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. The real speech, combined with explicit mentions of the digital electrical grid in his

  2. Time we gave young Susan (and her editor) an anniversary reminder, perhaps…

  3. James #102:

    Susan Watts needs no reminder: the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee considered my complaint last Wednesday.

    I’m waiting to hear the result.

  4. TonyN

    Good luck with that! Do keep us posted…

  5. I have now heard from the BBC Trust that the chairman of the ESC will inform of their decision once the minutes of the meeting have been approved. This is likely to be about the middle of next month apparently.

  6. 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.

  7. ffxiv gil:

    See later posts on this subject.

    Newsnight had a pre-shot report on the speech that assumed climate change would be a major feature. In the event Obama barely mentioned the subject, and there was no genuine quote that they could use as an intro to the report.

  8. the middle of next month


  9. I popped back, as you do, and I see the comments are now closed! Does this mean that Susan actually got round to reading them? I’d love to have been there… :-)

  10. James, I think Susan might have stepped in, took a quick look at the comments, then backed out, closed the door, locked it and tiptoed quietly away.

  11. […] BBC Newsnight — Warming Up President Obama’s Inaugural Speech? […]

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