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:


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.”


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

·    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.”


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”.


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.


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.”


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     


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.


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?

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