Thursday, 6 March 2014

Alistair Moffat, BritainsDNA and the BBC - a "uniquely British farce"

After a prolonged and frustrating complaints process, the BBC has finally upheld a complaint brought by my colleague Professor David Balding of University College London (UCL) about the now infamous radio interview on the Today programme between Jim Naughtie and Alistair Moffat, the Managing Director of BritainsDNA and the current Rector of St Andrews University. The interview was deemed to be in breach of the BBC’s guidelines on both "accuracy" and "product prominence". Fraser Steel, Head of Editorial Complaints, writing on behalf of the BBC, conceded that Alistair Moffat “spoke in terms which either went beyond what could be inferred with certainty from the evidence or were simply mistaken” and that “some of the terms used on this occasion conduced to an exaggerated impression of what was possible”. He considered that “the programme-makers should have done more to guard against this”.

With regards to the issue of product prominence Mr Steel concluded: "it seems to me that Mr Moffat’s statement that 'we subsidise it massively' may have contributed to an impression that it [BritainsDNA] was a disinterested research study (an impression which Mr Naughtie’s description of the company as a 'DNA database' and this reference to 'people who give their DNA for the project' would have done nothing to dispel)... it seems to me that the reference to the website amounted to undue prominence for what is in fact a commercial organisation..."

The BBC have promised to put a summary of the outcome of the complaint on their Complaints Website, together with the actions they propose to take in response to the finding. We have been informed that this is the responsibility of the News Department, and that the summary and actions should be published within the next couple of weeks. In the meantime there is a brief account of the story in the latest issue of Private Eye (No. 1361, 7 - 20 March 2014, p13). (Update: The summary of the upholding of the complaint was finally published on the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit's website on 15th April 2013 and can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/comp-reports/ecu/today9july2012radio4. A summary has also been provided as a Correction and Clarification.)

Although not disclosed by the BBC in the Today interview, Alistair Moffat and Jim Naughtie are old friends. Jim Naughtie publicly endorsed Alistair Moffat's bid to become Rector of St Andrews. The issue of this conflict of interest is still under investigation by the BBC but is being handled by management in the BBC News Department. David Balding was advised on 20th February that he can expect a response within 20 working days. Somewhat surprisingly, Mr Steel advised that Jim Naughtie was "unaware of the financial structure of BritainsDNA at the time of the interview", but even if Naughtie did not know of the commercial interests there seems to be no excuse for his failure to ask more probing questions in response to his friend's ludicrous claims.

However, the most troublesome aspect of this whole affair has been Alistair Moffat’s use of legal threats in an attempt to silence legitimate criticism and stifle public scientific debate. Professors David Balding and Mark Thomas at UCL wrote privately to the then BritainsDNA scientists expressing their concerns about the Today interview. They were subsequently the recipients of a threatening letter from Alistair Moffat's solicitor, but bravely held their ground and eventually went public with their concerns, after failing to get a satisfactory response to private e-mails. Students writing for The Saint, the St Andrews University student newspaper, were similarly intimidated by threats to sue when they tried to cover the events, but they courageously ignored the threats and went ahead and published their story. Although much of the affair is already in the public domain, the full facts have not been revealed. Now, to coincide with the upholding of the BBC complaint and for the sake of transparency and public interest, a new UCL website has been launched which documents the events in full and provides links to all the relevant correspondence, including all the legal threats and the complaints to the BBC. The website can be found here:

www.ucl.ac.uk/mace-lab/genetic-ancestry

I hope that anyone else who has been similarly intimidated by threatening legal letters will take inspiration from this case and will be encouraged to stand up for their principles.

It is interesting to note that this is not the first time that Alistair Moffat's attempts to take legal action have backfired on him. In 1999 he lost a £25,000 defamation case that he brought against the West Highland Free Press. He objected to being described as ''the Laird o' Coocaddens' in-house bully'' in the newspaper's diary column. The judge "did not accept that the article... was attacking Mr Moffat's private character or business reputation, or that the words were capable of being read that way" and he dismissed the action.

