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 sooo wrong! Bad Bad BBC….

    Do they think they can get away with this? It shows their absolute disrespect to their viewers.

    BBC = Broadcasting Bullshit Communism style…..

    TonyN: This is not a political blog Martijn. See blog rules.

  2. […] Now go and read this. Categories: BBC, Politics Posted By: Brennig Last Edit: 25 Jan 2009 @ 19:53 E-mail • Permalink Previous:  Responses to this post » (None)  Comments are open. Feel free to leave a comment below. Comment Meta: RSS Feed for comments TrackBack URI  Leave A Comment …  […]

  3. It also drops IE, I assume as BBC sometimes has auto-refresh. Anyone care to comment…?

  4. In case you’ve lost it….

    TonyN: As Susan Watts’ blog has reappeared, I’ve deleted your copy here to save space. But it was a wise precaution; thanks.

    I have 22-53 if you want me to add them.

  5. Roger M

    Thanks for copying the comments from Susan Watts blog here. It seems to be up and running again now and I am not sure that one should read too much into this; BBC blogs don’t have a big reputation for stability. If you have a backup of these I would like to delete them from your comment to save space. Please let me know.

  6. Well done Tony for spotting this.

    Watts took many liberties with the facts, not just Obama’s speech. It is hard to locate any truth in her presentation at all, and it doesn’t seem too harsh to say that it is a complete work of fiction. In other words, it says far more about Watt’s inability to make sense of the world than it says about the climate, Obama’s politics, and the relationship between science and public policy.

    Which is a shame, because we expect journalists to be able to offer analysis that bears at least some scrutiny, even if it is occasionally ‘biased’. The problem isn’t that her work was polemic. The problem is that it lacks any relationship to the real world at all.

    We go into more detail on this story’s lack of substance at the Climate Resistance blog.

  7. A quick thought – I wonder if it’s a different issue entirely. Given the text of the complete paragraph, which concerns itself only with conflict, nation and the threat of terrorism, is it possible that the speechwriter actually meant “roll back the spectre of a WARRING planet”?

    Though it does say ‘warming’ in the Independent’s full text…

  8. “a WARRING planet”

    You mean they’ve been changing the words as well..? :-)

  9. “BBC blogs don’t have a big reputation for stability”

    Even the Newsnight editor has trouble with them!

  10. Please feel free to delete. Hope peeps won’t think I’ve been “black-balled though lol.

  11. “Jonathan Castle says:
    January 26th, 2009 at 12:13 pm
    A quick thought – I wonder if it’s a different issue entirely. Given the text of the complete paragraph, which concerns itself only with conflict, nation and the threat of terrorism, is it possible that the speechwriter actually meant “roll back the spectre of a WARRING planet”?
    Though it does say ‘warming’ in the Independent’s full text…”

    I agree with Jonathan. Although having listened to Barak several times where he says “warming”,it sounds to me the context the speech writer meant WARRING planet. Warming simply doesn’t fit with the paragraph.

    Hey ho….

  12. Re: #58, Climate-Resistance

    I have avoided dealing with other aspects of Susan Watts’ report, so I am very glad that you have covered them. There is now a link to your article on the most recent post here.

  13. “Warming simply doesn’t fit with the paragraph.”

    I’m sure Newsnight could correct it for us…

  14. TonyN:

    If you do not consider the BBC a threat to democracy then perhaps you don’t know who sits on the BBC’s board of directors? Perhaps you aren’t aware that the BBC is implicated in the cover-up of the real truth about the 9/11 attacks? If you aren’t aware of the furore which was caused by the BBC’s reporting of the collapse (and the reasons for the collapse) of WTC7 whilst it was still standing in the background behind the reporter talking about its collapse then I’d suggest a trawl of Youtube. The BBC claimed at the time that it had lost its tapes of that day; when myself and numerous other members of the public picked over the BBC’s data management policy it soon became clear it is totally impossible for the BBC to have lost ALL its footage from that day. Since then the BBC has refused to comment except for some b*llshit blog post by the BBC News Editor in chief Richard Porter which claimed that people were basically picking on the BBC for no reason.

