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. Telling the truth is an ad hominem attack? Setting precedent for a particular pattern of behaviour is “general BBC bashing”? Perhaps you really aren’t aware of this:


    TonyN: Sorry Mayer, as I said before, I want this discussion to be focused on what happened on Newsnight, not 9/11.

  2. I listened again to the recording and yes, he definitely says “warming”; but find the possibility intriguing that he was originally meant to say “warring” but fluffed it. Which would have been understandable, given the circumstances; after all, he stumbled and had to repeat the oath of office – not an easy performance for him (or anyone), given that the eyes of the world were upon him.

    But, if true, it would add another layer of irony to Newsnight’s assertion that “President Obama couldn’t have been clearer…”

  3. Alex

    I wonder if the official version of the speech is based on the final draft, or on a transcription that was made when it was delivered? And I also wonder how one might find out?

  4. I would say when ever you talk of a modern politician’s speech you are always in a strange post modern realm nowadays. Forget Winston Churchills clarity. We are all aware of Obamas speech today. But I tell you this, I would have never been impressed by George Bush ever, but if you dig out the videos of his old inauguration speeches they are quite well written and he delivers them well. It’s just that nobody ever saw them. Maybe I’m old but, Obama is not in any particular league better in my mind yet. Less than a month if you remember.

    Richard Dawkins, Peter Medawar and George Orwell. These are people who can write about things in clear unambiguous sentences. We need to keep an eye out for people who can do this and have something to say and keep encouraging that clarity, otherwise, we could be stuck in moments where, as discussed above, the difference between ‘warring’ and ‘warming’ in a sentence can be quite reasonably argued over, in fact it is a quite interesting fact that AP reported it that way if you think about it.

    And no one really cares about the ambiguiity
    Since we can argue over it, and since it can be manipulated so easily to suit anybody’s ears we could end up be in a realm of some kind of post modern nightmare where nothing is accountable. That is why I am interested in the response to TonyN from the BBC. At best I would hope they may say yes we shouldn’t have done this, and we could have done better, I think that would be acceptable.

  5. I would agree that the media should be careful to ‘get it right’. I’m not sure why the BBC would want to play up or play down anything that was said in any politician’s speech. It doesn’t make any difference in the end.

    We’ll see in the coming weeks just how words will translate into actions.

    You guys don’t mention the other Uk news channels much. ITN, Sky ? How did they report the Obama speech? Is their reporting of the AGW issue, in general, any more to your liking?

  6. Good point Peter.

    Tony N,

    Question: Are the other news outlets in the UK (ITN, Sky), subsidized/propped-up by the taxpayers as the BBC?

  7. That’s relatively easy. Maxwell is in there somewhere along with many commercial/media/journalistic interests not renouned for impartiality. Humans kinda have views about stuff, don’t we lol…

  8. “You guys don’t mention the other Uk news channels much. ITN, Sky ?”

    Not sure I would expect them to behave anyway! The problem here is that the BBC are not expected (or allowed!) to massage the news.

  9. Peter:

    You say:

    I would agree that the media should be careful to ‘get it right’. I’m not sure why the BBC would want to play up or play down anything that was said in any politician’s speech. It doesn’t make any difference in the end.

    But if you really think that ‘it doesn’t make any difference in the end’, then why do you agree ‘that the media should be careful to ‘get it right”‘

    How do you think that ABC would react to a complaint about an incident similar to the one that I described above?

    In order to use a TV in the UK you must buy a license from the BBC, whether you watch their programmes or not. The funds raised are used entirely to run the BBC.

    Channel 4 is also a public service broadcaster, but although it is publicly owned, it is funded commercially. I am not an expert on this.

    The matter of the license fee and BBC funding is very much in the news over here at the moment, but this is only relevant to the current discussion in that the BBC is publicly accountable in a way that other news providers are not.

  10. Thank you for this important post. We at StinkyJournalism dot org have written a report. The US journalism ethics community has also weighed in and has supported you as well. Keep up the good work and keep up the pressure by contacting BBC. We will continue to work this case as well. BBC needs to correct and apologize.

  11. TonyN,

    Yes of course all journalists should make every effort to present the news as accurately as possible. And it shouldn’t be any different if they are working for the BBC, Sky, CNN or Al Jazeera.

