UCL Division of Biosciences


Complaints to the BBC

19th August 2012

David Balding (DJB) complained to the BBC about the inaccurate and misleading content of the Today radio interview. Mark Thomas (MGT) made a separate complaint later the same day.

DJB complaint 

MGT complaint

28th August 2012

Both complaints were dismissed by the BBC as outside the 30-working day limit for complaints (they were not). DJB responded claiming that the dismissal of his complaint was incorrect..

DJB second complaint

18th September 2012

The BBC responded, acknowledging that they were mistaken to have initially dismissed the complaint, but did now in effect dismiss the complaint on very flawed grounds.

BBC response

They said it was normal to interview "commercial firms about their products": indeed, but the point is that the audience was not told it was a commercial firm and that a commercial product was being promoted on the BBC. Shockingly, the BBC justified broadcasting grossly inaccurate information based on whether or not '...the story is interesting...' and further justified this on the grounds that it had been covered in The Telegraph newspaper - a story that was ludicrously misleading and also disguised the commercial aspect.

17th January 2013

DJB rebutted the BBC's response, and presented new evidence of an undisclosed conflict of interest between Naughtie (interviewer) and Moffat (interviewee) that further supported the original complaint.

DJB third complaint

24th February 2013

DJB sent a follow-up, reminding the BBC that he had not received a reply (they promise 10 working days response time).

DJB follow-up

2nd March 2013

Following the broadcast of a misleading TV programme about genetic ancestry Meet the Izzards, DJB complained both about the accuracy of the content, and that once again the BBC were inappropriately promoting Moffat's business.

DJB fourth complaint

7th March 2013

Debbie Kennett (DAK) wrote to the BBC about the Meet the Izzards programme complaining about commercial bias, inaccurate coverage and the BBC's failure to consult with independent experts. The only geneticist who appeared on the programme was Jim Wilson, Chief Scientific Officer of BritainsDNA.

DAK first complaint

8th March 2013

DAK wrote to the BBC to complain about a BritainsDNA promotional segment presented by Michael Mosley which appeared on The One Show on 7th March. Once again, Jim Wilson of BritainsDNA was the only geneticist who appeared on the programme. The segment featured a ludicrous scene where various BritainsDNA customers were shown displaying their BritainsDNA haplogroup nicknames. Michael Mosley was told by Jim Wilson that he was 'Germanic'.

DAK second complaint

15th March 2013

Paul Kettle, BBC Audience Services, responded to DJB's complaint regarding Meet the Izzards.

BBC response to DJB's 'Izzards' complaint

This time he did at least address the issues raised in the complaint, but within the first few lines he stated that the programme showed what "genetics can reveal about our ancient journeys out of Africa and across the globe". It didn't: the programme was misleading about what one man's Y and mtDNA could inform about the history of his ancestors. Mr Kettle's bald claim that "There is no controversy in the science presented." is shockingly complacent; much was stated that is wrong or controversial. 

He claimed that they had consulted several experts to ensure accuracy on the genetics, although not why none other than Jim Wilson (Chief Scientific Officer of BritainsDNA) was seen on the programme, and nor were named in the credits.  Mr Kettle boasted that "No viewer could have been informed by watching the series that Dr Wilson had any relationship with a testing company": that is a deficiency of the programme, not something to be proud of.  He went on to say "Many leading academics also have business relationships"; indeed and good, but when there is a relevant conflict of interest viewers need to be told. 

When Mr Kettle further stated that Eddie Izzard "shared a common DNA 'marker' that linked him to distant ancestors of those he was meeting" it became clear that he had absorbed the company's propaganda and lacked the ability to think critically about them.  We all share DNA many markers.  One wonders who are the independent experts that he claims had been consulted?

Mr Kettle also responded to DAK's complaint about Meet The Izzards.

BBC response to DAK's 'Izzards' complaint

He acknowledged that the BBC were aware of the news of the latest research indicating a revised date for Y-chromosomal Adam, but noted that the "information emerged months after the shooting of the series and just weeks before transmission and could therefore not be included in the programme".

