What should the BBC do if the new US President’s references to global warming in his inaugural speech don’t quite come up to expectations?

Last night I was reading through the full text of Barack Obama’s speech just before the BBC’s daily current affairs magazine, Newsnight, came on television. So his words were fresh in my mind when Susan Watts, Newsnight’s science editor, presented a piece on the implications of the speech for science in general and global warming in particular. I was surprised when it started with this sound bite from the inaugural speech:

We will restore science to its rightful place, [and] roll back the spectre of a warming planet. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

Link to sound file

I didn’t seem to remember him saying that at all.

When the program was over, I went back to the text and this is what I found.

It would seem that someone at the BBC had taken the trouble to splice the tape so that half a sentence from paragraph 16 of the inauguration speech was joined on to half a sentence from paragraph 22, and this apparently continuous sound bite was completed by returning to paragraph 16 again to lift another complete sentence.

Susan Watts then started her report by saying:

President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today. And for most scientists his vote of confidence would not have come a moment too soon.

In the eight years of the Bush presidency, the world saw Arctic ice caps shrink to a record summer low, the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions, and warnings from scientists shift from urgent to panicky.

Link to sound file

But the ‘quotation’ that she was referring to only exists in a digital file concocted by a sound engineer. (It would be kind draw a veil over evidence that Newsnight’s science editor seems not to know the difference between sea ice and an ice cap, but that’s another story.)

This is what the two paragraphs that were pillaged to create an ersatz quotation say:

Paragraph 16

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do. [My emphasis]

Paragraph 22

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet. We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.  [My emphasis]

Full text at The Independent website

Paragraph 16 does not refer to climate change in any way, but to economic and infrastructure problems. The reference to harnessing the sun, wind and soil could as easily refer to energy security as global warming.

Even in paragraph 16, ‘the spectre of a warming planet’ is tacked on to the threat of nuclear proliferation, almost as an afterthought. The following sentence is, ‘We will not apologise for our way of life’, hardly an endorsement of the environmentalist’s pleas that we should all change our lifestyle to save the planet.

And why use the very strange term ‘spectre’ to describe concerns about climate change? Of course spectres are threatening and scary, but they are also insubstantial and not believed in by most people.

The only other mention of global warming is in paragraph 4:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

Full text at The Independent website

Once again, the reference to climate change seems to have been thrown in as an afterthought.

It would be a mistake to think the Barack Obama drafted his speech on the back of a fag packet just before he climbed into bed on Monday night. The text runs to about 2400 words, and it is certain that every single one of these will have been very carefully weighed, not only by the President, but by teams of advisers and speech-writers too. So why is he talking about ‘the spectre of a warming planet’, rather than the threat, the problem, the catastrophe or even the reality of a warming planet? Isn’t that the kind of thing that should attract a science editor’s attention?

But this is not nearly such a tantalising mystery as why the BBC spliced that tape in such an extraordinary way.

Of course there could be a perfectly innocent explanation, and it would be a pity if Newsnight sank to the same level in the public’s estimation as some of the BBC’s dodgy games shows. So I will be writing to the BBC Trustees requesting an investigation with a view to an explanation or an apology being broadcast on a future edition of Newsnight.

You can watch the whole of Susan Watts report here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7841946.stm                         (HT to davblo2)

Update, 23/01/2009: I’ve written to the BBC and am awaiting a response. If anyone else would like to ask them about this, then the address is: trust.enquiries@bbc.co.uk

Update, 23/01/2009: This comment from Robin Guenier is far to good for anyone to miss:
I see the BBC’s magazine Monitor talks of:

… the week’s news, sliced, diced and processed for your convenience.

So there you have it.

There are now updates on this story:
Warming up Obama at the BBC – what Newsnight’s editor has to say
BBC Newsnight’s Obama quote – ethical considerations, and the BBC explains everything

111 Responses to “BBC Newsnight – Warming up President Obama’s inaugural speech?”

  1. This is rather like photoshopping a digital image isn’t it?

  2. Re the sound splice and Photoshop, I think the the difference is that some photo-manipulations can be very clever and convincing. This example of digital fakery appears to be neither. Do the BBC think we’re all stupid?

  3. …absolutely incredible. I used to think the BBC were paragons of media integrity. I hope this travesty of broadcasting becomes a major embarassment for them. Do you have a complaints service ? do the BBC have a charter that obliges them to seek balance and forbids such manipulation ?
    Please see my blog.

  4. Bishop

    I think it is far, far worse than photoshopping a pic.

    The inauguration speech is already a historic document that will be referred to decades, and perhaps even centuries, from now. No responsible reporter messes about with things like that. And if Obama really was saying what Watts claimed, why was there no un-manipulated quote to support her view?

  5. I’ve got pretty hardened to surprises since I started taking an interest in the way that the BBC reports climate change, but nothing had prepared me for this when I spotted it:


  6. …further to my earlier posting, I note your intention to write to the BBC and look forward to hearing of their reply.

  7. TonyN

    As this sounded like Blair Mk2 I quickly lost interest but not before he said this which I thought meant he wasn’t convinced by Hansens letter to him

    “…and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

    These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics.”

