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BBC blunderers get it wrong, wrong, wrong

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TWO weeks ago Jeff O’Leary wrote in The Conservative Woman about the inability of the BBC’s ‘science correspondent’ to grasp basic science.

He has now written to BBC director general Lord Hall, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove as follows:

August 19, 2020

Dear Sirs

I am taking the unusual step of writing to you as I am becoming increasingly concerned over the poor coverage offered by the BBC’s news services. My concern goes back many years but has been highlighted most recently by the coverage of the A-Level grade issue and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Let me deal with the A-Level grade issue first. Before results day, daytime news presenters were calling the results a fiasco and their reporting was lengthy, opinionated and with little factual information. Indeed it was last night on ITV’s News at Ten that the actual numbers relating to the issue were broadcast. On the BBC I have yet to see information regarding how many students took A-Levels, how many got into their first choice university course, how many accepted second place offers etc. Many of the BBC interviews focused almost entirely on ‘who would you blame’ – asking the question repeatedly when interviewees refused to name and shame. The ‘algorithm’ was dismissed very early on by the BBC as not fit for purpose. I do not object to this opinion per se but it was repeated ad nauseam without presenting any evidence as to why. They did interview an IT lecturer at the University of Bath on Tuesday August 18 who tried to explain how the algorithm works. He was an IT specialist, not a mathematician or statistician, and was clearly out of his depth, didn’t understand the details himself and so ended up misleading the audience. The ‘algorithm’ is used by the International Baccalaureate system in well over 100 countries (including Norway) – no mention by the BBC – and there have been a number of detailed studies on ‘teacher assessment’ with barely a mention! Finally, when they realised that the grade inflation caused by teacher-assessed grades being used will result in ‘insufficient’ university places, the blame game started again. Still no analysis of the problem. I have a catalogue of further examples that I will not bore you with.

Now Covid-19. Individuals who do not understand the subject matter led the coverage. The BBC were offered the first question in most of the daily Downing Street briefings. Almost every day they squandered the opportunity to ask insightful questions. I can still hear Hugh Pym saying three times ‘are you not ashamed’ to the minister involved when he could have asked, for example, why PHE is not using radiation sterilisation to make PPE gowns reusable. ‘When will the graph go start to go down?’ was the question on another occasion. The PHE representative replied that ‘it will never go down, it’s a CUMULATIVE frequency curve’. Not an error by the reporter but lack of understanding. Then there was the ‘R’ number! All this in an atmosphere of alarm. The death rate never increased by X or Y, it always ‘jumped’ or ‘surged’. It took a long time for them to explain that although positive tests were increasing so were tests. I’ve yet to see in any of the media ‘cases per 1000 tests’ or similar – surely a better measure.

Turning to another matter, it’s difficult to imagine how the BBC could get its reports on the Beirut disaster so wrong. In the opening ‘highlights’ of its News at Six programme on the Wednesday following the disaster the news presenter referred to ‘almost’ 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate causing the Beirut explosion. This figure strangely dropped to ‘over 2,500 tons’ in the main part of the bulletin, only to revert to ‘3,000 tons’ towards the end of the piece. The BBC website refers to 2,700 tons, a ‘take the middle figure’ safe bet pick of an uncertain editor? In the meantime the BBC’s science correspondent got the nature of the reaction wrong when he referred to the orange cloud as being due to ammonium nitrate. This was in fact caused by a product of the explosive reaction, nitrogen dioxide. He did have all day to look it up in a GCSE science textbook! It’s not hard. Which makes me wonder why the BBC is so little interested in getting these simple things right.  

Why is this important? The BBC is a publicly funded broadcaster. Unlike Sky or ITV it’s funded via the licence fee and I have no choice but to pay this tax. As per its charter it must offer accurate, fair and unbiased reporting, yet it has filled the ranks of its reporters with amateurs. How can the BBC have as its science and health editors individuals who have arts degrees? Now I know the same criticism has been cast at MPs but there is a difference. If I do not like the job you are doing I can vote you out, but at the BBC bad or biased reporting seems to earn a promotion, as we’ve seen with the recent Newsnight transgression. I cannot question or challenge the BBC’s output. Complaints go unanswered or bounce back because their inbox is full, and looking at its website Ofcom is full of ex-BBC people.

There was a time when all sports reporters on the BBC were from the ‘old boys’ club’ and I remember a banner being carried around Twickenham emblazoned with the words ‘PETER WEST GO HOME’. The sporting public have long been intolerant of amateurs commenting on sporting events and these days the BBC has realised it needs professionals (albeit overpaid) to do the job. The UK, like the rest of the world, is moving into an increasingly technological age and yet the BBC is fossilised, not willing to move on and unwilling to employ true professionals to lead its scientific reporting.

Why do I feel so strongly? I’m a geologist with a PhD in applied statistics. I have worked as a maths teacher in a secondary school in Bermondsey, as the reader in my subject and later as visiting professor at Imperial College, as chief geologist at Rio Tinto and as a managing director of one of HSBC Investment Bank’s industry teams. Following my retirement I served on the boards of a number of LSE listed companies. So I believe I am well qualified to comment, but more importantly I believe I should not be subject to the awful coverage offered by BBC news. I feel patronised and insulted by unprofessional would-be scientists feeding me biased and often downright incorrect information.  

I’m not one of those complaining too much about the withdrawal of free licences for the over 75s. I can easily afford it and when the BBC does drama it does it well, but I am calling for a root and branch overhaul of its service especially its news coverage. When I voted for a Conservative government at the last election one of my reasons was that I believed this would be a truly reforming government. I realise there has been a major disruption to your plans due to Covid-19 but there is still plenty of time.

Yours sincerely

Dr Jeffrey O’Leary

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Jeff O'Leary
Jeffrey O'Leary is a geologist with a PhD in applied statistics.

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