Broadcasting bias – letter of complaint to the BBC

Posted on the 1st February 2004

The BBC's Today radio programme, in breaking the news that Cambridge University was abandoning plans for a massive primate centre, helped set the tone for the press and broadcast coverage that followed. The tone was often ugly - the message being that this was a story of violence triumphing over reasoned science. The precise opposite is the truth. Animal Aid Director Andrew Tyler's formal complaint to the BBC follows below.

Fraser Steel
Programmes Complaints Unit
Broadcasting House
London W1A 1AA

February 2, 2004

Dear Mr Steel

I take no pleasure in having to lodge a formal complaint about the handling of a story broadcast on the Today programme last week for which I was interviewed. As a former journalist myself, I recognise the importance of vigorous independent reporting and, like many other people, am concerned about government assaults upon the BBC’s news output.

The piece related to the decision by Cambridge University to abandon plans for a primate research centre – Today ran it as an exclusive on Tuesday morning January 27, with a main feature in the 8.10am slot.

During the course of conversations with Today’s reporting/production team the night before broadcast, it became apparent that the programme had lined up the University’s pro vice chancellor and Professor Colin Blakemore of the MRC – who I correctly suspected would portray the abandonment of the project as a victory for moronic violence over altruistic science that was on the brink of delivering cures for appalling neurological conditions. It was clear that Today initially wanted a 15-second recorded quote from myself or a local activist expressing joy at the decision. This could then be played against the unchallenged science-related comments of the University and MRC spokespeople.

There were two key points I impressed upon two members of the Today team who called me prior to broadcast. They were: at a public planning inquiry at the end of 2002, Cambridge University submitted scientific evidence to support its contention that the proposed monkey research would be productive and beneficial for people, whereas scientific experts on our side of the argument submitted evidence to the effect that the scientific literature showed that the ‘monkey model’ produced no benefits for people because the data extracted from such experiments were not directly relevant to people.

I explained and reiterated on the eve of broadcast that the planning inspector presiding over the inquiry – called by John Prescott’s department – ruled that the University had failed to demonstrate the efficacy of the primate model and for this and other reasons he recommended that the proposal should NOT be granted planning permission. That was point one.

My second point was that, because John Prescott over-ruled his own inspector and granted the University permission to proceed, Animal Aid and the National Anti-Vivisection Society had lodged a High Court appeal.

During my discussions with Today’s news team that night before transmission I argued that we must surely be allowed to make these two points and that my preference was for Dr Ray Greek, Medical Director of Europeans For Medical Advancement (EFMA) – our key scientific expert at the inquiry – to have a chance to debate the matter with Professors Minson and Blakemore. This was rejected on the grounds that there ‘wasn’t enough time’ and then that Today didn’t want to do it that way for other unspecified reasons. I understand Kathy Archibald, Director of EFMA, also spoke to the Today team and asked for Dr Greek to be given an airing. The request was refused.

I have no complaints about the time I was allotted (approaching four minutes) but I do greatly resent the fact that a 14 minutes-plus recorded interview with John Humphrys was cut so that my two main points – which I also presented to John Humphrys as absolutely central – were assiduously excised from the broadcast interview. In other words, Today listeners were not permitted to hear that the science was debated at the inquiry and that Cambridge failed to make its case. Additionally, far from being addicted to violence (Animal Aid is entirely peaceful in its approach), we had exhaustively argued our case through the council chambers of the local authority, at a planning inquiry and we were now going to the High Court.

Particularly galling was John Humphrys’ ‘accusation’ that I was not a scientist and therefore, the subtext went, not competent to speak on such matters, when we had tried to get the programme to interview our scientific expert but they would not have him.

At one point John Humphrys presented the University’s decision as a victory for force over democracy and I was heard to say ‘everything I’ve said proves the opposite’. In fact, because of the editing that was a nonsensical statement. That we had gone to the public inquiry and won the argument there, and were now going to court to challenge what we regard as a perverse decision by the First Secretary of State, clearly demonstrates our commitment to the democratic process. And let me make clear that Animal Aid’s own role in this affair and the entirely legitimate pressure we brought to bear, were absolutely central to the University abandoning its proposals.

And then came the interview with the two advocates for the proposal. What truly disappointed me was that Colin Blakemore was allowed to say of our side: ‘None of their spurious arguments was accepted. True there was a long delay and costs over run…’

…To which John Humphrys interjected ambiguously: ‘They won!’

And then Blakemore continued: ‘Their arguments played no part in that process. They did not win on logic or the strength of their position.’

This statement was utterly false, and John Humphrys was in a position to challenge it. Even if he doubted my veracity, he could merely have repeated what I said about our winning the scientific argument at the inquiry, to test the response.

That Cambridge failed at the inquiry, that opposition is developing within the University itself, that it now faced a High Court challenge to Prescott’s decision, these were all key matters informing the University’s decision to abandon the project.

Sadly, the Today programme, like much of the press, had its ‘narrative’ already prepared before investigating and running its piece. The story, as far as Today was concerned, is that altruistic science has been stymied by the forces of ignorance and violence. Prior to the interview segment, a scripted piece by Pallab Ghosh was run that concentrated almost entirely on ‘extremist violence’.

I firmly believe that we, who legitimately opposed the primate centre, should be granted a chance to make our reasoned scientific arguments. Again, I suggest Dr Ray Greek of EFMA should be given the opportunity to debate the matter with Professor Blakemore or any other individual the primate research advocates wish to put up.

Let me say in closing, that scientists – not least those conducting animal experiments – should be subjected to the same scrutiny when appearing on the Today programme as politicians, business people and anyone else with a contentious line to promote.

Yours sincerely

Andrew Tyler
Director, Animal Aid

Update March 2004: Click here for the BBC’s response to our complaint.

Find out more about the campaign against the Cambridge primate research labs: For the full background, scientific reports and latest news see the Cambridge index.

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