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. Tony: there’s also a reference in the comments on a recent story in Iain Dale’s Diary (a much visited blog) – here. See the exchange between Rob and DespairingLiberal towards the end.

  2. More coverage here.

  3. TonyN

    Before I join in the fray at the BBC over splicegate can you confirm that Obama said what I quoted below in #7 or was it my imagination?

    “…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”

    Thanks

    TonyB

  4. I wish you luck in getting a favourable response from the BBC Trust, Tony. I have tried to no avail….all they seem to do is to field awkward questions, saying they have no control over day-to-day editorial matters.

    As for Mark Thompson, he simply ignores the problem in the hope that it will go away. I have written to him on seven occasions since 29th October 2006. I am still awaiting a response.

    Perhaps if you and others on this blog were to write directly to him, assuring him you will not go away until you have answers (as I have repeatedly told him) maybe we will eventually get somewhere!

  5. After adding a comment to Susan Watts’s blog, I sent something similar to the editor of Newsnight – no reply yet, though!

    I note that Feedback returns next week to R4, so a few emails in that direction might bear fruit…

    I’m (just) too fond of the Beeb to tip off the Murdoch press about this, but I can imagine what they would make of it.

  6. 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.

  7. Re:#31, Robin

    That is far to good for anyone to miss, so I’ve added it to the end of the post.

    Thanks to everyone for letting me know where this post is being discussed in the bogosphere. It’s getting hard to keep track, but I quite like this one because it seems to be written by journalists for journalists, and there’s a nice cartoon too:

    http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/editordetail.php?preview=1&id=251#comment

  8. Re: #7, TonyB

    If you use the link in the header post to the full text of the speech at The Independent you’ll see that he said those words, in that order, but with a paragraph break after ‘planet’.

  9. Here is the link to the actual Susan Watts report. The edited speech is used right at the start.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7841946.stm

    Shocking!

    TonyN: Many thanks, I’ve added your link to the post.

  10. Re #32, I quite like it too, especially as it allows one to ask the Beeb if they know what is being said about them on the ‘stinkyjournalism’ website.. :-)

  11. James

    But its sad that belief in basic journalistic standard seem to be better appreciated on the other side of the Herring Pond.

  12. Susan Watts didn’t shower herself with journalistic glory over the David Kelly story either.

  13. […] Here is a very interesting observation on the BBC’s Newsnight programme. It seems that their science correspondent did not think that Obama’s speech hit the right note on climate change, and so she cobbled together different bits from different parts of the speech to produce the effect she wanted. Now that’s… […]

  14. Thank you for posting this! Peter Rippon (editor Newnight) has defended the decision on Susan Watt’s blog (comment 33):
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/susanwatts/2009/01/restoring_science_to_its_right.html#commentsanchor

  15. A funny thing happened, someone posted a reply to the Peter Rippon response. It is now under moderation. He has to “Explain”. Here is the angry and IMO correct response:

    34. At 4:52pm on 24 Jan 2009, toughNeilHyde wrote:
    Re 33

    What absolute twaddle , you have misrepresented a hitorical speech to suit your own ends . This is totally unacceptable and hopefully a full public apology and explanation of what you did will be aired on Newsnight.

    Anything less and I ( and others I know ) will be making formal complaints.

  16. Re 40,

    Part from the fact that I can’t spell “historical” , I stand by that post. I am sick to death of the BBC bias re climate change. They seem incapable of doing there own research in to the science , and all they ever pump out are regurgitated press releases from the the AGW alarmists , despite the number of times the computer models have been exposed as fiction.
    Richard Black who to be fair does try to do a good job , but even he on the “Antarctic” scare story , followed the press release , saying satellite data from 50 years was used to prove “warming” , the damn thing were only launched 30 years ago !!!

    Rant over

  17. …. and I promise, I can under nomal circumstances , type , and spell correctly. They have just annoyed me so much !!

  18. Great Blog this, and thanks for highlighting this issue. I read the Peter Rippon response mentioned above, What he says seems quite meally mouthed, I hope as a new poster I am not breaking rules by pasting it here?

    Hello All,

    Re the opening of Susan’s piece. We did edit sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to Science. The aim was to give people an impression or montage of what Obama said about science in his inauguration speech. This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the
    President was saying. You can look for yourself above.

    Apologies for not responding sooner. I thought I had. BBC Editors find this blogging software frustrating at times too.

    Peter Rippon
    Editor, Newsnight

    He says his aim was to give an ‘impression or montage’, this doesn’t seem a meaningful defence of anything. I didn’t ‘see’ any fades that could be picked up by most human audio/visual capabilities on the video or the audio linked to in this article, although maybe that could change? ;)

    I suspect this ‘technicality’ will be the final defence if it ever gets awkward and picked up on something Google could see.

  19. I have tried to post a comment for five hours on Susan Watts blog but can’t create a BBC membership because there is a ‘technical problem’ Is it just me?

    tonyB

  20. “impression or montage”

    Oh yeah! And I’m sure they prefaced it with: “these aren’t actually the President’s words in the order he said them, it’s just an impression or montage”.

    Curious that the editor had to reply on La Watts’s blog. Is she still hiding under the desk..?

  21. @James P

    Oh yeah! And I’m sure they prefaced it with: “these aren’t actually the President’s words in the order he said them, it’s just an impression or montage”.

    Or maybe to paraphrase Eric Morecambe,

    “These are the right words, but not in the right order, I’ll give you that sunshine!”

    :)

  22. Harold and Neil: Many thanks, being Saturday evening I hadn’t noticed. I’ll put up a post about this tomorrow morning.

    TonyB: I manged to create one not long ago.

  23. I wrote a post for Biased BBC concerning the manipulation of Obama’s words here and a follow-up concerning the response by Mr Rippon in Susan Watts’ blog here.

  24. TonyN,

    I will be registering an official complaint with the BBC , but is there any mileage in you Tony, hooking up with other sites where this has been reported to present a concerted effort?

    This is symptomatic of the “Green” agenda of the BBC , where opposing views are ignored, if not blatantly suppressed , as I said on a BBC blog , reminiscent of 1984, Ingsoc, and the Ministry of Truth.

    I must have calmed down , my typing and spelling have improved !!

  25. Natalie

    Many thanks. This story is now running on more blogs than I can count.

    I have a formal complaint in with the BBC Trustees and I intend to pursue this until Peter Rippon has to explain Newsnight’s actions to them, not just in an anodyne and unconvincing blog comment. I’ve added B-BBC to my blog roll.

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