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:

Thank you for your email regarding ‘Newsnight’ which was broadcast on 20th January.

Your correspondence has been forwarded by the Trust Unit to BBC Information for a reply on behalf of the BBC’s Executive as it concerns matters which are the responsibility of the Executive, rather than the Trust, in the first instance. This department, BBC Information, has a wealth of knowledge about BBC programmes and policies and is experienced in the workings of the Corporation and so is authorised to reply on behalf of the BBC’s Executive.

I understand you felt that Susan Watts’ report on Barack Obama’s plans for the environment edited clips of his inauguration address in a way that was misleading.

This was one part of a 50 minute programme exploring the start of the Obama presidency from various angles. ‘Newsnight’ edited sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to science as a way to give people an impression or montage of what President 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. the report then went on to explore the challenges facing the President in this area.

I appreciate that you had serious concerns about the editing of the speech and I have registered your complaint on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for the ‘Newsnight’ production team and all programme makers within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the corporation.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us.


The BBC seem to be relying on two assertions: that the ‘montage’ was ‘signposted’ by fades and that their compilation in no way misrepresented what President Obama said in his speech. There is no attempt to substantiate either of these claims.

No fair-minded person listening to the programme could possibly perceive the ‘sound bite’ as anything other than a continuous excerpt from the speech.

Newsnight has combined two phrases and a non-contiguous sentence selected from different parts of the speech and then assembled them in a different order from that in which they were spoken. These were then presented as if they were a single, continuous, excerpt taken from the speech.

The audience were therefor mislead into thinking that, during his inaugural speech, Presindent Obama said:

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

What else could they think when they had apparently just heard these words spoken by the president? It is pointless for the BBC to claim that their editing, ‘… in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying’. At no point in his speech did the president say any such thing, or anything that even approximates to this statement. Had he done so, there would have been no need for Newsnight to concoct a sound bite from disparate fragments that were taken out of context.

It is pointless for the BBC to attempt to defend their actions when they are clearly indefensible, and to do so in such an implausible and unconvincing way. I will be replying with a request that this matter should now be referred to a higher level within the organisation for consideration.

5 Responses to “Warming up Obama – response from BBC Newsnight”

  1. Thanks for keeping us posted a pretty pathetic response from the BBC. If that is their definition of ‘signposting’ it really makes me wonder what other obvious signs I have been missing.

  2. I was amused to hear Paxman refer (in another context, but what the Hell) to ‘his idiot editor’ on PM last night. It seemed appropriate.

  3. “This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point.” I’ve listened to this several times now, with the volume turned way up. The only discontinuity seems to be at the end of “rightful place”, where the very end of “place” seems to be clipped slightly. But the other segments are seamless. If you listen carefully, you can hear aircraft noise(?) in the background, and if there had been a fade, you would be able to hear this background noise diminish and then come back. It doesn’t appear to do this at all. So no fade.

  4. I can’t hear any fade. It sounds just like continuous speech to me.

    A casual listener (viewer in the first place) would think it was a continuous extract from Obama’s speech. The casual listener would think that it was Obama saying those words in that order.

  5. For another (quite amusing) example of the BBC promoting scary climate change stories see this.

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