    In this case I can’t see that there can any ulterior motive for deliberately distorting the news. There can be, of course, during war time, when there is a big industrial dispute or when you guys are rioting about poll taxes or whatever . The real truth often dribbles out years later. But Obama’s speech? I can’t really see it.

    There is a more interesting discussion going on at the moment about the BBC refusing to allow air time for an appeal for the Gazan refugees, Is that something you would have expected from the lefties in charge of the BBC?

  12. From the BBC ‘editorial guidelines’, under ‘Accuracy’:

    Digital manipulation

    The ability to digitally create, manipulate and copy audio-visual material, including still photographs, video and documents poses ethical dilemmas and creates the potential for hoaxing.

    We should ensure that any digital manipulation, including the use of CGI or other production techniques to create scenes or characters, does not distort the meaning of events, alter the impact of genuine material or otherwise seriously mislead our audiences.

    I rest my case.

  13. Rhonda

    Many thanks for the support. I did try to leave a comment on your site saying how much I liked the piece that you and Danielle did – particularly because it dwelt on the basic ethical issue of not tampering with quotes – but for some reason it wouldn’t take.

    It’s particularly sad that this row is centred on the BBC because, although they get plenty of criticism, I suspect that most people still love and value Auntie for the standards that they have come to expect. This is probably why we get so upset when things go wrong, and also why I think that it is very important that awkard problems within the corporation are addressed and put right, however uncomfortable the process.

    The amount of shocked coverage that the ‘splicegate’ story has had on your side of the Atlantic is evidence that the BBC still has a reputation that is very well worth protecting by publicly putting right what has gone wrong. I would suggest that Peter Rippon’s response is not the best way to go about this.

    Update: When I wrote this, I hadn’t seen the updates on your site, including the opinions from experts. I’ll post about this later, but in the meantime I strongly recommend everyone to have a look for themselves here.

  14. I entered the following complaint on the BBC website.

    I have removed my full name from the end.

    “I did not watch the aforementioned program, titled “Obama’s first 100 days: Environment”, but heard about the opening words attributed to President Obama.

    I had not seen this in the transcript and went to watch the video clip on your website.

    I can only hope that it was not intended to deceive but given the opening statement of Susan Watts, “President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today”, I find this difficult to believe.

    I hope you publish a public apology for this obvious and biased corruption of reporting.”


  15. The real speech, combined with explicit mentions of the digital electrical grid in his technology agenda, sound like an endorsement of the Pickens plan.

    By the way, you’ll note that the words carbon, warming and climate do not appear in the plan and you’ll struggle to find them on the pickens plan website.

  16. James P, #87: An interesting find.

    Dave E, #89: At some point I intend to ask the BBC how many complaints they have received.

    Simon Gibbs, #90: Listening to Obama’s announcement on job creation, saving the economy, and energy security on Monday night I was surprised just how little focus there was on climate change. All the measures that he mentioned applied equally to the other problems. I suspect that he has recognised that there is little public enthusiasm for a crusade against global warming.

  17. Am I being thick again but I can’t seem to add a comment to Ms Watt’s blog?

    I wanted to add this http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/organgrinder/2009/jan/27/bbc-tvnews as they haven’t had it yet…

  18. This is fun (although possibly not for La Watts):


  19. […] I know that the blog that originally reported the Newsnight splicing isn’t well inclined towards green energy and that the Telegraph isn’t a big fan of the […]

  20. […] journalism should not be mistaken for bad research. For example, via Brennig comes an instance of the BBC casually and cavalierly cutting and pasting from the inaugural speech. This is pretty low, but hardly a surprise. It’s certainly no lower than the levels to which […]

    TonyN: Pingbacks don’t usually lead to much, but in this case there is quite an interesting discussion at the other end. Click on the link in the comment header.

  21. […] several scentences of Obama’s inaugural speech, apparently to accentuate a green agenda. TonyN describes the fallacy in detail with sound files […]

  22. […] I have received the following message from BBC Information in response to my complaint about a ‘sound bite’ compiled from president Obama’s inaugural speech. This was used in a Newsnight report by Susan Watts: […]

  23. […] said – or did not say – about science in his inaugural speech. For anyone new to this topic see: BBC Newsnight – Warming up President Obama’s inaugural speech?Here’s what happened in the […]

  24. […] in February I posted about BBC Newsnight – Warming up President Obama’s inaugural speech?  Aunty’s flagship current affairs magazine programme had taken three isolated phrases out of […]

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