    Now whilst neither I nor anyone else claim that the BBC had any knowledge of the attacks themselves, it is beyond dispute that the BBC was told by someone to release a story saying WTC7 had collapsed, and even saying WHY it had collapsed – something no-one had been able to do until NIST recently came out with it’s ridiculous report claiming fire did it. So at the very least the BBC is guilty of not checking the facts in a story before it is released. But more realistically the BBC should be in a court of law and forced to divulge the name of the person who told them to tell us that WTC7 had collapsed. Because up until that point there had not been in the history of the world a single high-rise steel framed building that had ever collapsed solely because of the action of fire – and there was no reason to think that WTC7 was going to collapse either, seeing as it was hit by nothing except falling masonry.

    The BBC (supposedly) has a duty to inform the public. Once again however they have deliberately misinformed the public. If you seriously believe the BBC is not a threat to democracy then I’m sorry to say you’re sadly deluded on two counts. 1. The BBC cares nothing about democracy – the fact that they’d consider pushing ANY agenda apart from the basic honest truth is all the proof you should ever need of that. And democracy doesn’t exist anyway! It never has and it never will – despite the fact that the UK is called a democracy. Again, you don’t need to look any further than the BBC to see that point illustrated; a publicly funded organisation using its position to deceive the public to push forward an agenda. And of course, back to my very first point; look at the board of directors. The BBC is pushing an agenda, the point of which is to generate more tax revenue. And those pushing this agenda? Bankers… ;-)
    Independent my arse…

    TonyN: These are not the kind of matters that I want to be discussed here. See blog rules.

  15. I’m sorry, which of the “blog rules” did I break? You’re talking about the BBC deceiving the public; I’m talking about the BBC deceiving the public.

    TonyN: The discussion is about a sound bite used in a particular report. See rule on ad hominem attacks. This is not a forum for general BBC bashing.

  16. Re comments by Jonathan Castle and Roger M concerning the “warming”/”warring” puzzle, firstly I agree – Obama is talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, the nuclear threat, defending the American way of life and not giving in to terrorists. “Warring” makes sense in this context, “warming” doesn’t.

    Secondly, someone at Associated Press appears to have thought similarly; see this article on Yahoo News.

    I’m beginning to wonder now what it actually says on the official script.

  17. “roll back the specter of a warring planet.”

    What a find, Alex! That would pull the rug from under Newsnight…

  18. I had not read the whole speech before as Obama reminded me too much of Blair in his oratory. However it is clear on any objective ‘first time’ reading that this whole section was in the context of ‘warring’. He continued as follows;

    ” 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.”

    There are nine references here which make complete sense if the word was warring, otherwise the follow on paragraph is completely out of context. Obama-like Blair- tended to give clear linear speeches.

    TonyB

  19. I still say “warring”, BUT….

    “Obama aims for oil independence”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7851038.stm

    Barak’s speech writer is becoming sloppy IMHO.
    B.H.O. seems to have difficulty reading his stuff, and it hardly flows exactly. It seems to me almost as though “warming planet” has been popped in to clear abiguity in the main speech.

    Any thoughts?

  20. “tonyb says:

    January 26th, 2009 at 6:38 pm
    I had not read the whole speech before as Obama reminded me too much of Blair in his oratory. However it is clear on any objective ‘first time’ reading that this whole section was in the context of ‘warring’. He continued as follows;

    ” 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.”

    There are nine references here which make complete sense if the word was warring, otherwise the follow on paragraph is completely out of context. Obama-like Blair- tended to give clear linear speeches.”

    Yep, very Blair. Spooky.

  21. Interesting that AP quotes it as ‘warring.

    IMHO, looking at the video, he is clearly saying ‘warming’ I had a rummage around on the Whitehouse site and couldnt find an official POTUS transcript.

    I dunno though. maybe he misread He is human after all :)

  22. I listened very carefully to the speech – especially to find out what he might say about climate change. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was surprised at the lack of any real substance on that issue. But I thought he said “warming”.

  23. I wonder what it will say in the Library of Congress..?

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