A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

BBC Breakfast Promises to do Better (Updated)

Posted by apgaylard on May 8, 2008

Sian and Paul laugh in the face of the laws of thermodynamicsThe BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has just published its final rulings on my objections to two items featured on BBC One’s Breakfast News last year. These were the credulous promotion of Ecowatt’s miraculous water heater and the ‘Sound’ Learning Centre’s advocacy of Lightwave Stimulation (LWS) therapy for the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

You can read the rulings here and here. Essentially they follow the same format: the ECU rules that dubious claims have been uncritically promoted by the BBC as ‘news’ and the Editor of Breakfast promises to have their staff do the obvious in the future.The Sound Learning Centre's Pauline Allen performs LWS on a client

On the one hand it’s nice to have these complaints upheld; on the other I’d really like to see the BBC be big enough to put these gross errors right. Ecowatts are still using the BBC report as advertising on their website; more worringly the BBC website still has Richard Westcott‘s nonsense item on LWS therapy. (In fact it’s the top result from ‘BBC Audio and Video’ if you search the BBC site for ‘winter blues’)

I don’t think that this is good enough – particularly when the BBC have failed to remove material from their website which features a therapy that, as the ECU says, “is not the product of peer-reviewed science” and that the piece has, “no editorial justification for featuring the company which offered it in this uncritical context.”

I’ll definitely be following up on these rulings to see whether the BBC is prepared to set the record straight in a meaningful way. I would certainly hope that the offending material could be expunged from their own website.

On this latter point it seems that there may be some movement. I decided to run through the complaints process again on the specific point of having the video removed from the website. I have had a very swift reply from Ian Jolly (BBC News website), “Many thanks for getting in touch about this. It can take a little while for such rulings to filter through but the video is being removed. I’m currently looking at how we deal with complaints and will examine how we can ensure we respond more swiftly to ECU rulings such as this one.”

Also, the rulings do show the very defensive initial responses from the programme-makers in a very poor light. I’d hope that the individuals concerned would think twice about defending the indefensible in the future.

Finally, I would like to think that lessons have actually been learnt; particularly as some seem pretty obvious to me (checking and cross-checking facts, getting help from specialist correspondents, etc.). I’ll be keeping an eye on Breakfast News to see if it really does do better in the future. I genuinely hope they do.

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4 Responses to “BBC Breakfast Promises to do Better (Updated)”

  1. dvnutrix said

    Superb doggedness and follow-up. Congratulations on the result.

  2. apgaylard said

    dvnutrix:
    Thanks. My next stop is the BBC Trust.

  3. draust said

    Yes, kudos AP for having the determination / bloody-minded-ness to write to them formally.

    Perhaps if we do this enough we may get the news editors to hire at least one science-literate reporter… …or at least warn all the photogenic-but-dimwitted presenters to ease up on the “Oh, some boffins said the Atkins diet doesn’t work, I don’t believe that, my agent did it and he lost 10 pounds” (paraphrasing something I once heard on Channel 5).

  4. apgaylard said

    Thanks Doc. The key to complaining at the BBC is to keep going. In each of my three sucessful complaints I had to complain; wait for the usual dreadful inaccurate defensive reply from the programme-maker (see here for the SAD piece); escalate the complaint; chase it up and then wait a bit.

    It’s a bit of a pain; but I’ve come to the view that shouting at the TV, going on at my nearest-and-dearest and ranting at colleagues might not be all that constructive.

    I hope that the Breakast team have learnt something. The sheer obviousness of the things that they have promised to do makes me wonder: pieces like this, “should only be broadcast where appropriate checks have been made. Teams should seek to find peer-reviewed scientific research where possible…Teams should also remember to draw upon the advice and guidance of the Newsgathering Specialist correspondents within News.”

    As the Americans would say, this is journalism 101. I’ve always thought that the BBC was the top of the journalistic greasy pole in the UK.

    The continued presence of the piece on the BBC website doesn’t give me much confidence either.

    Perhaps the main problem here was that no one thought to get support from the BBC’s specialist science or medical correspondents. They have them, they are a bit variable in quality, but they didn’t use them.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment and interest.

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