    An odd thing to say unless he has asked for more definitive proof of the spectre-insubstantial and ill defined-than he has seen


  8. […] who, not content with weeks of jerking off (as OAC put it) over the coronation of Obama have now evidently seen fit to edit his presidential address in order to to make it more ‘on-message’ […]

  9. “Do the BBC think we’re all stupid?”

    Do you even need to ask?

  10. Newsnight has been dumbed down for sometime, Paxman has already admitted bbc bias about global warming ..

    (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/jan/31/broadcasting.digitalmedia – searech for “impartiality”)

    and even bbc executives have admitted the bbs is biased ..


    The bbc is a dangerous threat to democracy and it is time the bbc tax a.k.a. licence fee, is scrapped.

  11. uripadees:

    Thanks for your comment, but I do not share your opinion that the ‘bbc is a dangerous threat to democracy’ nor was my post intended as an exercise in BBC bashing. More an attempt to try and ensure that Auntie knows that if she fails to comply with the standards set out in their charter, then people will notice and ask questions.

    Incidentally I can’t get your link to the Guardian to work. Any chance of re-posting it?

  12. Well spotted, Tony, and you’ve presented your findings very clearly. Congratulations. But I don’t think I agree that this action by the BBC is a “tantalising mystery”. The real climate change story arising from the speech is surely that Obama’s references to it were, as you point out, surprisingly general and unspecific. That may turn out to be quite important. But it seems likely to be a disappointment to the climate alarmists – including I’m afraid the BBC. So – most unwisely in my view – they decided to beef it up. And that enabled Susan Watts to claim precisely the opposite of the real story when she said, “President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today. And for most scientists his vote of confidence would not have come a moment too soon.” He could have been a lot clearer and for the BBC to deliberately distort the US President’s remarks on this critical matter is, in my view, a serious error.

  13. […] the full post (with audio links) at Harmless Sky. Nice to know where your licence see is […]

  14. Ooh good post. I will link and hawk out. Really very naughty BBC.

    Actually I don’t see any clear reference to your quote of para 4. It seems to me he is referring to the way they use energy as.. if they are comletely reliant on foreign oil, and also squander energy, rather than greater utilising what they have (wind sun etc.) they will give oil producing nations such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and even Iran political power over them. Well, that’s how it seemed to me.

  15. sorry I meant to say: I don’t see any clear reference to GLOBAL WARMING in your quote of para 4.

  16. …perhaps some civil disobedience re annual license fee payment is called for. Total refusal worked here in NZ…the broadcasting fee was eventually scrapped…they no doubt now collect it elsewhere from us, but nevertheless, refusal or delayed payment on a wide basis seems to be called for. BBC bastards !

  17. Robin:


    In Richard D North’s contribution here he accuses the BBC of a failure in its duty of ‘professional journalistic curiosity’ and I think that he is right. The conundrum, if it is a conundrum at all, is why there is a lack of curiosity about this particular subject. As you so rightly say, for any well-informed and curious journalist the story about the inauguration speech must have been the lack of references to AGW, given the buildup in the months before.

    Things have been kind of busy for the last couple of days, but I haven’t noticed warmers crowing about the contents of the speech, which leaves them in pretty difficult position. If they moan about it publicaly, as I am sure many are doing privately, that would undemine their own position, drawing attention to the extent of their failure to influence the man who they thought would be their champion.

    I have written to the BBC, quoting chapter and verse, and asking for an explanation. I have also asked that a correction and apology should be broadcast in a future edition of Newsnight, and I intend to pursue this vigorously, even unto Ofcom if necessary.

  18. Re: #15, Philipa

    You said:

    I don’t see any clear reference to GLOBAL WARMING in your quote of para 4.

    Nor did I, but I thought that I had better include that paragraph as I suspect that there may be people who will happily try to read more into it than is actually there, and I wouldn’t want them to think that I had glossed over it.

  19. I’m not surprised at this. A classic example of this would their weather forecasts they typically add 1-2 degree’s centigrade to their temperature forecasts paricularly in winter even for rural locations and i don’t think i have ever seen a sceptical news item on the subject broadcast by the BBC. but what do you expect from a government controlled organistion.

  20. I don’t fancy the Beeb’s chances if Obama’s lawyers get wind of this!

  21. Good work. This needs to hit the MSM in a big way.

    Whats next for ‘al-beeb’ perhaps they will re-edit the ‘soundfile’ of the Gettysburg address to confirm that Lincoln secretly spied for the Confederacy….

    Only Obama-man can save us now…is it a bird, is it a plane?

  22. Just wanted to echo the sentiments of others here and say: good work, Tony. It’s heartening to find that there are people who are awake to what is going on. Also to say that there are comments re Splicegate now appearing here on the blog of BBC Newsnight science editor Susan Watts. The news appears to be spreading…

  23. Very well spotted. My complaint is on its way.

    TonyN: Many thanks Derek.

  24. Many thanks Alex, I hadn’t seen that.

  25. I just emailed Instapundit. Well, it was worth a try!

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