Friday, 14 November 2014

The ongoing saga of BritainsDNA and the BBC

I wrote back in March this year about yet another misleading interview with Alistair Moffat of BritainsDNA which had appeared on the Mark Forrest programme on BBC radio. I wrote to the BBC at the time to complain about the interview. Since then I've been engaged in a lengthy exchange of correspondence with the BBC. I eventually escalated my complaint to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit. They conceded that the interview did constitute "a breach of editorial standards". A summary of my complaint and of the findings of the Editorial Complaints Unit was published on the BBC Complaints website on 29th October. However, the summary was somewhat misleading and does not tell the full story. We've devoted a whole page on the UCL Debunking Genetic Astrology website to our correspondence with the BBC about Alistair Moffat and BritainsDNA. I've now added all my correspondence with the BBC dating from 1st May through to the present to our BBC complaints page in order to ensure that the information is available as a matter of public record for all interested parties.

It has been a somewhat frustrating and protracted process. Although the ECU classified my complaint as "resolved", the main substance of my complaint fell outside the ECU's remit.  I wanted to find out how Alistair Moffat had been invited onto the Mark Forrest show to talk on the subject of Viking DNA when he has no expertise in the subject. I was also concerned about the sheer amount of exposure given to Alistair Moffat and his company by the BBC in the last couple of years and the BBC's failure to give qualified experts the right to respond to his inaccurate, misleading and sometimes ludicrous statements. Richard Hutt, the BBC Complaints Director, advised me in an e-mail dated 1st May
However it isn’t open to me to look at the circumstances which led to Mr Moffat being booked to appear, or the question of whether others might have been booked instead. Generally speaking, the choice of guests is a matter of editorial discretion and does not fall within the remit of the ECU. In practice that means I can consider whether what was said during the broadcast met the BBC’s editorial standards but not whether the programme ought to have invited him to participate. 
You have also raised the issue of Mr Moffat’s appearances across the BBC over a number of years. Again, this falls outside our remit – we are limited to considering specific items broadcast or published by the BBC and are not able to investigate claims of editorial breaches over time and across output. I should also note that the complaints framework asks that complaints are logged within 30 days of broadcast, whereas most of the examples cited in the document you point to were aired some time ago.
In the final stage of the complaints process I sent an e-mail to the BBC Trust on 26th September asking them to investigate these outstanding concerns. I have been told that they will let me know by 21st November whether or not they will take up my case. It is somewhat frustrating that there is no mechanism within the existing BBC complaints framework to deal with such issues. I shall await with interest to see how the BBC Trust respond.


Joe Flood said...

It is interesting that Moffatt has been able to obtain so much exposure despite having no real credentials or support from any discipline. I think the reason for his success boils down to an ancient human habit of reciting long lineages to prove the legitimacy of membership in social groups or the viability of leadership claims. It is ingrained in us and the lack of any support within academic genetic genealogy for any such claims has enabled imposters like Moffatt ot step in and take the abandoned ground which resonates for so many.

jennyalogy said...

Thank you foryour persistence in trying to make the BBC accountable for what it broadcasts

Debbie Kennett said...


The reason Alistair Moffat gets so much publicity is that he was formerly the Director of Scottish Television and he also ran the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for many years. He knows all the right people and seems to be milking his contacts for all they're worth. I just find it astonishing that the BBC continues to give him airtime and denies anyone else the chance to refute all his nonsensical claims.

Jenny, Thank you for your kind words. I'm doing my best to try to make the BBC accountable.

Chris Schuetz said...

When fact fails, try humour and award a prize. There are no scientific papers involved, so the Ig-Nobels are not possible. But is there a suitable character after whom a prize could be named? Maybe Phineas T Barnum, or some character from Moliere or Ben Jonson, or even a balloonist - the Montgolfier award for being supported by hot air?

James said...

Chris Schuetz: try Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog

This worries me:

You have also raised the issue of Mr Moffat’s appearances across the BBC over a number of years. Again, this falls outside our remit – we are limited to considering specific items broadcast or published by the BBC and are not able to investigate claims of editorial breaches over time and across output.

The whole question of how much exposure people get and whether that is representative was exposed by the BBC coverage of the Scots referendum: and they're saying they don't have a process to look at this? Leaves BBC's credibility in tatters!

Debbie Kennett said...

Chris, I love your idea of awarding humorous prizes. The Montgolfier award is my favourite amongst your suggestions.

James, I did try e-mailing Ben Goldacre to alert him to our genetic astrology website but he didn't reply. He seems to have been very busy writing his new book and is now busy promoting it.

It is indeed disappointing that the BBC has no process to monitor editorial coverage over time. That's why I'm hoping the BBC Trust will take on my case, though I'm anticipating that they will find some excuse not to do so.

Anonymous said...

Hi - thanks so much for this blog. I was directed here from colleagues who told me about the whole story. Looking through previous posts i see it has been going on for a long time - what is the current position with the BBC? I see that St Andrews reacted. Did Edinburgh comment?

Debbie Kennett said...

We have the latest updates on the timeline here:

I still need to add the letter I received from the BBC Trust just before Christmas. They were not interested in taking on the case. I meant to blog about but didn't have the time.

I don't know if Edinburgh University decided to take any action, but Dr Jim Wilson does now very wisely seem to be taking a low profile.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update - I was reading the whole UCL website over the weekend with friends. It is such a brilliant and a sadly necessary response. It is a shame that only a couple of media outlets reported what was going on. This would make a fantastic one off program, discussion etc.

Debbie Kennett said...

I suspect that a lot of newspapers were wary of covering the issue because of the history of legal threats. Private Eye picked up on the story and did some very good articles, albeit very brief. I wish someone would do a documentary of the whole saga as it raises so many important issues.