It is very interesting to see today’s story on BBC News Online about BSE/CJD “vCJD carrier risk overestimated.”
It is the latest in a long line of similar assessments of the vCJD situation.
After many years of sporadic interest the BSE/vCJD story took off in 1996 after an admission in parliament by the health minister that there was a link between BSE contaminated meat and a new strain of the degenerative vCJD brain disease that had afflicted a handful of people. Initially, few people knew anything definite about the disease and its possible progression and, depending upon assumptions, computer models predicted anything from a small number of people being affected to a large fraction of the population. While such uncertainty existed it was right for journalists to reflect the scientific situation but as I was science correspondent for BBC Radio at the time, I soon began to realise the tension between science and journalism and the changing approach to science within BBC News at the time.
Updated below from The Register
In terms of news the potential for a modern day catastrophic plague is a much ‘better’ story than the possibility that nothing much more will happen. So whilst the uncertainty persisted that was the story that was emphasised with the appropriate caveats. However, it soon became clear to most scientists at least that a major catastrophe was not in the making. The increase in numbers afflicted, despite the unknown incubation of the disease, was not increasing as some predicted, but that fact was inconvenient to some and did not impinge on our general approach to the story.
In such circumstances I took the view that journalists should stay close to the data and not let the scientific possibilities, however dramatic and ‘newsworthy,’ obscure what was actually happening, especially when those possibilities rested on a cascade of debateable assumptions being fed into a computer model that had been tweaked to hindcast previous data. It was not a point of view taken by other arms of the BBC one part of which was repeatedly promoting the same scare story coming out of one institution based on said computer models and predictions. I believed that taking a sober approach was the right one, especially for the BBC, which was looked to for responsible reporting. Wanting to get on air with a story and make an impression with editors and management was one thing, but I took the view that a journalist should not tailor the science to suit ones ambitions, or survival, that way. The political journalist John Sergeant summed it up when he said that there were many journalists who reported what they could get away with rather than what they know.
My approach was not favoured by the BBC at the time and I was severely criticised in 1998 and told I was wrong and not reporting the BSE/vCJD story correctly. But with hindsight I was correct in my approach. To date the total number of people afflicted with BSE/vCJD remains very small. In fact, far smaller than many illnesses that never get a mention in the media, and the scientific doom mongers have moved onto new pastures. But the attitude towards science still remains at the BBC and has been evident in its evangelical, inconsistent climate change reporting and its narrow, shallow and sparse reporting on other scientific issues.
Reporting the consensus about climate change (and we all know about the debate about what is a consensus in the IPCC era) is not synonymous with good science reporting. The BBC is at an important point. It has been narrow minded about climate change for many years and they have become at the very least a cliché and at worst lampooned as being predictable and biased by a public that doesn’t believe them anymore.
Times are changing. New data is emerging, the world refuses to warm in the past decade, the sun becomes quiet, and scientists are beginning to study themselves investigating how entrenched positions become established and whether consensus is a realistic concept. History and science will always correct things in the end. It has done so with vCJD and it is not impossible that the judgement of history and science on current environmental reporting will be the same.
Updated from The Register
Ex-BBC science man slams corp: 'Evangelical, shallow and sparse'
The BBC's environmental coverage has come under fire from a former science correspondent. Award-winning author and journalist David Whitehouse says the corporation risks public ridicule - or worse - with what he calls "an evangelical, inconsistent climate change reporting and its narrow, shallow and sparse reporting on other scientific issues."
Whitehouse relates how he was ticked off for taking a cautious approach to apocalyptic predictions when a link between BSE in cattle ("Mad Cow Disease") and vCJD in humans was accepted by government officials in 1996. Those predictions "...rested on a cascade of debateable assumptions being fed into a computer model that had been tweaked to hindcast previous data," he writes. "My approach was not favoured by the BBC at the time and I was severely criticised in 1998 and told I was wrong and not reporting the BSE/vCJD story correctly."
The Beeb wasn't alone. With bloodthirsty glee, the Observer newspaper at the time predicted millions infected, crematoria full of smoking human remains - and the government handing out suicide pills to the public. Whitehouse feels his caution is now vindicated. The number of cases traced to vCJD in the UK is now 163 - and the only suicides were farmers who had feared their livelihoods destroyed.
"Reporting the consensus about climate change...is not synonymous with good science reporting. The BBC is at an important point. It has been narrow minded about climate change for many years and they have become at the very least a cliché and at worst lampooned as being predictable and biased by a public that doesn't believe them anymore," he writes.
Whitehouse is a former astronomer (published academic papers listed here) who became a BBC science correspondent and Science Editor at BBC Online.
The threshold for introducing a climate change angle into an unrelated story can be pretty low - have a look at this example involving a fossilized giant snake. While activists have discovered that getting a story changed can be relatively easy - it just needs a little bullying by email.
More than two years ago we criticized how the BBC's TV science flagship Horizon had abandoned explaining science in preference to fantasy. Many of you agreed.
As Whitehouse explains, an epidemic or a natural catastrophe is a compelling and dramatic narrative, too good to be spoiled by contradictory facts. So perhaps all the producers want to do is make movies - disaster movies. And so reporting the catastrophe turns the reporter into a dramatic actor in the narrative: one who's guaranteed to be top of the billing, as long as the story lives.