Nature memorably described the Moffat/UCL case as “a messy and perhaps uniquely British farce”. The affair highlighted the antiquated English libel laws which, rather than protecting the interests of society, had the effect of restricting free speech and suppressing academic debate. Following nearly five years of campaigning by the Libel Reform Campaign, Sense About Science,  and other organisations and individuals, a new Defamation Act came into force in England and Wales on 1st January 2014. Although it remains to be seen how the new law will be interpreted in practice, it seems likely that it will have the effect of restricting such trivial and vexatious claims. If the new Defamation Act had been in force at the time of the Moffat/Naughtie interview it is quite possible that the whole sorry saga would never have happened.

The new UCL website also highlights some of the problems with the haplogroup stories provided by BritainsDNA, but it should be noted that BritainsDNA is not the only genetic ancestry company providing misleading stories. Furthermore, there have been many papers published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature which make similar subjective and unsubstantiated claims about the origins of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. Advances in ancient DNA testing and the new next-generational sequencing tests, which will provide ever-greater resolution of the Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA trees, will no doubt expose the deficiencies in previously proposed hypotheses. It is perhaps time for a wider scientific debate on the legitimate inferences which can be made from deep ancestry tests.

Related blog posts
- More pseudoscience from Alistair Moffat on the BBC
- BritainsDNA, the BBC and Eddie Izzard
- The British: a genetic muddle by Alistair Moffat
- BritainsDNA, The Times and Prince William: the perils of publication by press release

© 2014 Debbie Kennett

16 comments:

RPaine said...

Debbie
Thank you for your posting.

My paternal Stephen Paine lineage was in Great Ellingham, Norfolk in 1602. He and his family arrived in Plymouth Colony, August 10, 1638

Robert Paine Y-Haplogroup Q-M346+

Anonymous said...

This was a fascinating read - especially too the link to the UCL website with all the documentation telling the story. It's great that this is all in the public domain now and the BBC finally apologized. I would just have a few comments:

(1) It must mean a lot that UCL actually hosts the website. It's nice to see an institution taking such a stand defending academic freedom.

(2) In that sense, it was also good to read St Andrews response. Has Edinburgh University made a response too? Surely, given that their name is often linked to this science they must have been asked to comment. Has anyone complained to them regarding this issue?

(3) Finally, this whole saga would make a fascinating TV documentary. Maybe even the BBC could step up to the challenge and make a program detailing the legal threats, threats to open academic discussion and most importantly the arguments behind science involved.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks for your kind comments. I think it is indeed important that UCL agreed to host the website. I'm afraid I don't know if anyone from Edinburgh University has been invited to make any comments or if anyone has complained to them. It would be good to see the BBC making amends by doing a programme about the affair as there are many important issues involved, but I don't suppose it will ever happen.

Mark D said...

Professor John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has also posted about this on his popular blog:

http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/biotech/testing/genetic-astrology-legal-2014.html

It's sad that Jim Wilson is associated with him.

Debbie Kennett said...

Mark D, Thanks for the link to John Hawks' excellent blog post.

There was also a post on the "Is the BBC biased?" blog:

http://isthebbcbiased.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/whos-naughtie-boy-then.html

There was a brief article in The Sunday Times too. It's behind the paywall but most of the article is visible:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/National/article1384930.ece

The Saint, the student newspaper for St Andrews University, where Moffat currently serves as Rector, has also reported on the story:

http://www.thesaint-online.com/2014/03/complaint-about-alistair-moffat-interview-upheld-by-bbc/

amc said...

Anyone who has the courage to stand up to a bully wins my admiration and gratitude. Keep up the good work, Debbie!

Andrew Colman

Debbie Kennett said...

Thank you Andrew for your kind words and your support.

Anonymous said...

The harsh and pejorative term "astrology", as in "Genetic Astrology" has been used by temperamental Dr. Mark Thomas at UCL since 2006.

