David Shukman

is the BBC’s environment and science correspondent. He talks to Olivia Edward about whether he believes scientists can still be trusted after all the scandals, and what it’s like to abseil inside an Antarctic ice sheet
I was born in London and raised in Oxford. My parents were both academics: my father was a specialist in modern Russian history and my mother was a specialist in literature. But I’ve never been interested in becoming an academic. I’m much more of a practical doer. I think that’s what guided me into journalism.

I was turned down by the BBC when I first applied. I tried several newspapers, too, and was eventually taken on by the Coventry Evening Telegraph. I had two very happy years there, but the most appalling first day. I couldn’t type. I had never typed. I didn’t even know where the full stop key was. It took me about five hours to write a caption for a photograph.

I always imagined being a BBC correspondent somewhere with a ceiling fan and an orange tree growing in the garden, writing well-received dispatches on a typewriter in the tropical heat. But my first foreign news job was European correspondent in Brussels, reporting on fish quotas and the Common Agricultural Policy.

The dangers to which you expose yourself as a foreign correspondent affect people in different ways. For me, it was cumulative – I just became more and more worried about the risks. Then I was sent to Tajikistan to cover the famine, and by a weird coincidence, we arrived on 11 September 2001. As we checked in, we could see it all happening on the telly behind the reception. There was a chance to go into Afghanistan with the then rebels. I had seen the helicopters they were proposing to take us in, and I knew from my defence days that the Taliban had surface-to-air missiles and we would have to fly over Taliban territory. I just didn’t want to go, and I realised I had lost it – I had lost the bottle.

When I was offered the job of environment and science correspondent, I wasn’t sure whether I should take it. It hadn’t occurred to that it could have global potential. I didn’t see it that way until the editor explained it needn’t be boring, it could be about reporting the planet and its changes, and I could cover anything I might see on the front cover of Geographical, or imagine being on it: wildlife, rainforests, pollution.

I’ve seen some staggering sights in this job: the icebergs of Greenland in the midnight sun, amazing views of the Kalahari and dawn in the Amazon, but nothing has compared to abseiling into a crevasse on an Antarctic ice sheet. Light comes at you from all these different angles. It reminded me of diving onto a coral reef, descending into this other world of colour and light and strange shapes. I found it very moving.

I’ve never been particularly green. I make a very, very clear distinction between the job and my personal life, and I hope it isn’t necessarily possible to tell what I actually think. I believe that a journalist should retain scepticism about everything that they encounter professionally.

I think a lot of [environmental] campaign groups assume that the media are on the side of the campaigners, and I hope that they know that that isn’t the case with us. I’ve always made a point of getting away from campaigning and slogans and trying to get to the teams of researchers who are out on the front line and report what they’re finding out.

Following all the scandals, do I think scientists are still trustworthy? Since starting this job, various things have struck me. One is that they’re very sober. These are very unexcitable people. Second, they’re really diligent. They put themselves through ghastly hardship to get the numbers on the Greenland ice or the Kalahari Desert. These are people who are professionally determined to be accurate.

When scientists in their different fields say they are finding evidence of [climate] change, I find that convincing. Now, does it mean that we’re all going to drown tomorrow? No. Does it mean that temperatures will double overnight? No. It means a much more nuanced set of judgements. It means that there is an increasingly firm basis of science that points to the probability of certain things happening, decades away. That’s very different to: ‘We must fight global warming because we’re all going to die tomorrow.’ It’s a much more difficult thing for journalists to understand. And it’s very difficult for the public to understand.

Curriculum vitae
1958 Born in London
1971–76 Eton College, Windsor
1977–80 BA (Hons) in geography, Durham University
1980–83 Trainee reporter, Coventry Evening Telegraph
1985–87 Reporter, BBC Northern Ireland
1987–95 BBC defence correspondent
1995–99 BBC Europe correspondent, Brussels
1999–2003 BBC world affairs correspondent
2003–present BBC environment and science correspondent
2010 Reporting Live from the End of the World published

David's new book, Reporting Live from the End of the World is out now.

June 2010

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