated by the BBC Trust. Says Richard Tait, the chair of the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee: “Heated debate in recent years around topics like climate change, genetically modified crops and the MMR vaccine reflects this, and BBC reporting has to steer a course through these controversial issues while remaining impartial.”

The BBC Trust said today that the review would assess news and factual output that refers to scientific findings, “particularly science output relating to current public policy and matters of political controversy”.

The trust added that for the review science will be defined as not just the natural sciences but also “those aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that entail scientific statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists”.

This is the third impartiality review that the BBC has carried out, following an investigation of business coverage in 2007 and the devolved nations last year.

Deforestation Watch observes however, that the BBC’s editorial guidelines on impartiality appeared to be honored by its breach rather than its observance, especially vis a vis its coverage of the palm oil and deforestation issue.

Take the recent BBC program “The End of the Jungle”, hosted by Angus Stickler who accused the Malaysian government and the palm oil industry of “laying waste to the last remaining rainforests of Borneo in what has been described as a corporate land grab.”  Stickler further alleged: “It’s estimated that only 3 percent of the primary rainforest of Malaysian Borneo remains.”

An examination of the facts shows that Mr. Stickler appears to have a propensity for gross exaggeration and hyperbole!

Let’s examine the facts. 

Malaysian Borneo is made up of the states of Sabah and Sarawak.  According to the FAO, “Malaysia has a total land area of 330 242 km2 (33 million ha). Peninsular Malaysia has an area of 131,573km², while Sabah and Sarawak cover 73,711km² and 124,449km² respectively.”

“Malaysia is one of the few remaining heavily forested tropical countries with 61 percent of total land area of 20.06 million ha covered with natural forest . Dipterocarp forest constitutes the bulk of Malaysia’s forest areas (89 percent), followed by peat swamp forest (7 percent), mangrove forest (3 percent), and planted forest (1 percent).”

“Of the total forest area 5.97 million ha are in Peninsular Malaysia, 4.25 million in Sabah, and 9.84 million in Sarawak (Table 1).”  In other words, Malaysian Borneo alone accounts for more than 70% of the forest cover in Malaysia.

Table 1. Malaysian forest cover by region (2001)
Region    Area (millions ha)      
                      Land   Natural Planted  Total            Forest Area
                      area    forest    forest      Forest         as % of land
                                                                  Area             area      
Peninsular  13.16    5.90       0.07        5.97                 45.4      
Sabah            7.40    4.10       0.15        4.25                 57.4      
Sarawak      12.44    9.81       0.03        9.84                 79.1      
Malaysia      33.00   19.81      0.25      20.06                60.8     

From Table 1 above, it is clear that as at 2001, the forest cover in the state of Sarawak alone stands at a whopping 79.1% whilst Sabah can boast forest cover of 57.4%.

It behooves one to ask, just how Stickler could arrive at the conclusion that “only 3 percent of the primary rainforest of Malaysian Borneo remains”!

On the issue of the displacement of native land in Borneo, Stickler goes on to point out that “the Kayan and other tribes are fighting in the courts. They say they have documents to prove their right to the land.” According to Stickler, “Harrison Ngau, who is heading the legal challenge,” told him: “The natives are subsistence farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen – a simple people”.

Perhaps Mr Stickler should be apprised of the recent ruling by Malaysia’s highest court affirming the land rights of indigenous people which exposes the lie that native people are being displaced with impunity.

A panel of three Federal Court judges unanimously ruled that tribes have customary ownership of land they have lived on for generations and state governments cannot take it from them without compensation.

The tribes, who mostly live in poor settlements in the jungles of Borneo, argue that the land is theirs because they have lived on it for generations. In 2007 the Federal Court ruled that a family of the Kedayan group in Sarawak state on Borneo had rights over land they used and that they should be compensated. The government had taken over the land in the 1990s to grant it for oil exploration.

The state government sought a final review of the decision in the more-than-decade-old case, but recently another Federal Court panel upheld the ruling in favor of the family.

 Last year in an unprecedented move, the Malaysian government said it would grant ownership of farming land to about 20,000 indigenous families to improve their lives.

The fact that indigenous tribes in Malaysian Borneo could successfully seek relief in a court of law in Malaysia, in the view of Deforestation Watch, disproves the wild and disingenuous imputations of Mr. Stickler that they are being driven off their land with impunity!

In the circumstances, perhaps the BBC Trust would care to look into this gross violation of the BBC’s editorial guidelines by a less than impartial and ethical reporter in Mr. Stickler. Would the BBC Trust care?