Now in 2014, the frustrated Thomas has finally put up a web site called none other than - "Genetic Astrology". http://www.ucl.ac.uk/mace-lab/genetic-ancestry

Thomas seeks to place many into the pseudoscience bucket including, lay Genetic Genealogists, lay Researchers interested in Ancient Ancestry, Genetic Genealogy DNA Testing Companies world wide, and not just BritainsDNA, adoptees researching their birth parents, etc.

Thomas acts under a pseudo and mistaken belief system that only those with a PhD in Human Evolutionary Genetics & Population Genetics can look into the past using DNA as a tool. Thomas, a genuine Astrology Wizard, uses complex and faulty statistics, algorithms and modeling to arrive at weak and unverifiable conclusions.

Perhaps some pseudoliterary Shakespeare can bring Thomas and his misguided colleagues to their senses.

"Population Geneticists they doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty Genetic Genealogists walk under his huge legs and peep about to find our ancestral graves. Both Population Geneticists and the petty Genetic Genealogists at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Mark, is not in our love of stars or astrology , but in ourselves, that we are all underlings.

Dr. Jim Wilson is doing a ton more than Dr. Mark Thomas to educate and assist Lay Genetic Genealogists. Wilson has been open with his data and will be in Washington DC in August at a genetic Genealogist conference.

Misguided Debbie likes Thomas because it helps gets her name out there to sell more of her lame books.

Anonymous said...

From one anonymous to another……

"Dr. Jim Wilson is doing a ton more than Dr. Mark Thomas to educate and assist Lay Genetic Genealogists. Wilson has been open with his data and will be in Washington DC in August at a genetic Genealogist conference."


Why can’t we read in a peer reviewed journal the raw data relating to Prince William’s Indian heritage for instance? And what is the point of saying Wilson will be in Washington DC in August? Is this gorilla marketing?

Anonymous said...

Checked the BBC complaints website you provided in your post but did not find the summary of their findings. Did I miss it or is there a delay in them posting their findings?

Debbie Kennett said...

The BBC have still not published the summary on their website. Apparently other more time-critical matters had to take priority and it's been put to the bottom of the queue. Coincidentally we were told on Monday that the summary should be going up today some time after 4.00 pm but it has still not appeared, though I hope it will be there soon.

Debbie Kennett said...

I spoke too soon. The summary is now on the BBC Complaints website:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/comp-reports/ecu/today9july2012radio4


I will update my blog post accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Just read the summary - seems to be very comprehensive and to the point. Fantastic that people stuck to their principles to get to this point. I hope the UCL site is maintained as I have already heard that it is viewed as a fantastic comprehensive teaching resource regarding the freedom of scientific discourse, the role of the media in reporting science as well as the general politics of science.

Is this the end of the saga or should we expect more to come?

Debbie Kennett said...

We couldn't believe how long it took to get a resolution in this case but I'm glad that everyone stuck to their principles and persisted so that we got a satisfactory outcome. It is just a shame that the actions were restricted to the Today programme. There really needs to be a pan-BBC pseudoscience alert, especially for stories related to genetics.

The UCL genetic ancestry website will continue to be maintained and updated. It serves as a useful resource and I hope that it will encourage other people to stand up for their principles in the face of legal threats.

The saga still continues. I have an outstanding complaint with the BBC. The affair of James Naughtie's conflict of interest will probably be escalated to the BBC Trust. Alistair Moffat seems to have a lot of friends in high places at the BBC and no doubt he will pop up again on other programmes. All we can do is keep complaining until the message gets across.

jon said...

Very interesting. Are either you or the UCL site under any pressure to close your sites down? Given the initial lawyer letter sent out it just seems logical that you guys would be challenged.

Debbie Kennett said...

We've not received any lawyers' letters so far. A new Defamation Law came into force at the beginning of the year and I believe it would now be much harder for anyone to take legal action against us.