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Book review: Beyond the Hype by Fiona Fox

Dr David Whitehouse, Science Editor

In the 1990s I could sense that scientists were getting more and more frustrated with the news media, and more than a few times some were certain that they knew how to do my job as science correspondent better. Most of the flak was aimed at TV news which was seen as more important than my beat which was radio. Besides there was more science on BBC radio news than ever before. It made little difference.

I can see why some of them were unhappy. Take the BSE/CJD crisis. Many scientists warned of the risks of feeding herbivores processed offal and the possibility of interspecies disease transmission. It was the politicians that changed their tune about it after it was too late and some journalists suffered if they pointed this out.

Then there was Arpad Putzai’s GM potatoes that he fed to rats who got ill. In general the media did not report this story with due caution; they should have stamped on it hard as an unverified report that obviously had red flags. I was at BBC News Online by that time and it wasn’t my beat, but I recall holding my head in my hands about it. One prominent scientist told me that the increased profile science was getting on the radio (Radio 4’s Start the Week which once had very few scientists was later criticised in the press for having too many!) made them think they wanted more, more influence and more control.

Writing in the journal Science at the time novelist Michael Crichton floated a suggestion:

If I were magically put in charge of improving the status and image of science, I’d start using the media, instead of feeling victimized by them. The information society will be dominated by the groups of people who are most skilled at manipulating the media for their own ends. Under the auspices of a distinguished organization—like AAAS—I’d set up a service bureau for reporters. Reporters are harried, and often don’t know science. A phone call away, establish a source of information to help them, to verify facts, to assist them through thorny issues. Over time, build this bureau into a kind of Good Housekeeping seal, so that your denial has power, and you can start knocking down phony stories, fake statistics, and pointless scares immediately, before they build. And use this bureau to refer reporters to scientists around the country who can speak clearly to specific issues, who are quotable, and who can eventually emerge as recognizable spokespeople for science in areas of public concern, like electromagnetic radiation scares, cancer diets, and breast implant litigation. Convince these scientists that appearing on media isn’t an ego trip, but is part of their job, and a service to their profession. Then convince their colleagues.”

Under attack

Likewise at a meeting at the Royal Society in 1999 the veteran pollster Robert Worcester said, “Science is under attack.” He pointed out that people’s faith in the government and institutions had declined in the previous three decades, adding that the media is distrusted, especially TV. He said the solution could be found in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, “public opinion is everything.” He added, “the public may be ignorant of the background information which is necessary to put scientific developments in context.” About the same time New Scientist said, “let the people speak.”

Forces, scientific and otherwise, were on the move. The late 90s saw the rise of environmental activism and green consumerism. They realised that public opposition to science had the potential to be converted into considerable consumer power. Ethical management thrived and the sale of organic foods increased “because of the risks.” GM food was removed from sale. It was such a distrustful attitude combined with poor journalism that a few years later contributed to the MMR disaster.

Scientists latched onto this, the public are keen to be better informed. Their ignorance of science causes the public to fear them. The Science Media Centre (SMC) emerged from these sentiments and from a report by the House of Lords. Professor Susan Greenfield among other scientists pushed it through the Royal Institution where she had just become its director and thought it wasn’t regarded as important as she thought it should be. How that turned out is another salutary story.

Fiona Fox’s fascinating book tells the chequered story of the first 20 years of the SMC’s avowed campaign to change the culture of science communication. Many things it has done are to be commended, such as the opening up of government scientists, but it became too close to journalism, especially the BBC.

The BBC’s News guidelines prohibit it from becoming associated with pressure groups, however laudable their aims it states. The SMC is a pressure group but the BBC ignored this because who would not want better science in the media and who would not want Fiona Fox and her team to select suitable experts and collect quotes from them? For years the BBC’s Head of News, who claimed in 2005 that climate science was settled, was a SMC trustee. Today the BBC’s science editor is on its Advisory Committee as is a former BBC science correspondent. Its chair is a former senior BBC news executive.

The authority of science

It was an attitude that went to the top of the BBC. Director General Mark Thompson, after he left the BBC, bemoaned the failure of scientific authority to prevail. He thought that Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth was a “compendium of scientific evidence,” and also believed the ludicrous 97% of climate scientists non-survey. Thus was science journalism undermined from the very top of the BBC. The BBC’s climate coverage in particular was hampered by its myopic view of the research, its climate travelogue approach, and its obsession with bashing “sceptics.” It was the reason why the full range of scientific research into climate change is largely not represented.

There is a chapter in the book about Climategate that I suspect readers of pages such as this will not recognise. All the time the SMC was aiming “To promote the views of the science community.” Curious then that it should so frequently feature that master of client journalism, Bob Ward of the LSE, as a regular source of the quotes they distribute. The book is tame with the critics of the SMC choosing only the weakest arguments laid against its influence and practices.

Science journalism is always changing adapting to new outlets, platforms, subjects and styles. There is a school of thought that holds that science journalism is all about relaying the scientific consensus on a subject. I don’t agree. In a world where good science information, indeed very good science information, is easily obtainable online, the legacy media looks dispensable and inessential. In terms of news the BBC’s science coverage looks indistinguishable from everyone else’s – except its sparser, slower and even more boring. Overall, Iegacy media is declining and once again, like they did twenty years ago, the scientific community will have to adapt to the new world of Covid, Tik Tok and fake news. Once again, as was said in the 1999 House of Lords report, “the culture of UK-science needs a sea-change.”

This is the story of how those behind the SMC wanted to get better science into the media but instead weakened it in the process. The SMC is on the side of scientists. The SMC is a tool and only part of the armoury a science journalist needs, but if you reduce science journalism to science communication and want spoon-fed quotes and only establishment views, then the SMC – aka Big Science’s PR Agency – is all you need.