It is understandable that it was at this stage too late to reshoot the relevant scenes but not why they failed to amend the script to incorporate the most up-to-date findings. If the BBC had consulted a range of experts, as they claimed, they would have been told that there are considerable uncertainties in the date estimates, something which was not reflected in the script. 

Mr Kettle seemed to regard it as a positive outcome that Eddie Izzard "had thousands of tweets from his 2.7 million followers who wanted to discover more about their DNA ancestry after seeing the programmes", but this is a cause for concern about how many were misled, and the potential for collusion between Izzard and BritainsDNA to use the BBC as a marketing tool.

26th March 2013 

The BBC responded to DAK's complaint about The One Show. The failed to answer the question of the conflict of interest and claimed implausibly that the programme did not promote BritainsDNA - despite viewers being shown the haplogroup nicknames used only by BritainsDNA in their marketing. They failed to respond to the complaints about the inaccurate interpretation of results and incorrect information about the prices of DNA tests.

BBC response to The One Show complaint

DAK replied to the BBC asking why she had received no response to her questions.

DAK follow-up to the BBC's response to The One Show complaint

26th March 2013

DAK complained to the BBC about an interview with Alistair Moffat on the John Beattie programme on BBC Radio Scotland. Moffat claimed that his company had conducted research which showed that 10% of Scottish men are descended from the Picts. The claim was based on the finding of a Y-chromosome marker which was said to be more common in Scotland than England. This "research" has not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and would in any case be highly unlikely to get through the peer review process.

DAK third complaint

17th April 2013

The BBC responded to DAK's follow-up complaint regarding The One Show. They conceded that the BritainsDNA name and the company logo did feature on some of the pages showing Michael Mosley's DNA test results but thought that they 'would very likely go unnoticed by the vast majority of viewers'.

The BBC failed to respond adequately to DAK's point about the inaccurate information provided in the programme on the price of DNA tests stating that "The price tag of £170 was given to highlight the fact that these tests are not cheap either". DNA ancestry tests can in fact be purchased for as little as £50 or £60. The price tag of £170 refers to the BritainsDNA test offered at that time.

The BBC failed to respond to the complaint about the conflict of interest and their failure to get second opinions from other geneticists not involved with commercial testing companies.

The option of going to Stage 2 of the Complaints Process was offered but, in view of the disappointing responses to previous complaints, DAK decided not to proceed.

BBC response to The One Show follow-up complaint

18th April 2013

The BBC responded to DAK's complaint about the Moffat interview on the John Beattie programme with a three-sentence e-mail. They failed to answer any of the questions raised about the credibility of the research and the lack of peer review.

BBC response to John Beattie complaint

19th April 2013

DAK submitted a follow-up response to the BBC expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of the response to the issues raised in her original complaint.

DAK follow-up to the John Beattie show complaint

9th May 2013

The BBC responded to DAK's follow-up complaint about the John Beattie show. They essentially repeated what they had said in their earlier response and failed to provide answers to any of the issues raised. The route of pursuing the complaint at Stage 2 was offered, but DAK decided it would be a waste of time proceeding.

BBC response to John Beattie follow-up complaint

There was also a holding response to DJB's complaint (resubmitted with new information 17/1/13), promising "We are investigating and hope to be in touch with more information as soon as possible" (in fact it was 4 more months).

4th June 2013

Another holding response to to DJB's complaint, asserting "I can assure you that your complaint is being looked at" (it wasn't, the facts would later reveal).

16th September 2013

After 8 months of waiting, Nicola Maguire from BBC Complaints responded to DJB's complaint from 19/8/12 (resubmitted 17/1/13).

BBC final response to DJB complaint

Comment: The response was shockingly brief, trite and irrelevant to the serious issues raised in the complaint. It belied the repeated reassurances that the BBC were investigating the complaint seriously - it would have taken 30 minutes to prepare this response, not 8 months.

