There was a cry of anguish from environment scientists and journalists alike at the news that Richard Black has left the BBC. Richard has spent 12 years covering science at the BBC including a long stint as science reporter for World Service before moving to the BBC news website. Richard was not only a specialist science reporter he was also the closest thing I know these days to a ‘beat reporter’, focusing much of his reporting on the subjects of climate change, oceans and international whaling agreements. My younger colleagues barely know what a ‘beat reporter’ is but I remember as a young press officer meeting with labour correspondents (in days when the unions were strong) and when every newspaper had a ‘developing world’ reporter. I even remember reading regular reports from the likes of ‘nuclear decommissioning’ correspondents in the posh papers that seem unimaginably luxurious in these days of slashed budgets and squeezed newsrooms. These journalists were able to get under the skin of an issue and the institutions involved, getting to know the characters and sorting the truth from the spin. When the news of the hacked UEA emails broke most journalists, even science journalists, admitted to having to take to the sceptic blogs to make any sense of who was who in the bewildering stash of stolen emails. But Richard Black already knew the cast of characters after years of covering climate change, reporting on IPCC reports etc. Nor were ‘beat reporters’ too cosy with those they reported on – in fact the opposite. The reason that climate scientists bemoan the loss of Richard is not because he gave them an easy time but because he knew his stuff so well and questioned them from a high level of understanding of the science involved and years of experience of following the complex and messy political machinations on this story. One of the first scientists to email me in sadness about Richard’s departure was Professor Martin Parry, Chair of the now notorious IPCC report containing mistakes about the extent of melting ice in the Himalayas. When Richard Black pursued Martin around the world it was not to have a cosy chat but to interrogate him about his part in ‘Himalaya-gate’. Yet the mutual respect has clearly survived these bruising exchanges and Richard was one of the few journalists that Martin Parry was happy to speak to.
Some will argue that specialist blogs are now doing the job that reporters like Richard Black did and to an extent that is true. I know for example that several of the old ‘nuclear decommissioning’ reporters who were laid off have set up blogs and websites which are now essential reading for other journalists, experts, politicians and international relations students. But the difference is that these blogs do not reach a mass audience. Richard was a ‘beat reporter’ on BBC news website, bringing his detailed and in-depth understanding of the subjects he covered to a mass audience and it’s hard to see how the BBC can easily replicate that now that he has moved on. At a time when we ought to be grateful for hanging onto any specialists in newsrooms it feels indulgent to argue for journalists who specialize to this extent but if the media’s fortunes were restored this would be the first thing I would argue for. As one former crime reporter says in a superb blogpost on this subject,veteran reporters on institutional beats, ‘keep bureaucracies honest’.
The Newsnight saga
I hope that one good thing that comes out of the BBC’s current woes is a fresh debate about standards and quality of investigative reporting. And nor should it be restricted to Newsnight.
For good reasons Panorama is on a high at the moment, but the programme has had its own fair share of controversies. When it moved from its Sunday night hour long slot to the shorter 8.30 slot on Monday in a hail of publicity and with celebrity presenter Jeremy Vine it almost immediately found itself in hot water. The first investigation was on controversial IVF doctor Mohamed Taranissi. The HFEA ended up issuing a public apology for their part in the programme, IVF experts including Robert Winston complained about the way their interviews were used and Taranissi sued the BBC for libel. While the BBC never accepted liability this piece of journalism cost the license payer dearly with the BBC forking out £1.5 million in costs to Taranissi. A few weeks later another science based Panorama caused more controversy when it emerged that one of the main experts used in an alarming report about the health risks of WiFi in school classrooms was the head of a single issue campaign group while one of the world’s leading scientific experts complained about the way his interview was edited. And even the hallowed World Service is not immune. I once put a £20 bet on the integrity of the BBC after waking up to a furious Bob Geldof on Today lambasting what he claimed was an inaccurate World Service investigation claim that Live Aid funds were diverted to pay for arms. I lost. And while ITV’s brave expose of the Savile claims will probably win awards, anyone who got to see Dara O’Briain’s latest tour will have been reminded that the first episode of ITN’s latest ‘flagship’ current affairs documentary on the links between Libya and the IRA contained footage not from West Belfast but from Call of Duty.
Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and I have bored anyone who would listen over the past 3 weeks with my view that the BBC should have been less quick to remove the editor of Newsnight over the shelved Savile report and more open to entertaining the possibility that he may have made that decision on reasonable editorial grounds – even if that judgement is deemed wrong in hindsight. Feisty, experienced reporters should fight tooth and nail for their investigations, but editors surely should be forgiven for asking broader questions about the level and quality of the evidence supporting extraordinary claims.
We need a combination of bold and brave investigative reporting with those old fashioned Reithian values of ‘rigour’, ‘fairness’ and ‘accuracy’ and rather than looking for more heads to roll or debating the axing of Newsnight I hope we can now move on to discuss how to resource and support that in the BBC and throughout the media.
On female guests on Today
Few people probably even remember now that before his Jimmy Savile woes the ill-fated George Entwistle seemed keen to ensure that this leadership be defined by his determination to get more female experts onto the Today programme and throughout the BBC. It was the subject of his first talk to BBC staff and he raised it in all his early media interviews. Most people of course welcomed this fresh new commitment to tackling the under representation of women on our airwaves. Others seized on it to attack Today all over again for the lack of female presenters and guests. But I felt unsettled by the whole discussion.
As it happens I think Entwistle’s concerns were more widely shared than he gave credit for. For some time now it’s been common practice for the SMC to receive requests from all sections from the BBC for a female scientist where humanly possible. All things being equal and if we have access to top women scientists willing to speak, the SMC is more than happy to comply. We like promoting the women scientists on our database and can see that more visibility for women scientists and engineers can have a knock on effect on young women debating their future careers.
But this needs to be done intelligently and with a degree of sophistication and I hope Entwistle’s successor will be cognisant of that.
There are many and varied reasons for the dearth of women at the top in science. Some are structural, with a lack of opportunities for women who take career breaks to have families and stunted career paths for those who choose to return part time. And of course there are still sexist dinosaurs in the scientific establishment who promote men over women every time. Sadly the talented journalists at Today can do little about this – apart from expose it and report on it which they do.
My fear is that under pressure from the top, anxious producers will end up bending the stick towards crass requests for a woman for the sake of having a woman. My colleague received such a request a few weeks ago (shortly after Entwistle’s talk) on an Alzheimer’s story where all those who had taken part in an SMC briefing to voice strong opinions on a specific issue happened to be male. We found ourselves not just scouring the database for female Alzheimer’s experts (pretty easy) but also trying to second guess whether they might have a view similar to those expressed by the male experts who had chosen to speak out. I for one am not prepared to risk being asked ‘why have you asked me?’ to which the only truthful answer would be ‘well not because you are the best expert on this particular angle or the right person for this specific interview, but because Today needs a woman’.
And nor was I comforted by the latest salvo in this row – the news reported last weekend that a young woman was so incensed by the failure of Today to find a female expert on breast cancer treatment that she has set up a website dedicated to media-friendly female experts. Interviewed by the Observer, freelance journalist Caroline Craiado Perez cited another interview on Today on teenage girls and contraception which included 2 male guests – an expert from Brook Advisory Centre and Anthony Seldon of Wellington College. Criado Perez makes the point that Today could have opted for a ‘headmistress of an expensive girls school’ because ‘as someone who has been a teenage girl herself, the headmistress would have been preferable’. Now I admit I did not hear that interview but this argument just does not work for me. Either Seldon does have real expertise on this issue, in which case she is arguing for any women over someone with real expertise. Or he has no expertise at all in which case she is arguing that we put women with no expertise over men with no expertise. I feel sure we can do better than this.
And I say this as someone who is often critical of the experts on our airwaves and my family now call me Malcolm Tucker as a result of my reaction to the often ill-informed and lazy choices. What is needed to improve the quality of science in the media – and to improve the quality of public discourse on science – is to get more and better expertise onto the airwaves. Scientists who are media friendly but also know their subject inside out, and have been researching it for 20 years and can challenge the lazy ideological claims made about many science stories by the politicians and campaign groups that love nothing more than a BBC studio.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.