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:
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