8th October 2013

DJB raises a further complaint to the Editorial Complaints Unit, which attracted a response from Richard Hutt the next day.  This was the first time in over a year of frustrating and frankly disgraceful communication from the BBC that someone responded professionally.  From here things took a turn for the better but still painfully slowly - it took another 5 months to get a full response.

23rd October 2013

Lee Rogers, Complaints Manager, BBC Audience Services apologises for the very poor response to DJB's previous complaints, expressing disappointment at "... the number of errors that were made by my colleagues in BBC Audience Services".

26 November 2013

Richard Hutt passes on his report on DJB's complaint to Fraser Steel, Head of Editorial Complaints.

3rd February 2014

Mr Steel sends a provisional report to DJB for his comment.

19th February 2014

Mr Steel sends a final report, upholding DJB's complaint on both grounds of accuracy and product prominence.

On the former ground, he weakened his otherwise welcome decision by claiming some implausible mitigating factors: that the interview was intended to be a "light item" (meaning the claims were understood to be untrue, as in a comedy show?), and "shorthand ... technical information" (so false claims about "bringing the Bible to life", "Eve's grandson" etc are OK ways to explain technical scientific material?). 

On product prominence he was better, acknowledging that "it was not made clear that BritainsDNA is a commercial undertaking" (at last! someone at the BBC was able to recognise this) and that both Moffat and Naughtie contributed to creating an "impression that [BritainsDNA] was a disinterested research study".  However, Mr Steel marred this good performance by excusing the misleading references to the BritainsDNA website on the grounds that "any listener who visited its website ... would quickly have become aware that it offered commercial products, so I don't suspect any intention to mislead".

Despite these flaws, the upholding of the complaint by the Editorial Complaints Unit is very welcome after an 18-month struggle against the many falsehoods and platitudes presented by the BBC in lieu of proper responses to serious complaints.

6th March 2014

Desite the upholding of DJB's complaint about the interview on the Today programme, the BBC continues to provide further free publicity to Alistair Moffat and BritainsDNA. Alistair Moffat was interviewed on the Mark Forrest show on BBC Local Radio on 6th March and was given the opportunity to discuss his unpublished "Viking" research. Virtually every statement he made in the interview was either inaccurate or misleading. DAK submitted a further complaint to the BBC.

DAK fourth complaint

1st April 2014

Stephanie Harris, Head of Editorial Compliance & Accountability, BBC News, replies to DJB rejecting his complaint that James Naughtie had a conflict of interest in interviewing Alistair Moffat.  The response included direct quotes from Mr Naughtie, who made two main points:

1. He has friendly relationships with many public figures and he cannot be expected to excuse himself from interviewing all of them.

I expect Mr Naughtie to have friendly relationships with major public figures, that is not the nature of his close connections with Mr Moffat, see

- The three Moffat-Naughtie interviews and other links between them

2. [DJB] perhaps does not understand the Rectorship of St Andrews. The campaign is "light-hearted ... good-humoured affairs. I did send a message of support to Mr Moffat ... . That was all."

The "message of support" was a campaign video, in which Mr Moffat was described as an old friend.  The "That was all" might suggest there were no other close links between Naughtie and Moffat, which is not the case.

DJB appealed this decision to the BBC Trust on April 23, see June 20 below for rejection of the appeal.

4th April 2014

Paul Moseley, Senior Complaints Adviser at the BBC, responded to DAK's complaint about the interview on the Mark Forrest show. While he took some trouble with his response he failed to explain why the BBC thought it was appropriate to interview Alistair Moffat on the subject of Viking DNA in preference to an academic with specialist expertise in the subject. Mr Moseley did not provide a satisfactory response with regards to the disguising of the commercial nature of BritainsDNA.

BBC response to Mark Forrest show complaint

15th April 2014

The BBC finally publishes on its website the summary of the Finding of the Editorial Complaints Unit regarding the upholding of DJB's complaint about the Radio 4 Today interview.

Finding by the Editorial Complaints Unit

A summary was also published on the BBC's Corrections and Clarifications page. 

Corrections and Clarifications

DAK submitted a follow-up complaint to the BBC regarding the response she had received in relation to the interview with Alistair Moffat on the Mark Forrest show.

DAK follow-up to the Mark Forrest show complaint 

18th April 2014

DAK received a prompt response from Paul Moseley at the BBC regarding her second complaint about the Mark Forrest show. While Mr Moseley conceded that some errors had been made, he still did not explain why Alistair Moffat was chosen to be interviewed in preference to qualified experts. He recognised that the BBC should show "impartiality over time" but failed to explain, in view of this requirement, why the BBC have given so much exclusive publicity to BritainsDNA.

BBC second response to Mark Forrest show complaint

24th April 2014

DAK asked the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit to investigate the unanswered questions in her previous complaints regarding the Mark Forrest Show.

DAK submission to the ECU

1st May 2014

DAK received a reply from Richard Hutt of the Editorial Complaints Unit in response to her complaint about the Mark Forrest Show. He advised that the choice of guests is "a matter of editorial discretion" and beyond the remit of the ECU. He was also unable to investigate Mr Moffat's repeated appearances on the BBC as "claims of editorial breaches over time and across output" are similarly outside the scope of the ECU. He agreed to investigate DAK's complaint about the inaccurate and misleading information in the programme and the undue promotion of Mr Moffat's business. He hoped to provide provisional results by 23rd June. 

ECU response from Richard Hutt

2nd May 2014

DAK received a further e-mail from Richard Hutt of the ECU advising that he did not think she had received a full response to her accuracy concerns and that he was passing this aspect of the complaint back to the programme makers. 

ECU second response from Richard Hutt

DAK thanked Richard Hutt for his e-mails but expressed concerns at the loophole in the BBC's complaints system which did not allow her major points to be answered without escalating the complaint to the BBC Trust.

DAK response to Richard Hutt

8th May 2015

DAK received a response from Husain Husaini, the Executive Producer of Wire Free Productions on behalf of Mark Forrest. He conceded that the interview should have sought to show that "scientists are critical of some services provided by companies which seek to show they can trace ancestry using DNA".

BBC response from Husain Husaini

DAK wrote back to Mr Husaini pointing out that Mr Moffat's interview had nothing to do with genetic ancestry testing companies and was instead looking at the contribution made to our DNA by the Vikings, a subject in which Mr Moffat has no expertise. She reiterated that the BBC needs to interview qualified experts if it is to provide accurate coverage on complex scientific matters.

DAK response to Husain Husaini 

DAK wrote to Richard Hutt and sent him copies of her correspondence with Mr Husaini. She explained that her concerns had still not been addressed.

DAK second response to Richard Hutt

20th June 2014

BBC Trust Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser Leanne Buckle rejects DJB's appeal relating to Jim Naughtie's conflict of interest in interviewing his friend Alistair Moffat.  Her view is that Naughtie's inviting his friend multiple times onto the Today program, with no apparent public interest, offering substantial and repeated opportunities to promote his friend's business by announcing his own test results on the radio as well as the company web address, caused no problem regarding BBC guidelines. 

The fact that the two men were writing a book together at the time of the final interview, they frequently appeared together in public to promote the book and that Naughtie campaigned for Moffat's Rectorship at St Andrews and had earlier appointed Moffat to the Court of Stirling University did not amount to any conflict of interest, according to her because there was no evidence that Naughtie was part of the business being promoted.  To us it seems that she is using a very narrow definition of "conflict of interest".

Rejection of DJB's appeal by BBC Trust

7th July 2014

DAK had not received a reply to her complaint about the Mark Forrest Show from Richard Hutt by 23rd June as promised and so she wrote to enquire when a response might be expected. Mr Hutt replied on 8th July that the matter was "now with Fraser Steel, Head of Editorial Complaints, for his attention - Mr Steel tells me he hopes to be able to respond to you within two weeks."

16th July 2014

A provisional response was received from Fraser Steel with apologies that it had taken longer to send than expected. He argued that BritainsDNA had not been given "undue prominence" because "Mr Moffat's reference to 'customers', who paid for their tests, guarded against the impression that BritainsDNA wasn't a commercial operation". He advised that he considered the complaint to have been resolved "Because a 'resolved' finding means that we recognise that there has been a breach of editorial standards".

Fraser Steel provisional response to DAK

17th July 2014

DAK responded to Fraser Steel pointing out that the promotional opportunity would not have arisen if a qualified person had been invited onto the programme instead. She highlighted the need to "avoid presenting a 'false balance; on scientific matters" and reiterated that Mr Moffat's views are not supported by the science.

She accepted that "the complaint has otherwise been resolved, as it has been recognised that there has been a breach of editorial standards". She asked if the lack of balance and the lack of peer review could be incorporated in the published comment on the BBC website.

DAK response to Fraser Steel

29th August 2014

DAK received a reply from Fraser Steel. He advised that the fact that Mr Moffat's research wasn't published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal would be a question for the summary of the matter which would appear on the BBC's website. He stated that the question of "false balance" was a new point which wouldn't normally be considered at this stage. He digressed to discuss climate science even though DAK had not even raised the subject! The option was proposed of taking the remaining concerns to the BBC Trust although it was noted that the Trust does not consider every appeal it receives.

Fraser Steel second response to DAK

1st September 2014

DAK thanked Fraser Steel for his reply and said she looked forward to receiving the finalised response. Fraser Steel wrote back to clarify that "We don't normally send a final version, unless there have been material changes to the provisional finding.  My letter of 16 July now represents the final finding (minus the paragraph inviting comments, of course)."

Fraser Steel third response to DAK

26th September 2014

DAK wrote to the BBC Trust asking them to investigate the outstanding concerns relating to Mr Moffat's interview on the Mark Forrest programme which were outside the remit of the Editorial Complaints Unit. She received an acknowledgement of receipt of her e-mail and was advised that the Trust would write to her with their decision within 40 working days of the receipt of the appeal (i.e. by 21 November) though they are often able to respond sooner.

DAK's e-mail to the BBC Trust

29th October 2014

A somewhat misleading summary of the complaint is published on the BBC website. It was stated that a listener had complained that the item had been "inaccurate in relation to genetic ancestry testing". The programme did not discuss genetic ancestry testing and the complaint was about Mr Moffat's inaccurate and unscientific statements about Viking DNA and his unpublished "research". The problem was not just that the interview had "not been challenging enough" but that no qualified expert was given the chance of a right to reply.

Finding by the Editorial Complaints Unit

19 November 2014

A response was received from Leanne Buckle, Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser at the BBC Trust, who advised that DAK's appeal should not be put before the Trust. She believed that the "Trustees would be likely to agree that the interviewee [Alistair Moffat] had not been sufficiently challenged and that this had resulted in the programme failing to meet the requirements of the Editorial Guidelines in relation to Accuracy".

She mistakenly considered that this was the central point of the complaint and that the Trustees would therefore consider the complaint to have been resolved. DAK was in fact more concerned with the decision to invite an unqualified person to comment on a specialised scientific subject and the failure to allow a qualified person to have the right of reply. She was advised that the choice of interviewee is an editorial decision and that the Trust does not get involved in the "direction of the BBC's editorial and creative output".

The adviser also commented that it was "beyond the remit of the Trust Unit to investigate within the parameters of this appeal whether Mr Moffat's appearances over an extended period of time had an impact on BBC impartiality on the subject of genetic ancestry in its overall coverage". Remarkably this means that there is effectively no mechanism within the existing BBC complaints framework, either through the Editorial Complaints Unit or the Trust, for anyone to question the BBC's editorial decisions or the balance of the reporting over a period of time.

Rejection of DAK's appeal by the BBC Trust